Local cardiologist Sal Barbaro, Rey Feo LXXI, recovered from coronavirus. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

When officials announced in March that Fiesta would be postponed to slow the spread of coronavirus in San Antonio, local cardiologist Sal Barbaro felt it was the right thing to do. 

As 2019’s Rey Feo, Barbaro had already passed the crown to a new king in a private ceremony, but he thought canceling the citywide event altogether was necessary to protect the community. 

In July, the highly contagious virus caught up with Barbaro and his wife, Jennifer. She recovered without being hospitalized. He nearly died. 

Barbaro recently recounted his experience for the San Antonio Report, a deep and lingering cough at times interrupting his speech. 

“I started out really short of breath, and being a typical doctor, I was a little hesitant to go in,” Barbaro said. His primary care doctor prescribed an antibiotic and zinc and Barbaro stayed home to try and recover.  

Less than a week later, feeling worse and with his blood oxygen levels low, Barbaro went to Northeast Baptist Hospital, where he was admitted. As his condition worsened, doctors told Barbaro they needed to transfer him to Methodist Hospital at the South Texas Medical Center so he could receive a specialized treatment for the sickest COVID-19 patients called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

ECMO machines pump a person’s blood through tubes to an artificial lung for oxygenation and return it to the bloodstream, bypassing the lungs and allowing them to recover.

“Even with ECMO, they said I had an 80 percent chance of dying,” he said.

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He doesn’t remember anything after that. But he said doctors called his wife, who was at home recovering, to get her consent for ECMO and explain her husband might not survive. It was Jennifer’s 50th birthday. 

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, almost 149,000 health care workers in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For the 70 percent of those with a status available, 669 have died. 

Some, like a Virginia anesthesiologist who has been tracking deaths among a larger population of people who work in health care, believe the CDC’s number is far lower than reality. 

“I’m one of the very lucky ones,” Barbaro said. “I got [the coronavirus] and unfortunately I got the worst part of it, but I survived it.”

The father of seven doesn’t know how or where he was exposed to the virus, and while he was taking precautions in his medical practice and even on the golf course, he may have underestimated the danger. 

At age 62, overweight and with high blood pressure, Barbaro was at risk for a poor outcome. While in the hospital, his kidneys failed. But it was his experience after waking up almost two weeks later that Barbaro can’t shake. 

“So I spend another seven days [in the ICU], and I mean the worst seven days I ever spent,” he said. “I’d watch people die around me.”

Alone in a patient room on the unit for COVID-19 patients, he could hear the calls for “code blue,” as emergency teams responded to a patient in cardiac arrest. While he was in the intensive care unit, a 44-year-old patient suffered a stroke. 

“The nurse would come in and [say], ‘We just lost another patient,’” he said. “People were dying. This disease is lethal.”

Aware he was “on the launching pad to heaven,” Barbaro prayed and repeated Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil …”

Five weeks from the day he entered the hospital, Barbaro was discharged to Methodist Hospital Texsan for rehabilitation. He had lost 55 pounds and was so weak he couldn’t walk. He spent 12 days in therapy to regain his strength and finally went home Aug. 20, in time for his daughter’s birthday.  

Barbaro has returned to his office periodically, but doesn’t yet have the stamina to see patients or perform surgeries. “I can’t stand for that period of time,” he said. But he’s working to get stronger.

Twice a day, he takes medication to slow his heart rate so he has enough energy for exercise and physical therapy.

“They told me it’s going to take six weeks for me to get rid of this cough, and it’s going to take six to eight weeks for me to possibly get my heart rate back to normal,” he said. He’s working to keep his weight under control as well as his cholesterol levels. “I don’t know – maybe I’ll never get better than this.”

But the nightmares he had during those first days in recovery have stopped. 

“I could see people pouncing on my chest,” he said. “I called a doctor friend of mine, a psychiatrist, and he said it’s like a post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Barbaro’s brush with death has changed the way he looks at suffering and disease and the medical profession. 

“Most medical doctors, we think we’re immune,” he said. “We’re a little bit stubborn. We just kind of feel we’re just a little bit invincible. That’s just doctor mentality.”

But he said being a gravely ill patient gave him a new appreciation for nurses, doctors, therapists, even hospital administrators, and what they do. 

Barbaro said he has experienced sickness and pain, and certainly, as a physician, cared for people who were sick and hurting. “But this is a whole different level,” he said.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.