WESLACO — Jaime Peralez Jr. of Weslaco turned 47 on March 14. Five days later he was admitted to Knapp Medical Center with a fever and body aches; he would spend over a month there fighting COVID-19 before being released Monday.
Much of the time Peralez spent in the hospital is a haze of foggy memories blurred by sedatives; occasionally he would become lucid enough to feel like he was suffocating. He remembers waking up, banging on his bed in a desperate plea for help, unable to cry out because of the tube snaked down his throat.
His family remembers more. His sister, Priscilla, remembers being told if she did not choose to have her brother intubated he would almost certainly die in the next two days. She remembers being told he would almost certainly die anyway two weeks later. She remembers hearing the sound of his raspy voice for the first time in a month after he’d begun to recover.
The Peralezes’ struggle is emblematic of the struggle being waged by many Rio Grande Valley residents. As of Monday, almost 700 RGV residents have tested positive for COVID-19. The Texas Department of State Health Services says of the individuals still infected, 73 are hospitalized and more than a dozen of them are in ICU units.
Fortunately, Jaime Peralez Jr. is no longer a part of those statistics. He remembers coming down with a fever after a gambling excursion in Louisiana in early April. He saw his doctor and was later tested for COVID-19.
“Unfortunately, I got tested positive,” he said. “My symptoms before that were just the fever and body aches. I had no congestion, no chest congestion. No runny nose.”
Despite having no underlying conditions, Jaime’s symptoms worsened and he was admitted to Knapp Medical Center. As his condition grew more dire, his sister began making difficult calls about his healthcare.
“The doctors called me to tell me that he was positive for COVID-19 and that his lungs were not getting any better, they were actually getting worse by the hour. The only chance of survival he had at that point was if we were to intubate and sedate him,” she said.
Priscilla had heard conflicting reports on the efficacy of intubation. She was hesitant to consent and told the doctors.
“They told me he probably wouldn’t make it for the next 48 hours if I didn’t agree to intubate him,” she said.
So Priscilla agreed to have her big brother intubated. Jaime remembers little from the next month. A few times he says his thoughts cleared and he had anxiety attacks.
“I don’t remember very much after that. What I do remember is six or seven times when I was there, I actually had anxiety attacks, because it felt like I was suffocating for air,” he said.
He would bang on the bed, and nurses or doctors would rush in, telling him to calm down before medicating him.
“One of the nurses told me that one time I started to take the tube out of my mouth. And I don’t even remember that,” Jaime said. “I thought I was not going to survive. I was just suffocating for air.”
As sedated as he was, Jaime’s guess about the seriousness of the situation wasn’t inaccurate. Priscilla remembers looking at X-rays of her brother’s lungs.
“I could see that they were getting worse,” she said. “When you look at a regular chest X-ray, you see the outline in black and white. His whole chest was clouded, it was white. I couldn’t see a speck of black outlining at all.”
Jaime’s lungs were not producing enough oxygen. His kidneys and liver began to fail. His doctors pledged to keep working, to keep fighting, but they admitted that Jaime’s chances were slim.
“The doctor called us to tell us that Junior had a 10% survival rate, that we had to start preparing the family, to start saying goodbyes, because he wasn’t getting better,” Priscilla said.
She asked one of the nurses if they would call her and put her on the phone with her brother, even if he was sedated. Even if he couldn’t talk back.
“After about an hour, one of the nurses called from his cellphone and I pleaded with him,” she said.
“I know you can hear me,” Priscilla said. “I know you’re still with us. I feel you with us, so just fight. You have to fight for everybody.”
Jaime’s condition improved slightly, but his outlook was still grim. He was given a variety of medications, some Priscilla remembered seeing on the news and some she can’t even remember the name of. Eventually, she suggested plasma transplant and doctors agreed.
“That was on the 15th, they put his name on the list,” she said. “In the middle of the night on Saturday, the 18th, they called and said, ‘Hey, the plasma is here. Can we get your consent to do the transfusion?’”
Priscilla and Jaime attribute his recovery to that plasma transfusion. Priscilla says shortly after receiving it, X-rays showed Jaime’s lungs clearing up and he was able to communicate through gestures. He was weaned off the ventilator a day after the transfusion.
Soon after, Priscilla got to talk to her brother for the first time in a month. His voice was raspy and raw from the ventilator.
“I cried like a baby,” she said. “When I answered and heard his raspy voice, I just broke down… it was the most emotional conversation I’ve had in my 39 years of life.”
Priscilla says she watched her brother’s condition improve daily from that point on. On Monday Jaime was released from the hospital.
“It was a very, very tough journey, but there’s a man upstairs that took care of me, and I thank the Lord,” he said. “I want to thank the medical staff for helping me out and supporting me and helping me fight through this, because I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it.”
Jaime expects to remain on oxygen for about a month and be isolated in his room for a time.
“I feel a little fatigued, but I feel pretty good. I’ll be isolated in my room for the next two weeks,” he said. “I’m just taking it one day at a time, little by little, and seeing if I can get back to a normal life.”
Jaime says the coronavirus robbed him of a month of his life and he will continue to struggle with its aftereffects for months.
“It’s something that you don’t want to recommend to anyone, because it is terrible. It just knocks you out, knocks you down completely,” he said. “The most important thing, I want to say this to everybody, is stay home. Do not get out of the house unless it’s an emergency.”