PHILADELPHIA — It was a struggle Saturday afternoon for Yvan Pierrelouis just to shift from his wheelchair to a stretcher outside a rehab center at 18th and Lombard streets.
Two medical technicians from the NYPD, sent to Philadelphia to bring home a fellow officer, supported his weight.
“I’m, like, holding back my tears,” said Diane Latham, Pierrelouis’ daughter.
One hundred and thirty-six days earlier, Latham had rushed from work to drive from Philadelphia to North Shore University Hospital on Long Island to see her father on what doctors said would be his deathbed. Even then, she refused to accept the diagnosis.
“I just never believed it in my heart,” she said. “I never thought it was the end.”
Latham, a nurse at Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, was shocked by what COVID-19 had done to her father when she saw him April 29.
The robust, garrulous New York City police lieutenant was unconscious on a ventilator, bloated by 50 pounds of fluid, with sores on his face from lying on his stomach, a position that helps COVID-19 patients breathe. His doctor told Latham and her mother, Isabelle, he would soon be taken off the ventilator whether they approved or not. Pierrelouis had no chance of surviving, Latham recalled the doctor saying, and the ventilator was needed for other patients.
Saturday, Latham escorted her father out of Good Shepherd Penn Partners in Center City. He needed a wheelchair, still too weak to walk any distance, and oxygen tubes snaked out from beneath his surgical mask. But he was alive.
“We’ve seen people who have been as sick as him, but not just to have a recovery that was so prolonged, but ultimately was so successful. ... It’s a remarkable testament to him and his family,” said Andrew Courtwright, a Penn transplant pulmonologist who oversaw Pierrelouis’ treatment.
All told, Pierrelouis spent 75 days comatose on a ventilator, and for the past two months, has contended with an arduous physical and emotional recovery from the trauma. While he lay unconscious, he was treated at three hospitals, finally being brought to Penn, where his daughter works as a nurse.
Pierrelouis himself never believed he would die from the virus. The 59-year-old said he’s always been a fighter.
”I’m an immigrant, you know,” he said. “That’s why I work so hard for my children to be better than me.”
“He’s very energetic,” said Garfield McLeod, a New York City police captain. “He’s the life of the room. He has a lot of charisma.”
A platoon commander overseeing booking at New York County’s Criminal Court, Pierrelouis stood out for his compassion toward the people who passed before him, said McLeod, his commanding officer.
”He treated everyone fairly, from the guy that’s charged with murder to the guy charged with petty larceny,” McLeod said. “If they were being uncooperative he would take the initiative to try to talk to them, to try to listen to their problems.”
It was that job, though, that likely led to Pierrelouis’ infection. As the virus spread through New York City, bookings were divided, into people suspected of being sick and those who were not. Pierrelouis was assigned to work with those believed to be infected.
“It was a scary time,” McLeod said. “We wore latex gloves, we tried to do a little social distancing, and we did the mask, but at the same time we were very, very nervous.”
Pierrelouis was among the New York City Police Department’s 5,800 members who have tested positive for the virus. Of those, 46 have died.
A chronicle of the pandemic
After he was put on a ventilator on March 29 in the Long Island hospital, doctors tried treating him unsuccessfully with hydroxychloroquine and proning.
”You could tell a story about the pandemic just based on kind of the understanding of the disease at different times,” Courtwright, the Penn doctor, said. “Toward the end was steroids. That seemed to make the biggest difference for him.”
Even when doctors told her Pierrelouis would not survive, Latham saw hope in her father’s chart. His lungs were badly scarred, but he showed no sign of the widespread organ failure that had doomed other victims of the virus.
”He was a person who came here at the age of 13 from Haiti,” she told his attending physician in Long Island. “He gave 29 years to the NYPD. He was a front-line personnel. This is how he got it. You need to help him out.”
The next day, Latham arranged to have her father transferred to Philadelphia.
Latham recalled when her father called her mother to tell her he would have to be put on a ventilator, his last words were, “I’m going to continue to fight.”
”He did exactly what he said he was going to do,” Latham said.
While Penn Medicine evaluated Pierrelouis for a transplant, Courtwright saw positive signs. The officer was requiring less oxygen from the ventilator and there was evidence the scarring left on his lungs was beginning to heal. Rather than go forward with a transplant, Courtwright elected to give Pierrelouis time.
As he lay unconscious, receiving oxygen through a tracheotomy, his dreams swung wildly, he remembers. In one he had become the police commissioner back home in Haiti. In another, he walked ceaselessly, but never reached his destination.
”Every time we tried to take the paralytics off, he was too unstable,” Courtwright said. “He was in that coma for a really long time.”
Latham became the de facto decision maker for her father’s care. She visited daily once he transferred to Penn, and continued working full time on her own ward. It became her routine to call the hospital four times a day, her husband, Kristian, said.
”If it wasn’t for my wife pressing and calling and challenging,” he said, his father-in-law “definitely wouldn’t have made it.”
Pierrelouis came off the ventilator on July 12, and initially he experienced bouts of delusion, where he was convinced he was in jail. That gave way to a long, arduous recovery. One of his therapists, Natalia Sobotka, said his enthusiasm quickly became apparent even as he struggled with basic, painful tasks.
”I don’t want to miss one minute of my exercise,” said Pierrelouis, who received three hours of therapy each day. “I even ask for more.”
Among the New York City police escort outside Good Shepherd Saturday was one man in dress uniform. Ralph Remy, a patrol officer, said Pierrelouis, his father, was more than an influence in his decision to become a cop.
“He was pretty much all the influence,” he said.
After being loaded into the ambulance, Pierrelouis’ 3-year-old grandson, Kristian, waved goodbye to him.
”I love you,” Pierrelouis said.
One of the EMTs lifted the boy into the ambulance to give his grandfather one more hug.
Pierrelouis remains deeply proud of his profession, he said, but will not return to the NYPD. He described his recovery as a second chance, and as he looked ahead to a long recovery, his priorities have shifted.
“I want to enjoy life, spend some time with my grandchildren,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to go back.”