Tony Luke's son Michael Lucidonio remembers when he was put on a ventilator, confronting his own mortality, and shares an update on how he continues to recover today.
It’s been two years since Michael Lucidonio – middle son of famed Philly cheesesteak icon Tony Luke – staggered into the Jefferson Washington Township Emergency Room, pretty certain he was suffering from COVID, and barely able to catch his breath enough to speak.
Today, this 37-year-old father and husband is enjoying life to the fullest. And along with regaining his health, Lucidonio says his life-threatening bout with COVID has given him a new perspective on life: “I’m not sweating the little things now,” he says. “I see what’s really important.”
It was late March 2020 and Lucidonio had been battling increasingly worse symptoms since what he originally thought was a cold had begun 10 days earlier. From a high fever, to body aches and GI symptoms, he started becoming severely ill. When a hacking, unrelenting cough began, he took himself to a mobile COVID testing unit. But the results hadn’t even come back when he found himself at the ER, struggling to breathe.
While he says his brain was running “a million miles an hour” during the next several days –which included a 60-hour intubation – Lucidonio remembers little of his actual hospital stay. But he remembers in those early hours being comforted and reassured by intensivist Jay Kirkham, DO when it became clear that things were declining quickly: “It was bad, and it was scary,” Lucidonio says. “They got me in an ER room and then it was like bam-bam-bam, non-stop attention, tons of people doing their own thing, climbing around and over each other to do what they needed to do. No one wasted a second.”
Dr. Kirkham told Lucidonio he believed it would be best to have him intubated and on a ventilator to help his breathing. “As he’s talking to me, I’m zooming away in my head thinking, am I going to wake up tomorrow, or two weeks from now, or never?,” Lucidonio recalls. Tony Luke, for his part, was utterly terrified: it was only a few days after the third anniversary of having lost his eldest son to opioid addiction when he learned that middle child Michael was severely ill with COVID. “I fell to the ground and begged God,” Luke recalls. “I said, ‘I can’t survive another loss like this.’” Once sedated, intubated, and treated with medications, Michael Lucidonio started to rally. He was weaned off the ventilator within three days.
From there, Lucidonio was transferred from the ICU to a step-down unit and remembers “every single person in that hospital I came into contact with seemed truly invested in me getting better and going home.”
Two years later, Lucidonio has his life back and is grateful for what he describes as a “changed perspective on what truly matters.”
“I feel extremely fortunate and lucky to be here today without too many issues,” Lucidonio says. Those post-COVID “issues” included several months of brain fog, where he couldn’t remember simple words: “I was saying to my wife, ‘Do me a favor and go into the kitchen and go to the thing under the freezer where the food is to get me such-and-such,’” he recalls. Lucidonio’s motor skills were also notably off for several months after returning home. “I dropped like 12 things a day. It was annoying.” His weeks-long battle with COVID also resulted in a 30-pound weight drop and severe loss of muscle mass: “I was so weak, I couldn’t even really stand in the shower,” he says.
But Lucidonio gave himself time to recover and found himself a changed man.
“It was a horrible experience, but in some ways, it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Lucidonio says. “It was both things at once.”
Before his illness, Lucidonio says, he would get aggravated by “really stupid stuff. I’m so much more calm, much more Zen. I let a lot of stuff roll off me now.”
And while not particularly religious, Lucidonio says he also has developed a “much more spiritual” view of the world as a result of his life-or-death experience.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but there are some silver linings,” he said. “I am very appreciative of all I have and I’m insanely grateful for the amazing care I received at Jefferson. They brought me home to my family.”
It was tough on his family during the early months of Lucidonio’s recovery. “If I would get so much as a sniffle, my wife would feel PTSD almost … the fear was very real,” he recalls. But they have all pushed through the trauma to come out with an unwavering sense of gratitude for life’s daily blessings. Surviving COVID, Lucidonio says, “changed my entire perspective on life.”
Terrible things happen to people every day – you can let these experiences define you in a good or a bad way… I want this to define me in a better way. – Michael Lucidonio
While Lucidonio says he appears completely recovered to those around him – and he has returned to his job as a sales manager with HIT Promotional Productions – he believes his brain is still healing. “I’ve been driving this ‘car,’ so to speak, for 37 years,” he says. “I know it’s not shifting completely right yet.” Lucidonio says he often turns to puzzles and word games to challenge his mind and “keep my neurons firing.”
Lucidonio was vaccinated as soon as possible – “that was something I was very eager to do,” he says – and even donated plasma at the Blood Donor Center at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia as a way of giving back to the community: “I was told I was the first recovered patient who had been on a ventilator taking part.”
Lucidonio believes that COVID is going to be with us for a long time, maybe forever, and acknowledges that researchers are still learning about it. “The reality is they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s still very new.”
In the meantime, he believes that it is vitally important to enjoy life and get back to the things that matter. “Living with life’s uncertainties is part of being alive,” he says. “I can’t walk around being petrified of ever getting sick again. Just because you’re not dying, doesn’t mean you’re living. We have tools to fight against COVID now; we can start getting back to living.”