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COVID survivor: 'Life and health are a gift that we should not take for granted'

James Colon won a six month battle against coronavirus and is recovering at his sister's home in Massapequa. Credit: Barry Sloan

Edith Baldassarre wasn’t sure she would be setting a place for her brother, James Colon, at her family’s Thanksgiving table in Massapequa this year.

That’s because Colon, who worked in an Astoria nursing home, spent six months in the hospital fighting COVID-19. At one point, his situation was so dire that Baldassarre and her siblings were told to start making funeral arrangements.

Instead, she is joyfully making pumpkin pie — one of her brother’s favorites — and turkey with all the trimmings.

"It really feels great," she said during an interview outside her home Wednesday. "I’m so thankful he made it through."

Colon, 61, has surpassed the expectations of even the most hopeful doctors at Mount Sinai Morningside, where he spent most of his hospital stay. Since first falling ill in April, the Queens resident endured a bout with pneumonia, a bacterial superinfection, cardiac shock and multi-organ failure. He was placed on a ventilator and needed dialysis for his kidneys.

Most of that is a blur, Colon said. He was in a coma for three months. Then one day in July, he woke up.

"I remember seeing a nice, big, bright flash of light in front of me," he recalled. "The doctors came by and started asking me a thousand questions to see if my noodles were still working … I was mentally OK. But I was physically a wreck."

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At first, he couldn’t move any of his limbs. Colon’s muscle had atrophied, and his 160-pound frame was down to just 90 pounds. He couldn’t drink water for weeks, for fear it would get into his weakened lungs.

Slowly, Colon regained movement in his arms, then started learning to walk again. He credited the patient, but firm, physical therapists at Morningside with helping him stay motivated.

"I thought of my son," he said of 14-year-old Julian. "I was determined to be here, to survive for him. I also replayed my life from as far as back as I could remember … like chapters in a book. I tried to appreciate and dwell on all the good things in my life, so that kept me going."

Colon was released from the hospital on Oct. 23 and is staying in Massapequa with his sister and brother-in-law, where he is continuing physical therapy. He walks with the help of a walker or cane, is still on oxygen and fatigues easily.

"He’s made a great recovery, an unexpected recovery," said Dr. Yamilette Burgos, a rehabilitation physician at Mount Sinai Morningside who is overseeing Colon’s care. "It’s almost a miracle after everything he went through. He basically had to train his muscles how to work again."

Colon knows he still has a ways to go before he can play his guitar, hit the basketball court with his son and cook some of his favorite meals. But he plans to be walking along the beach by next summer.

"I believe people should really take COVID-19 very seriously and take all the precautions necessary," he said. "I hope that I can inspire them in some way to be positive and fight … life and health are a gift that we should not take for granted."

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