EAST CHICAGO — There wasn't a dry eye when Ruth "Ruthy" Romero left St. Catherine Hospital Thursday morning.
Romero, of East Chicago, was discharged after spending 46 days fighting COVID-19 — half of which she spent intubated.
As soon as Romero got home, she cried.
"I haven't seen my kids in so long. I haven't touched them. I wanted to grab them, hold them," Romero said. "I was happy to see my kids."
The 54-year-old who works as a cook at Ameristar Casino doesn't remember much before getting in her white SUV and driving herself to the hospital — her daughters tried to drive her, but she refused, worried they, too, would get sick.
"All I remember is that I went to the emergency (room) on the 11th, and I came back out with the medicine and inhaler, and I came home," Romero said during a phone call on Thursday.
"And after that, I really don't remember too much because I think I was already just getting sicker."
Romero went to the hospital April 11 to get tested for COVID-19. She returned two days later on April 13, struggling to breathe.
Earlier that morning, her results came back. She had COVID-19.
Three weeks before being admitted to the hospital, Romero had the flu. When she started to feel sick again, she just took cold medicine.
"I remember just sitting here in the dining room table — it's like I would run out of breath. I was sitting here trying to catch my breath," Romero said.
Getting Romero to the hospital was a journey of its own, her daughters Alex Romero and Julia Espitia said.
The day Ruth Romero was admitted to the hospital, Espitia had stopped by to drop off soup and orange juice.
Before she left, Espitia looked at the door and suddenly had an urge to see her mom.
"Something told me go back in there — you need to see her. So I got out my car, put it back in park ... and I opened the door. And it was almost like she used her last breath to yell at me, like, 'Don't come in here,'" Espitia said.
"And I was like, 'No, mom, I have to see you ... let me just see you,' and then I looked at her, and I just saw her like lifeless."
An hour later, she was admitted to St. Catherine — where her daughter, Alex Romero, works in the pharmacy.
"I felt more at peace when I was at the hospital because I knew she was there, and I knew I was there, and we (were) under the same roof, at least," Alex Romero said. "I can't look inside of the COVID unit, but you can kind of glance and it's like, 'Oh, my goodness, my mother's in there.' She's literally two doors away from you, but you can't do anything."
Like most COVID-19 patients, her daughters said, Ruth Romero got worse before she got better.
Before leaving the hospital, however, Ruth Romero walked 250 feet on her own, and later walked herself to the car before heading home.
'She's a fighter'
Doctors, nurses and staff at St. Catherine have called Romero's recovery a miracle.
"Ruth was on some of the most extreme PEE (positive end-expiratory) pressures I've ever seen somebody on, and she's probably the only person I've ever seen survive with having pressures that high," said Amanda Arredondo, an ICU nurse at St. Catherine.
"People who are in that severe of acute respiratory distress syndrome — they generally don't get better."
"She's a fighter," her caretakers at St. Catherine agreed.
Romero spent 23 days on the ventilator. Some days, she relied on it for 100% of her oxygen.
During that time, therapists began moving Ruth Romero into a "prone" position — flipping her from her back to her stomach, said Dr. Alyssa Formyduval.
"Being on their stomachs, it just helps alleviate their lungs. ... When you're on your back, a lot of the fluid would sit in the back of your lungs and it would be really hard for your lungs to heal," Formyduval said, adding the technique has been used since the 1970s to help treat patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome.
Since patients with COVID-19 experience similar symptoms as those with acute respiratory distress syndrome, the technique has been used to help patients get off the ventilator, Formyduval said.
The proning team consists of nursing, respiratory and therapy staff and an anesthesiologist, Formyduval said. It takes at least seven people to move a patient from their back to stomach, all while they are intubated and connected to various machines.
Ruth Romero was the first patient to receive treatment from the proning team, added Meridith Dorge, manager of the intermediate care unit.
A patient will typically spend 12-16 hours in the position. Ruth Romero was moved in the position once every 12 hours, and saw results after the first time she was moved to the prone position, said Dr. Sylvia Gould.
Nicole Parodi, a patient care technician at St. Catherine, picked up extra ICU shifts to spend time with Ruth Romero — Parodi spent five hours over three shifts detangling and brushing Ruth's long hair out from the bun it was in.
"I was floated to ICU several times to take care of her for night shift. I was with her in ICU, and then I had her on six on (the) COVID (floor), when she was able to come out of ICU," Parodi said.
"She's one of those patients you never forget."