A year ago this week, Tyrone John, a high school math teacher in New York City, became the first patient to be intubated with COVID-19 at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills Hospital in Queens. At the time, the city was just starting to experience the country's first coronavirus surge.
John, 39, hadn't returned to the facility until recently, when he got the chance to thank the intensive care unit staff who saved him, in a segment aired on TODAY Thursday.
"It still gives me a little bit of shudders that what almost happened here would've been my last time," he told TODAY's Savannah Guthrie as they walked up to the hospital.
Like so many people, John didn't realize how much the COVID-19 pandemic would change his life. Before he got sick, in addition to teaching, he was volunteering at his church and learning to salsa dance.
"I remember hearing something about Wuhan and what was happening out there," he said. "It still seemed as if it was a far away thing."
But one weekend in mid-March 2020, John developed a cough that left him unable to get out of bed, so a friend drove him to the hospital. The doctor on duty, Dr. Teresa Amato, recalled to TODAY, "I remember being very struck by what a kind, very nice man that he was, but I was also struck by how incredibly sick he looked."
John was the hospital's first critically ill COVID-19 patient. After being intubated, a medical procedure during which a tube is inserted into the mouth and airway, he was in a coma for almost three weeks.
"We really didn't know who would or would not survive an intubation and being put on a ventilator," Amato said. "We knew from the stories we were hearing from Italy that once you were put on a ventilator the chances of getting off were not great."
"They were like, 'Are there people here you'd like to call and let them know what's going on?'" John recalled. "So I texted my boss at work to let him know that I may need to have off tomorrow. And then before I knew it, they put me to sleep and I woke up about three weeks later."
His condition stuck out to one nurse, Michelle Parcels.
"I remember him not because he was sick, but because he was so young," she told TODAY. "For me, to tell him how the world had changed was a heavy load, and I would keep him up to date. 'Don't be worried. Don't be scared. You are not alone. This building is full of a lot of people that care about you.'"
John went on to also become the hospital's first COVID-19 patient to recover, an "incredibly powerful" moment for the staff, Amato said.
"We had had so many losses that we really had to celebrate the wins. To get him back to being a teacher and doing what he loves, it's an incredible journey."
When John walked into the hospital courtyard a year later, he was met with cries of, "Oh my God, he looks so good!"
Asked by Savannah what he remembers from his time at the hospital, he answered, "The hope that they gave me when I was waking up and not knowing what was going on. And just that little bit of hope to fight for myself."
"You were one of our first, sickest patients," Parcels said. "And so you gave us hope by your recovery in those dark moments where we were having so many losses. You gave us hope that what we were doing made a difference."
As the vaccinated staff hugged John one by one, Savannah quipped, "Hugs are back."
"Yes they are, with a vengeance," John responded. "Thank you."