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Tony Luke’s Son Michael Shares His COVID-19 Experience

Michael Lucidonio started developing classic COVID-19 symptoms and within days learned he would need to be put on a ventilator.

It was only a few days after the third anniversary of having lost his eldest son to opioid addiction when famed Philly cheesesteak icon Tony Luke learned his second oldest boy, Michael Lucidonio, was in the ER and being put on a ventilator, a suspected (and later confirmed) case of COVID-19.

“I fell to the ground and begged God,” Luke recalls. “I said, ‘I can’t survive another loss like this.’”

Today, Luke and his 35-year-old son are celebrating his survival and return to health after a terrifying bout with the coronavirus.

“It was a miracle for him and for me as well,” Luke says. “I went from walking through the circles of hell to crying tears of joy in a matter of days.”

Lucidonio, a Washington Township resident, can remember when he first felt what he thought was a cold or flu. It started with a fever—high enough that he left work early on that Friday, March 20.  For the next three days, Michael nursed a high fever that never seemed to go down before GI symptoms and body aches started. Next was a hacking, unrelenting cough. His family doctor suggested Lucidonio get tested for COVID-19. He took himself to the Jefferson Health New Jersey mobile testing location, but before his results even came back, his health took a nosedive.

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 was wasting a second. — Michael Lucidonio

“I was self-quarantining in our bedroom,” recalls Lucidonio. “I became so out of breath it was taking me 10 minutes to put on a pair of socks.” When his breath worsened further still, his wife Michelle drove him to the Jefferson Washington Township Hospital emergency department. It was March 31 and Lucidonio remembers that he could barely catch his breath enough to even give the ER team the information needed to get be registered.

“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 was wasting a second.”

Jefferson Intensivist Dr. Jay Kirkham was one of his providers and knew immediately that Lucidonio was in bad shape.

“When I saw him, I thought, ‘I don’t like how this kid looks,’” Dr. Kirkham says. “He was working harder to breathe than I wanted to see him. I was concerned he might crash, and crash hard.”

Selfie of Michael Lucidonio from his hospital bedDr. Kirkham told Lucidonio he thought 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 remembers. Lucidonio was terrified, but trusted the doctor, and asked if he could call his wife.

“I didn’t know if I was saying goodbye forever or what, but she was cool as a cucumber,” he says. “I’m crying and I’m telling my wife that if I die, I’m sorry I couldn’t give her a better life—and she’s saying, you’re going to get through this. It’s going to be OK. Later on, I found out that she had collapsed on the living room floor after we hung up, but she said all the right things to reassure me.”

The next moments after hanging up the phone were a blur of activity, but Lucidonio does remember telling the doctor, in tears, to “please not let me die. I have a wife and a daughter who need me.”

Dr. Kirkham recalls that poignant moment too, just as vividly: “I remember looking him in the eye and saying, ‘I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you.’ And I truly meant it.”

Once sedated and intubated, Lucidonio started to rally. A central line was put in for the administration of powerful blood pressure medications and, within three days, he started slowly being weaned off the ventilator. From there, Lucidonio was transferred from the ICU to a step-down unit and he remembers hospital staff being “incredibly encouraging as I was getting better.”

I thought we were going to lose him, but they got him on the vent and got the medications he needed to control his blood pressure injected right into his body. — Tony Luke

“People were giving me high-fives and thumbs-up through the window of my room,” Lucidonio says. “Someone mentioned I was the first patient they’d seen get off the ventilator. Every single person in that hospital I came into contact with seemed truly invested in me getting better and going home.”

Tony Luke, meanwhile, says he was especially grateful to be given daily updates from the clinical team, since visitors were not permitted in the hospital.

“I thought we were going to lose him, but they got him on the vent and got the medications he needed to control his blood pressure injected right into his body,” Luke says. “They were not messing around.”

Luke says that his third son Joey Lucidonio was a calming factor during this stressful time. “Joey’s going to be done with nursing school in 2021,” says Luke. “He was able to give us the clinical perspective during the whole thing.”

As for Michael Lucidonio, he feels incredibly blessed to be recovering, and has a message for people: If you think you’re getting sick with COVID-19, don’t take chances.

“It’s not a death sentence, but you can’t play around with it,” he says. “If you start having shortness of breath, you have to immediately get to a hospital. Things can change really quickly with this.”

Lucidonio was admitted to the hospital exactly three years and four days after his older brother, Tony died. And they were exactly three years and four days apart in age.

“That was pretty surreal, and made it even scarier,” Lucidonio said. Tony Luke was painfully aware of the eerie timing too, having just visited his eldest son’s grave days earlier.

Michael Lucidonio with his father Tony Luke and late brother Tony Lucidonio Jr.
Michael Lucidonio with his brother Joey (left) and late brother Tony Luke Jr. (far right).

Compounding the stress, Tony couldn’t even visit his daughter-in-law and granddaughter as Michael fought for his life, since they had been placed in home quarantine.

“All I did from the time he went to the hospital to the time he came home, was pray and say the rosary, around the clock,” Luke said. “I was praying for a miracle and we got one.”

While Michael doesn’t remember any of the 60 hours he spent in a coma, he later learned that he woke up briefly and tried to text his wife, with the help of a nurse.

Michael Lucidonio waving as he leaves the hospital in a wheelchair and face maskAfter five days in the hospital off the ventilator, Lucidonio was discharged home on April 7. From there, he had to isolate from his wife and 14-year-old daughter for another five days.

Easter Sunday marked the end of his isolation, and he recalls being deeply touched that his employer, HIT Promotional Products, sent Easter dinner for his family.

While the worst is behind him, Lucidonio says he’s still feeling the residual effects of COVID-19—a slight cough, weakness, and sheer exhaustion from doing even the simplest tasks.

He feels compelled to offer support and encouragement to others battling COVID-19. While friends and family have dropped off groceries almost daily, hundreds of others came together for daily prayer sessions via Zoom for Michael during his hospital stay.

“I learned that this virus can turn on a dime,” he says. “That’s why you have to be sure not to take chances if you start getting sick. I’m pretty certain if I hadn’t gotten to the hospital when I did, I might not be here today to tell this story. I can’t thank my care team enough for all they did for me.”

Tony Luke concurs, saying that healthcare workers are “true heroes.”

“We’re running away from COVID-19, and staying in our homes, and they’re running toward it,” says Luke. “If that’s not a special person, I don’t know what is. Putting your own life on the line for other people—that, to me, is God’s work. And I think of them all, from the doctors and the nurses to the people changing the beds and bringing meals, as angels here on earth.”

Update: On May 19, 2020, Michael Lucidonio went to the Jefferson Blood Donor Center in Philadelphia to donate plasma. His donation will become part of a program to provide donated plasma as a trial treatment for hospitalized COVID-positive patients across Jefferson Health.

“I heard about the program and immediately applied and, fortunately, qualified,” Lucidonio says. “I was told I was the first recovered patient who had been on a ventilator who was taking part.” Because his veins were not in optimum condition, Lucidonio made a full blood donation—and can do so again in 56 days, which he is planning to do: “I’m not a doctor or a wealthy guy, so this is the only way I can truly give back and help.”

Lucidonio, who said he was feeling “well enough to drive myself there (to the Blood Center) and home,” stressed he wants to “give back to Jefferson for saving my life, as well as to other people facing this life-threatening virus.”

“If I can make a difference and help another dad get home to their kid or help make sure one more parent doesn’t lose a child to COVID-19, I am more than happy to do that.”

For more information on donating to the Jefferson Blood Donor Center, please click here.

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COVID-19, Patient Perspectives