New York's coronavirus 'patient zero' tells his story for the first time: 'Thankful that I'm alive'

Lawrence Garbuz was the first known coronavirus case in New Rochelle, New York, and the second person diagnosed in the state. After waking up from a coma, he said it was "as if three weeks of my life had disappeared."

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/ Source: TODAY
By Maura Hohman and Scott Stump

New York lawyer Lawrence Garbuz spoke to Savannah Guthrie in an exclusive interview on TODAY Monday about his experience as one of the first people in the state to be diagnosed with the coronavirus in what became one of the country's first hot spots.

"I'm thankful that I'm alive," Garbuz, 50, said on TODAY Monday. "It's been quite a journey."

When he first felt ill in February, it didn't even occur to him that it could be COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

"I just thought I had a cough," he recalled. "Look, I'm a lawyer. I sit at a desk all day. I think at the time we were sort of focusing on individuals who had maybe traveled internationally, something that I had not done. I had certainly not been to China."

For Garbuz, who lives in the suburb of New Rochelle, his symptoms started as a fever.

"I went to the doctor, and he examined me, and he said I needed to go immediately to the emergency room,'' Garbuz said.

By the time that Garbuz's family received his diagnosis, he was already in a medically induced coma. To this day, Garbuz still doesn't know how he got sick.

"We went to the hospital," he said. "After we entered the emergency room, I have absolutely no recollection of anything that transpired until I woke up from the coma. So it's as if three weeks of my life had completely disappeared, and I was asleep for all of it."

Garbuz's wife, Adina Garbuz, initially had no thought that it could be coronavirus.

"We thought, 'Okay, you have pneumonia. We'll get some medicine and you come home.' And over the weekend it increasingly got worse and worse," Adina Garbuz said. "He was struggling to breathe. I was trying to keep him calm. You feel awful, and it's scary."

When she did finally get the diagnosis at 9 p.m., she spent the rest of the night calling local health officials to share the news.

"I didn't want anybody else to get sick," she said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on March 2 that "a Westchester man" — who was Garbuz — had become the first known diagnosis in New Rochelle and the second coronavirus patient in the state.

Adina Garbuz also decided to transfer her husband to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan and asked for him to be intubated on the ambulance ride.

"He was suffering, and I couldn't watch it," she said. "I'm looking at him, and I just didn't think he was gonna make an ambulance ride in that state."

"My wife saved my life," Garbuz said. "She is a person who solves problems quickly, with a smile."

During the hospitalization, Adina Garbuz' biggest fear was that her husband would wake up alone because hospital protocol forbid family members from being present to prevent spreading the virus.

"You wake up, and you're alone, and who is the first thing you want to see, is your family," she said.

Thanks to pictures of his family in his hospital room, Garbuz said he "was able to look at them every single day. My goal was to go home."

His wife tearfully recalled the first conversation they had when Garbuz woke up from his coma.

"All he cared about was his family,'' Adina Garbuz said. "The first words he said to me was, 'I love you.' That's it."

He was also thankful for the efforts of his doctors and nurses in his recovery.

"They just did an absolutely splendid job. Many nurses came into the room, and they really were very compassionate," he said. "There was one person in particular. She said, 'Lawrence, I was praying for you.'"

Over the past few weeks, Garbuz has focused on improving his health and has not paid attention to the media frenzy around him being one of the first patients to get coronavirus.

His children also expressed her gratitude for her dad's recovery.

"This is just like a miracle for all of us," daughter Ella said. "It was obviously very, very scary, and we didn't know what was going to happen. To have him home has been huge for us."