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'Most beautiful feeling': 20-year Marine recovers from coronavirus

By HADLEY BARNDOLLAR | Portsmouth Herald, N.H. | Published: April 25, 2020

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PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (Tribune News Service) — A husband, father and retired Marine received resounding applause this week throughout the hallways of Portsmouth Regional Hospital as he was discharged following a 13-day stay battling the coronavirus.

Five of those days were spent in the ICU. During that time, 44-year-old Alex Melo was intubated. Recent data from New York City – ground zero for the virus in the U.S. – shows a near 90% mortality rate in intubated COVID-19 patients.

"When I saw light again, it was the most beautiful feeling," Melo, a York, Maine, resident, said. "It's like you came back to life. I was so happy, I was so emotional. It was the most beautiful feeling."

Melo, a 20-year Marine who did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, now works at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as a survival instructor for a contractor. A video of his discharge from Portsmouth Regional Hospital on April 22 went viral – showing staff clapping and cheering as he was rolled out in wheelchair, and then stood to address the crowd of his "guardian angels."

"Thank God for those angels out there on the front lines fighting for us and keeping us alive," Melo said in a Friday interview. "If it wasn't for them, you would not know what would happen."

Melo's battle with the coronavirus began with typical flu symptoms, he said, and his health-care provider did not immediately ring the alarm when he sought advice.

After "fever, chills, coughing, you name it, all the symptoms," Melo said, he began to identify shortness of breath after nine days. He was able to get tested at York Hospital, and actually started to receive treatment in one of its outdoor testing tents.

Melo was admitted to the ICU at York Hospital, where he developed a blood clot and suddenly his heart and lungs were jeopardized, he said. He was transported to Portsmouth Regional Hospital, where the operating room was his intended destination.

"I saw cardio and lung doctors, they quickly reevaluated the whole situation and decided on an intubation period for two days," Melo said.

Melo said he and his family prayed while a nurse comforted him, as he awaited intubaton.

"Unfortunately, I have heard a lot of stories where people don't wake up from it," he said.

Melo explained the intubation was his second close encounter with death – and both times he said to himself, "whatever God's will is, I will accept it."

The first time was during the Iraq War when he was mistaken for an enemy force and "13 tanks were getting ready to take care of me." By a miracle, he said, the tanks retreated, and the next day, a battalion commander said to him, "They were getting ready to annihilate you."

Melo called his battle with the coronavirus "an emotional roller coaster."

"This thing is ugly," he said of the virus itself.

The day he was released from the hospital, the elevator doors opened in the lobby and Melo was shocked to see lines of doctors and nurses clapping for him and waving goodbye. He was especially touched that while the hospital staff "could have been taking a break" from their work day, they instead took a moment to wish him well.

"They are angels with shields and swords, because with the shield, they're shielding you from getting more sick, and with the swords, they're fighting with all their medicine," he said. "They are my angels."

On its Facebook page, Portsmouth Regional Hospital wrote, "So many of our employees were touched by Alex's COVID-19 fight and subsequent recovery."

Melo is now home, still on a blood thinner and "doing much better every day, feeling more energized, more alive."

Asked if he had any message for the public about his experience, Melo said he has two.

First, "don't disregard the job those first responders are doing. From the cop, to the firefighters, to the guys in the ambulance, all the way up to the operating room where the doctors and nurses are."

"Those guys are our first line of defense," Melo said. "My hats off to them. Thank god for those people."

Secondly, Melo urged people to donate plasma, so the health care system can be ready for a possible second wave of the virus in the future.

"I encourage everybody to do something to save somebody's life," he said. "Life is just too previous to let it go like that."

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(c)2020 Portsmouth Herald, N.H.
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