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Hector Calderon, Oregon’s first COVID-19 patient, feared the worst: ‘It was like a truck running over me’

UPDATED: Wed., June 23, 2021

By Noelle Crombie The Oregonian

Hector Calderon smiles easily. He’s counting down the days to his summer vacation with his wife and kids. He looks fit and healthy.

It’s hard to imagine that just six months ago, he was gravely ill and mentally preparing to die.

Calderon, 47, a father of four from Beaverton, was the first person in Oregon to test positive for COVID-19 and the second patient in the country known at the time to have contracted the virus through community spread.

Since the announcement of his positive test on Feb. 28, Oregon has reported 206,850 confirmed or presumed infections and 2,756 deaths from the virus.

Calderon spoke this week with The Oregonian/OregonLive about his illness and recovery, one that astonished experts.

Calderon said a cold swept through the Forest Hills Elementary School staff last spring. He figured he caught the same thing as his colleagues at the Lake Oswego school.

At first, he felt lousy, but his symptoms quickly worsened. His fever spiked and he developed a bad cough. His wife, Maricela, drove him to Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center, where the staff said he likely had the flu and assured him that he’d feel better in about 10 days.

But Calderon only deteriorated. It was difficult to breathe. The next day, he and his wife returned to the Hillsboro hospital.

“It was like a truck was running over me, my lungs, my body,” he said. “It was terrible.”

Calderon feared the worst.

On the drive to the emergency room, he told his wife that if he died, he wanted her to use his life insurance to pay off the couple’s home.

This time, he was admitted to the hospital.

He has no memory of what happened next.

‘Do you know what happened to you?’

In all, Calderon spent 71 days in the hospital, 60 of them on a ventilator.

He spent most of his time in the intensive care unit, isolated from his wife and family due to coronavirus restrictions.

He said doctors at one point told his wife that they had done all they could. His lung capacity wasn’t improving, he said they told her.

Calderon, it seemed, had exhausted what modern science and medicine could offer.

His family turned to their deep Christian faith. His wife, the pastor and members of the family’s church, Roca de Luz Eterna in Cornelius, along with Calderon’s family in his native Guatemala, prayed.

Sometime in mid-April, he began to show signs of improvement. Each day, he grew stronger. Eventually he woke up.

“Do you know what happened to you?” asked one of his hospital caregivers.

Calderon had no idea.

“I was totally confused,” he said.

He awoke to a tracheostomy, which had helped him breathe. He had lost 60 pounds. He was so weak he couldn’t hold a cup. He didn’t have the strength to walk.

He recalled overhearing a physical therapist saying she worried Calderon might not walk again, a possibility that motivated him to push himself to move.

He recalled making one request of a hospital executive who had stopped by his room one day: Please let his wife visit. His request was granted. Maricela was allowed to see him for one hour once a week.

He saw his children – ages 7 to 26 – on a video conference screen, virtual visits that buoyed his spirits.

“I missed them so much,” he said.

‘I thank God for all this’

He was discharged from the hospital on May 4 and went to a rehabilitation center for three weeks before returning home.

Calderon has worked as a custodian and then a building engineer in Lake Oswego schools for 16 years, all of them at elementary schools. He’s been at Forest Hills for eight years. He returned to work in the fall.

He said he feels a connection to the school community. Many families reached out, including some he hadn’t seen in years.

Dr. Katie Sharff, a Forest Hills parent and infectious disease doctor at Kaiser who helped treat Calderon, described his recovery as remarkable given how sick he was. She said she treated other patients who were as sick but did not make the same dramatic recovery as Calderon.

She said Oregon didn’t see the crush of COVID-19 patients like New York City and other hotspots did, so the state could dedicate resources and attention to those who contracted the disease.

She credited the care Calderon received but also his spirit, a dash of luck and perhaps other intangible factors with his progress.

“There is so much we don’t know in medicine,” she said. “We can apply what we do know … to the best of our ability but sometimes individuals do well and survive the unimaginable and we don’t have a clear explanation for it,” she said.

She said practicing medicine can be humbling that way.

“Sometimes there are factors that we can’t explain from a medical or scientific perspective.”

Sitting in a Beaverton coffee shop with his daughter, Caroline, 11, at his side, Calderon said he feels almost like himself again. He said he hasn’t experienced significant long-term effects of the virus. He’s walking again thanks to rehab, though he’s still working to regain his strength.

He’s grateful for the marvels of modern medicine, but it’s the divine he credits with his recovery.

“I never said why,” he said. “I thank God for all this. I know I am in his hands.”

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