ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Deborah and Rudy Lucero got married on an especially super Super Bowl Sunday last February – he in a hospital room at Lovelace Medical Center nearly five weeks since being admitted with COVID-19, she in the hospital parking lot with about 100 of their friends and family and the Zoom app on her cellphone.
It wasn’t the wedding she had planned. There was no wedding dress, no zoot suit, no paper flowers adorning a parade of classic cars driven by fellow members of the Drifters Car Club.
But it was beautiful anyway.
I felt honored to be asked to write about the wedding in this column, which was published Feb. 21.
But what I didn’t know then was that on the day the column was published, Rudy almost died.
“They told me he wasn’t going to make it,” Deborah said. “They were taking him to the ICU and I wouldn’t see him alive again.”
Hospital workers let her FaceTime with him as they wheeled him to the ICU, ostensibly to say her goodbyes.
She wasn’t ready for that.
Doctors gave them three options: Put him on a ventilator, put him in hospice or keep fighting.
They chose Option No. 3.
“I kept saying I didn’t want to die,” he said.
“I told him over and over that he’s got the hard fight but we’re in this together,” she said. “We were both going to keep fighting.
Three days later, his condition improved.
But Rudy was still a very sick man, and at times his oxygen saturation levels plummeted and his lungs simply could not function without him willing them to keep breathing.
“It was pretty scary,” he said. “The doctors told me on a few occasions that I wasn’t going to make it so to get my affairs in order.”
But he kept breathing. Slowly, he began to improve. Both attribute that to the healing power of being together once she was allowed to visit him after he was moved March 1 to Kindred Long-Term Acute Care Hospital.
Still, there were times she left the hospital for the day and wondered if she would see him alive again. COVID-19 is such a brutal, unpredictable monster.
Then on June 23, nearly half a year later and 50 pounds lighter, Rudy was released from the hospital, his oxygen saturation levels stabilized enough for him to go home with his bride.
Deborah and Rudy – she a cosmetologist, he a plumber – had been together for 15 years before he got the courage to ask her to marry him. Two wedding dates and all the preparations – Rudy had even traveled to California to purchase his zoot suit – came and went because of COVID-19.
On New Year’s Day 2021, they both fell ill and tested positive for COVID-19. Deborah recuperated at home, but Rudy, who has diabetes, was so sick he had to be rushed by ambulance to the hospital. They still have no idea where they caught the virus.
“I was with my mom every week, and she’s 70, and she never got it,” Deborah said.
Their hospital wedding Feb. 7 was put together in just days, thanks to a lot of family and friends and an amazing set of connections and coincidences.
Had there been a vaccine available at the time, Rudy said he would have been first in line for one. He’s since been vaccinated, as has Deborah. Both tell their friends to get vaccinated, too.
“I’m the perfect example of what can happen if you don’t,” he said. “I tell people, ‘You don’t want to go through this. Get the vaccine.’ ”
Doctors have told him that he will likely never fully recover, that he will likely always need to be hooked to an oxygen tank or a concentrator, even when he sleeps.
“My lungs are just so scarred,” he said.
He’s been told 70% to 80% of his lungs are scarred, a debilitating and permanent condition known as pulmonary fibrosis and a troubling “long-hauler”aftereffect of COVID-19.
A lung transplant may be considered at a later date, but for now the Luceros are hoping that physical therapy and care will improve his condition enough to not need one.
Rudy, who is 54, is learning to economize his every move, from getting out of bed to getting dressed, to conserve energy and to keep his oxygen levels stable. He tires easily.
“He can walk 20 feet, stop, take a break, walk a little more,” said Deborah, who has learned to be his physical therapist. “Even brushing his teeth is tiring.”
Besides being home with Deborah, Rudy said what he looked forward to the most was seeing his two big pit bulls, Tune and Scuda, and feasting on a big crock pot of Deborah’s beans and red chile.
He knows how blessed he is to have Deborah by his side.
“I don’t know what I would have done without her,” he said.
Deborah feels the same.
“I’m the lucky one,” she said. “I reap the benefits of seeing him improve a little bit every day.”
And besides, she said, he still owes her a big wedding.
“I didn’t buy a dress for nothing,” she said.
She’s already got the vows down: for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.