Middlesex Township firefighter Greg Vickinovac doesn't remember going on a ventilator Feb. 25 or any of the 13 days that followed.
Vickinovac didn't see the group of fellow firefighters, friends and family outside of UPMC Passavant in McCandless, holding candles and praying Feb. 27.
But his wife, Nicole, did, clutching her own candle, fighting back tears, embracing family for support.
Now, a month later, Greg walks into his fire department's garage with a crew out on a call. His wife and two daughters are at his side March 26, and they laugh and joke with one another as they enter.
The 41-year-old is noticeably thinner than before his bout with COVID-19. He lost 38 pounds in the 25 days spent in the hospital.
He walks slowly, with the occasional cough.
Greg's daughter, Patty, 24, goes to her own locker, briefly donning her firefighter helmet while Greg sits for a photograph.
Later in the department's gathering hall, he and his family recounted his experience.
“I remember getting to the hospital, but I don't remember after that,” he said, seated with Nicole, also 41, and daughters behind a counter in the department's kitchen.
For some, COVID-19 cases are just numbers in the newspaper. Others know someone among the 9,779 people in Butler County who were diagnosed with it. Still more may have been stricken with the coronavirus, but found their symptoms mild.
But for this Adams Township family, the pandemic hit home hard.
“We just never thought it would come into our house,” Nicole said. “We never thought it would be our family.”
Four of the six members of the family — all living under one roof — had the virus to varying degrees.
“It was awful,” said Patty, recounting her experience. “I didn't do anything, I just stayed in my bedroom. All I did was sleep.”
She said, for her, it was far worse than any flu. She had the full range of symptoms: labored breathing, muscle soreness, fatigue and loss of appetite and taste.
Working in senior care, Patty was the first of the family to get COVID-19 in January. She said the virus had swept through her workplace among residents and staff alike.
Nicole and her other daughter, Faith, 18, didn't have it as bad.
“I just felt awful (for a couple of days),” Nicole said. She recognized it was also COVID-19 one morning when her toothpaste tasted bad.
Only Greg and Nicole's two sons, Kevin, 22, and Michael, 20, remained asymptomatic and were never tested.
Greg thought he'd avoided the virus when his symptoms started.
“The week before, I was fighting a house fire, and then — bam — I got sick,” he said.
Describing their initial response, Nicole said, “We thought we could take care of it ourselves.”
Greg didn't have any of the comorbidities that would have aroused concern. He was an active firefighter, golfer and kayaker.
The week prior to hospitalization, he visited the ER twice with respiratory issues. However, his condition deteriorated rapidly the Thursday he went into the hospital.
Greg recalled having labored breathing and chest pains. He was dripping with sweat before he called an ambulance on the evening of Feb. 25.
“I didn't realize how bad the breathing was until the ambulance got there,” he said.
Paramedics told him his oxygen levels were down to 80% of normal levels.
Greg was taken to UPMC Passavant. Still under quarantine herself, Nicole couldn't go with him.
Fearing the worst
Texting his wife an update from the hospital is one of the last things Greg remembers before having her at his bedside when he came off the ventilator weeks later.
In those two weeks, Nicole said there were times when she wasn't sure she'd ever bring him home. Seeing everyday items— like cheese in the fridge that she'd bought for him — was enough to bring her to tears.
At one point during Greg's care, she said there was discussion with doctors about the possibility of transferring her husband to UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland if the ventilator was no longer working for him and he needed blood oxygenated by other means.
“I actually got down on my bedroom floor and I was like, 'I can't lose him. I don't know what to do.' It was just devastating to me to think that I could lose my husband at 41 years old,” she said.
She credited the support of her children, friends and Greg's fellow firefighters for getting her through.
While recuperating from the ventilator, Greg said hospital staff told him they didn't know how he made it, calling it a miracle.
“I remember the ICU nurse said he was one of the sickest patients they had there,” Nicole said.
While sedated and under a paralytic drug, Greg said he had vivid dreams. When he woke up, he had to ask Nicole which memories were real and which were not.
“I had some messed-up dreams,” he said.
But one among them gave him strength.
