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Fighting for his family: One colleague’s battle with COVID-19

June 4, 2020

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John Pratsinakis, director, global engineering solutions at our site in West Point, Pennsylvania, was home sick and running a fever for more than one week when his wife dropped him off at the hospital on a Thursday afternoon. He did not realize this would be the last time he would see her for weeks.

Hours after John arrived at Cooper University hospital in New Jersey, he learned that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and had pneumonia in both lungs.

“What they explained to me was that many of my air sacs were about to shut down, and they basically described a pretty severe critical situation where they had to take action quickly,” John says.

John Pratsinakis and his wife

Hours after arriving at the hospital, John was put into an induced coma, on a ventilator. “I’m an engineer and I was thinking about the statistics,” he says. “When they said I was going on a ventilator, I thought, ‘Now I’m at a coin flip.’”

But John knew that it wasn’t just his own life at stake.

“I even said goodbye to my wife, just in case, and she basically said, ‘Don’t you dare leave me,’ and I said, ‘I’m going to fight for you and my entire family,’” says the father of three.

John thought he would be on the ventilator for two or three days, but complications extended that time to 11 days. Though John was unconscious, his wife and three daughters were anxiously waiting by the phone, hoping for good news from John’s doctors.

“My family definitely took the brunt of it,” he says. “The first four to five days were doom and gloom, but I started to make incremental improvements and they were clinging onto every phone call.”

John says his daughters set up a corner to pray for him each night, and his middle daughter posted updates of his progress on social media. “I can’t fathom what they were going through,” he says. “They stuck together and were focused on taking action, helping any way they could from the outside. That was part of the struggle – they couldn’t even see me.”

But John’s family called every day and talked to him while he was unconscious, with hospital staff holding up a phone by his ear. John’s friend, a cardiologist at the same hospital, also visited him every day to sit with him. “He was by my side every day at a time when you couldn’t have family or visitors in the hospital,” says John. “I did have him, and that was a very big thing for me.”

John Pratsinakis and his family
John Pratsinakis and his family at the beach

When John spent his 47th birthday on the ventilator, ICU staff members sang “Happy Birthday” along with his family, who sang over the phone.

Asked if he had a belated birthday party, John laughs and says, “You know what? Waking up was my birthday celebration. There will be plenty more birthdays. I was ecstatic to wake up.”

After he was discharged from the hospital, John still had to quarantine for another week within his home. Basic tasks, like taking a shower, were still exhausting. He worked on physical therapy exercises in his room. “I couldn’t touch anyone or be in the same room for another week, but as soon as I was out a week later – I couldn’t wait to hug them, and that was a relief,” he says.

John says one of the driving forces behind his recovery was the outpouring of support from his communities, including his colleagues at Merck. He has worked at the company for 24 years, since graduating college.

“My department put a string of 50 or so short video clips and inspirational notes wishing me well, and that really lifted me,” he says. “Some of them were doing raps and songs – I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was very uplifting at a time when I needed every ounce of lift to get going on physical therapy. I think that’s why I recovered ahead of schedule. I’m surrounded by great people, and a lot of them work at Merck.”

Physical therapy has been challenging, but John says that his steady improvement keeps him motivated. “If today I can do something 10 times, tomorrow I can do it 12,” he says.

John is excited about his virtual return to work and getting back to a somewhat normal routine. “I missed all of my colleagues, and I missed the work we do,” says John. “After this, you realize pharmaceutical companies like ours play a large role in keeping people healthy.”

John started working from home May 20, where he was met with much applause on his first video conference after his medical leave.

John Pratsinakis and his family

“What you give to people, I got back tenfold. I have people calling me saying, ‘I can’t believe what you went through – I just wanted to hear your voice again.’ I’m very blessed.”