After 47 days at Saint Francis Hospital, a father of four from East Windsor managed to do something he wasn't sure would ever happen: last week he got to leave. And the healthcare workers who saw him through the fight of his life celebrated with him.
"I was overwhelmed to see all those faces," said Ivan Pantoja. "I'm grateful to my last breath on this Earth for everything they've done."
In early April Pantoja says he and his wife, who works in the health care industry, noticed an unusual symptom and started coughing.
"Felt like you ... have you ever eaten a peanut and you have a shell piece in the back of your throat?" said Pantoja. "We got tested about 24 hours from each other, and about 48 hours later or so we got the call that we were both positive."
Pantoja said his wife had about 15 to 20 days of pains and fever but was able to stay home and recover. He got worse.
"It led to eventually me fainting taking a shower. Fortunately, she was there and she called the EMTs," said Pantoja.
The 54-year-old says he doesn't remember much about the beginning of his stay.
"I remember...I like to equate it as being in a swimming pool with a couple of elephants or cement blocks on your chest. And you are looking to try to get out, and somebody takes a hair strand and says breathe," said Pantoja.
While at the hospital, Pantoja says he wasn't sure he'd make it, giving final requests to his family.
While a lot of his stay was a blur, he says he remembers the kindness of those who cared for him. He says at one point when he woke up, he felt like he was home because a nurse was taking care of him and singing softly. He says another healthcare worker came up with the idea of having his family sit in view of his window so they could see each other while they talked on the phone. He calls the health care workers he met angels.
"They pulled me out and they gave me the second opportunity with the help of God," said Pantoja.
After weeks of fighting, he left Saint Francis Hospital. He became their 600th COVID-19 patient discharged and on the road to recovery.
Pantoja spoke to NBC Connecticut while at Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Hospital.
"Five days ago I wasn't able to take this conversation because I'd lose my breath. But now I feel like a sense of normalcy," said Pantoja.
Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Hospital Nurse Manager Jennifer Smith says with severe cases there can be complications, physical therapy needs. Recovery takes time.
"It's a continual journey to being able to get back to that functional baseline or back to that medical baseline," said Smith.
She says they help patients with the transition, provide resources for physical and occupational therapy and visiting nurses.
In a matter of days, Pantoja will finally head home. He says what he went through was the hardest time in his life but that thanks to the health care workers who were there for him, people he now calls family, he's been given a second chance.
"I am so appreciative of them. I don't want this to be about me. I want it to be about them. They're very brave souls. They put everything on the line for me and for people like me," said Pantoja.
He says for those fighting the disease to not give up, to keep fighting, and for those with loved ones currently battling COVID-19, to not give up hope.
Pantoja says his wife is doing well and that he is feeling great.
He tells us they want to donate plasma to help others. He says it's important for them to give back.