Gregg Garfield was known as “patient zero” after he was hospitalized with COVID-19 in Los Angeles on March 5

By Julie Mazziotta and Johnny Dodd
November 11, 2020 07:00 PM
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As Gregg Garfield and his friends skied around Italy’s Dolomite Mountains in late February, any thoughts of COVID-19 were on the backburner.

“We were outdoors and skiing nearly all the time, so we didn’t think too much about it,” Garfield, 53, tells PEOPLE.

The highly infectious virus was just beginning to ravage northern Italy, and a few days into the trip — an annual skiing vacation with 12 of his friends — everyone in the group had body aches, low-grade fevers, sore throats and congestion. The extremely athletic Garfield was hit especially hard, and he spent three days of the trip in his hotel bed, which was unusual for him.

By the time he got home to Southern California on March 1, Garfield was still struggling, and his doctor managed to persuade the Centers for Disease Control to use one of their few tests to see if he had COVID-19. The test came back positive, and by March 5 Garfield was in the hospital after telling a friend, “I can’t breathe. I’m gurgling in my lungs. I feel like death.”

Credit: Courtesy Gregg Garfield

After just two days at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, Garfield’s oxygen levels sunk, and doctors put him on a ventilator and under sedation for the next month. The last thing Garfield remembers is looking up at an ICU nurse wearing a full hazmat suit and telling them, “I don’t want to die.”

Gregg Garfield (right)
| Credit: Courtesy Gregg Garfield

At the hospital, where Garfield was known as “patient zero” as one of the first people in Southern California to contract COVID-19, doctors worked furiously to keep him alive as the virus attacked his immune system, leading to high fevers, extremely low blood pressure, sepsis throughout his body and a staph infection. His doctors privately believed Garfield had a 1 percent chance of survival.

“His sister Stephanie and I were both staying as positive as we could,” Garfield’s fiancée, A.J. Johnson, 47, says. “But if we’d really known what his chances of survival were, I don’t know if we could have stayed that positive.”

For more on Garfield's months-long battle with COVID-19, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Johnson stayed by Garfield’s side throughout his 64-day hospital stay, and slowly, he started to come back.

“He was my miracle patient,” says Dr. Daniel Dea, a pulmonologist and critical-care specialist who led Garfield’s treatment. “Not only did he survive multi-organ failure, but he’s returned to near normal. That’s a miraculous thing.”

WATCH: Inside the Recovery Process of One of the First Americans with COVID: 'It’s Very Extreme'

Garfield went off the ventilator on April 2, 50 lbs. lighter, with three black toes and without portions of eight fingers, which were damaged by a lack of blood flow. But he survived, as did all 12 of his friends, five of whom were also hospitalized with COVID-19. On May 8, he was able to walk out of the hospital.

“I felt like Rip Van Winkle,” Garfield says. “I went to sleep for a month and awoke to a world where everything had changed.”

Gregg Garfield
| Credit: Michael Becker

In the months since, he’s undergone seven operations (so far) to repair his fingers and toes, and is rebuilding his lungs with daily elliptical workouts. Garfield, who calls himself the “luckiest person alive,” proposed to Johnson in August and plans to get back on the slopes in December. He’s also urging everyone to wear masks and social distance, and is glad to know that his harrowing experience is helping doctors treat the COVID-19 patients that came after him.

“It’s empowering to know that my battle has helped others,” says Garfield. “I’m honored to have been an early patient who gave my doctors and nurses on the front lines hope — and the will to achieve the unachievable.”

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