The man on the ventilator asked the doctor for a pen and a piece of paper. He wrote what he could not say due to the tube jammed down his throat because of the coronavirus.
“Am I going to die tonight?”
Dr. Rick Pitera, 53, felt his stomach drop. He knew the odds, and he knew they were not good. He already had seen so much death and suffering at St. Barnabas Medical Center from COVID-19, more than he had seen in the previous three decades working at the Livingston hospital as an anesthesiologist.
But this man? This was different. The patient, Danny Radice, had saved his life.
No,” Dr. Pitera answered. “Not if I can help it.” He grabbed his patient’s hand and looked into his eyes. “You’re not going to die on my watch.”
The day before Dr. Pitera’s 48th birthday in 2015, he felt the telltale tightness in his chest. “I thought I was having bad indigestion — just like everybody else,” he said. The pain worsened. He was having a myocardial infarction. He arrived at St. Barnabas just in time for the doctors — his peers, his friends — to keep him alive.
That’s when he met Danny Radice. Like Pitera, Radice spent his entire professional life at St. Barnabas, starting in 1987 in patient transport before working his way up to an exercise specialist who worked with patients in the cardiac rehab unit. Radice taught his new patient to start slowly with his new exercise regime.
Therapy took place three times a week for three months. They talked about their families (their wives, they discovered, had worked together as nurses in the hospital’s burn unit), the restaurants they loved in the area, and the paths in life that brought them together.
At the end of his therapy, Pitera felt better than he had before his heart attack. The man who had been at his side for all those weeks was responsible for that.
Pitera and Radice went their separate ways after the treatment was finished in the fall of 2015. They often would run into each other in the hospital cafeteria, checking in on each other the way old friends do.
When the coronavirus overwhelmed St. Barnabas in March with the state’s second-highest number of COVID-19 cases, Pitera’s job changed. He no longer could be the anesthesiologist who might spend a half hour with most of his patients. He was now a critical-care doctor with dozens of people fighting the deadly virus under his care.
He heard, through word of mouth, that “one of our own” had the virus and had been intubated on his floor. He looked at the patient list and saw the familiar name. “He helped me get my life back,” Pitera said. “It’s not hyperbole to say I owe Dan my life.”