The Man Who Broke the Rules to Save His COVID-Positive Partner's Life: 'Everyone Should Be Terrified'

PEOPLE's Voices from the Coronavirus Crisis will share firsthand accounts of the people facing unique challenges during a global pandemic

Brian Zupanick
Photo: Brian Zupanick

Brian Zupanick, 39, was ready to do whatever it took to make sure his partner of 10 years, John Giarratano, got the proper treatment when he began to show COVID-19 symptoms earlier this month. Giarratano, 42, was admitted to the hospital on Friday, March 13th after being diagnosed with pneumonia, though Zupanick knew deep down it was something more once he was sent to the ICU. Zupanick opens up about how hard he had to fight to save his partner’s life as testing was delayed for weeks, and how difficult it was to know Giarratano was fighting for his life without being able to see his loved ones. He also has a GoFundMe for Giarratano’s medical bills here.

Thursday, March 5th is when it all started.

We were getting ready for bed, and John said that he was chilly. I asked him if he had a fever; he said he felt fine and woke up feeling well the next day. But that night, he started to chill again, so we checked his temperature. It was 101°.

At the time, we were watching everything that was unfolding on the news. People getting sick, mixing up the flu with COVID-19. It seemed the best course of action was to stay home if you have fever, cough, body aches, and only go to the ER if you have trouble breathing. John didn’t have any cough, didn’t have any congestion. He just literally had a fever and body aches.

His fever eventually went up to 103.5°, so he went to Urgent Care. They ran a flu panel on him, which came back negative. They did an X-ray and said it could be pneumonia and that he might want to go to the emergency room, where they could confirm it.

He was having more difficulty breathing by the time we got to the hospital. This was the beginning stages of everything that was happening, so although he was in isolation for suspected COVID-19, they still let me see him.

I dressed in the appropriate gear, I dropped off some fresh clothes, rubbed his feet and legs for a little bit because he was sore, spent some time with him. Then I said, “Bye,” and that I loved him.

The next day, he called me to say, “I’m really scared. I can’t breathe at all.” I was concerned because John’s like a rock. He never gets sick. He has no preexisting conditions. They ran panels and got results back on everything except COVID-19.

The hospital soon went into lockdown and no visitors were allowed anymore. By that point, John was getting worse. His breathing became really labored. It just moved so quickly. He called me. He was trying to talk, but he was so out of breath, he couldn’t even say the words. He just said, “Can’t breathe. The heart doctor’s here, ICU too.” And then he hung up.

I went into a huge panic, because I couldn’t be there. Medical staff were doing their best to try to answer the phone calls, but by the time I had information, it was hours after the fact. When they called me, they said his heart was under an enormous amount of stress because he wasn’t getting any oxygen from his labored breathing. His oxygen levels were just plummeting. They managed to kind of stabilize him on a CPAP machine at 100 percent oxygen. That seemed to be okay until he couldn’t breathe on the machine anymore.

One night, I was sleeping, and he had texted me, “Let him put the pipe in.” The next day, they confirmed John went into acute respiratory distress. And within 24 hours, he went to ICU and was then transferred to the critical care unit. They had him intubated and his oxygen level was at 100 percent, it was maxed out. If they moved him even five inches, the oxygen saturation levels would just plummet.

Meanwhile, his COVID tests still hadn’t come in. He was going downhill. I was frustrated and the doctors and the nurses were also. No one knew where the test was, so I called the lab myself. I tracked down the test in North Carolina; the New Jersey lab couldn’t process it, so they forwarded all the other specimens along with his to North Carolina. That lab was inundated with specimens, and his kept getting pushed.

We were running out of options waiting for this test, and his health was getting worse. I called the lab again and I was like, “What is going on with this test? My partner is going to die waiting for it. He cannot start treatment without a positive result.” They said they might have the results by March 20th or 21st; I said, “He’s going to be dead” and hung up.

I hung up because they couldn’t help me. I decided to reach out to the president of Mount Sinai. I emailed him, thinking he wouldn’t respond, but I figured I’d try because I didn’t really have an alternative and needed help.

John Giarratano and Brian Zupanick
Brian Zupanick

Within seven minutes, the president of Mount Sinai responded to me. He had John’s COVID-19 test expedited and then I got a phone call from the administrator saying that the head of infectious disease approved treatment without the test, and he started it immediately. I was so thankful.

John then received the treatment, and his levels seemed to come up just enough to keep him alive. He was still very critical to the point where the last option was to get him to Mount Sinai for an ECMO machine that oxygenates the blood, because there really wasn’t any other way to keep him alive.

They had a window of opportunity to transport him to the main hospital. I had a conversation with his family too, because it’s a big decision. We agreed that we needed to take the risk to transfer him.

He got there safely, and luckily, he didn’t need that machine. He started to show improvements. After a few days, he was critically stable and they were working with his ventilation settings to test his body and to see how he responds.

Recently, I learned that John was strong enough to be taken off the ventilation. I can’t tell you how happy I was hearing that, I just cried and cried with relief and joy. I’m thankful to Mount Sinai South Nassau, and Mount Sinai Manhattan medical staff that I consider heroes.

I still can’t go to the hospital to visit. I’ve been self-quarantining after all this happened, though my test came back negative. I just want to see him now, I don’t care.

Unless you’re living it, or have a friend or family member who’s experiencing it, you might not really understand the severity of it — which is understandable to a certain extent, but there comes a time when you have to just kind of wake up and say, “It’s enough. This is dangerous.”

People also don’t think about the fact that all of these family members, like me, can’t even see their loved ones. That fact alone can make it extremely stressful, and you add everything else on top of that, it’s truly a nightmare. I’m going over two weeks of not being by his side through all of this, and now he’s awake and I still can’t see him.

When you’re on the opposite end of it and you have a loved one in there, and doctors are trying everything to keep the inflammation down, to keep the oxygen high enough just to keep their organs alive — and you’re on the opposite end of that phone call — things become very real. It should be taken seriously and everyone should be terrified.

  • As told to Morgan Evans


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