“My mom died when I was 10,” he said. “I remember seeing her and she said, 'Too soon.'”
While he was in the hospital, the fire department started circulating the hashtag, “Vickinovac Strong.”
UPMC Passavant ICU medical director Dr. David Rice told the Eagle this week that Greg's strength might just have been the difference in his recovery.
“It's really remarkable that he went through what he went through and didn't require oxygen (after the ventilator),” Rice said. “He made a remarkable recovery.”
Comes down to 'luck'
As to why Greg's case was so severe, Rice said some cases appear to come down to “luck.”
It varies from person to person.
Some “comorbidities” such as diabetes or kidney trouble can heighten reaction to the point of grave concern in COVID-19 patients, many of whom have died as a result.
For others, there are few answers as to why there is such a severe reaction to the virus.
“There's nothing he could have done differently,” Rice said. “It's the unpredictability of this. The simple unfortunate answer is it's bad luck, and we don't have an answer. You could have given (COVID-19) to 10 different versions of Greg, and he was the only one that responded that way.”
While he said it's unusual for a healthy person Greg's age to have such a severe case, he's also not the only one. Some are in the hospital a much shorter time, while others aren't as lucky.
“It could have gone a different way,” Rice said. “There are those (like him) that don't survive it. It's difficult to see 40-, 50-somethings that are otherwise healthy that don't survive.”
And while more and more seniors are getting vaccinated, Rice said the average age of a COVID-19 patient being hospitalized has recently trended younger.
As for Greg's own explanation regarding his ability to pull through, he said, simply, “I'm stubborn.”
During the interview with the Eagle, the fire crew returns, with some who haven't seen him since he left the hospital. They embrace and catch up on news. Some joke about the call they were just on, a mulch fire.
Greg still has a long recovery ahead and doesn't know when he'll be able to return to work. But he's optimistic, thankful and eager. He wants to get back to firefighting as soon as he can.
“It's going to take me a little time to get my strength,” he said. “My breathing is getting better every day.”
Rice said that unlike some other severe COVID-19 patients who suffer permanent lung damage, he expects Greg to make a full recovery.
He said that any patient who undergoes such a prolonged time on a ventilator has to contend with substantial muscle loss. On average, it take five to six days of recovery for every one day spent in an ICU, Rice said.
Greg said the experience changed him both mentally and physically. His return home March 22 was an emotional one.
“After being told you almost didn't make it, it changes your perspective on everything,” he said.
“I spent a lot of time with my family before, but I'm going to spend a lot more time with them. I'm not going to take things for granted. You don't realize what you have until you almost don't have it.”
Both Greg and Nicole expressed their thanks for the medical team that took care of him and the overwhelming community support they received.
“They were the greatest ever,” Nicole said of the nurses and doctors. “They helped me through the whole thing. The one doctor, I would cry on the phone and he wanted to make sure I was OK.”
She said they would call with updates on Greg's condition and speak to the whole family.
Beyond the vigil, Nicole said the community support has been outstanding. The Middlesex Fire Department is hosting a spaghetti dinner April 11 to help raise money to assist with the family's expenses.
With Greg unable to return to work until he regains his strength and Nicole having lost her job earlier in the pandemic, their children have been helping out.
“I'm working on the rent now and making sure the cars are paid,” Nicole said.
The family doesn't yet know what the cost of Greg's hospitalization will be, but they have insurance.
While the Vickinovacs will be able to sit down as a family for Easter dinner Sunday, the families of some 25,000 Pennsylvanians who lost loved ones aren't as lucky.
Rice and Greg urge people to remain cautious regarding COVID-19.
“You gotta take it serious,” said Greg, who will get his vaccine when he's allowed. “Do what you gotta do. It's no joke. I don't want to imagine what could happen if I get it again.”
Rice said he understands people's COVID-19 fatigue.
“To have the goal posts continually moved on you is frustrating,” he said. “It's still not done. I want this to be over as badly as anyone else does, but the facts are, it's still here.”
But he also offered a positive outlook.
“This will not go on forever,” Rice said. “We see a light at the end of the tunnel.”