An A&E nurse cheered out Northwick Park Hospital today after a nine-week battle with Covid-19 became nearly the 1,000th patient to be discharged by the trust.
Franco Palo’s last words to wife Grace before being sedated were: “Don’t worry. I promise I will come back.”
He woke more than a month later in intensive care asking what had happened.
“I couldn’t remember anything apart from some strange dreams,” recalls the 47 year-old senior charge nurse who fell ill a week after he began self-isolating at home as a precautionary measure.
Doctors initially suspected pneumonia and, after responding to medication, Franco was sent home only to see his condition worsen several days later with a high fever and shortness of breath.
He was rushed to A&E again struggling for air and subsequently told he would need to be intubated - have a breathing tube inserted down his throat and into his lungs.
“I was shocked and scared. I told them I didn’t want ventilation because I knew it meant I was in a bad way. The first thing that goes through your mind is will I ever wake up again?”
“It was really scary but my colleagues talked me round and the last thing I said to my wife after she gave the OK was ‘I will come back. I promise you I will come back.’ No-one was happier than me that I kept my word.”
Franco was largely unaware of the terrific struggle he put up in the ensuing weeks included being transferred to the Royal Brompton after his ventilator proved increasingly ineffective.
The Royal Brompton has one of only five ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machines in the UK, which is often the last hope for the sickest patients.
It oxygenates blood drained from the patient, which is then returned to the body when their lungs are unable to do so. An ECMO machine is similar to equipment used during a heart-lung bypass operation.
Franco was transferred back to the hospital he has worked at for more than 19 years and was cared for by many nursing colleagues who knew him personally.
“People have been so kind and supportive. I just want to say a big thank you to everyone. It felt like the whole hospital was on my side.
“I’ve got so many messages on my phone but my hands are still shaky at the moment so the best I can do is send emojis.”
Grace Palo, who works as a senior sister in the same A&E department as her husband, said: “It’s been a terrible ordeal but my kids never had any doubt their dad would pull through because they know he is a fighter.
“He’s always been popular and I’ve had everyone from cleaners to consultants wishing my family the best. It means a lot to me and I never once heard anyone say he wouldn’t pull through.
“It’s been a tough battle for but my message to anyone struggling out there for whatever reason is not to give up. You have to keep trying.”
One of Franco’s biggest pleasures was the day his feeding tube was removed and he asked for ice cream.
“They didn’t have any in intensive care but the word went out and Steve Root, one of our resus team, bought me a tub of vanilla flavoured Ben and Jerrys. That was the best tasting ice-cream I ever had in my life.”
The father of three spent his final weeks in Gaskell ward which was converted into a 33-bed step-down unit looking after patients transferred from intensive care.
“It’s not been easy but I’m just taking things a day at a time and have moved from a walking frame to a stick to moving around by myself. I saw my children a few weeks ago when they brought some homemade food in with Grace. That was really special.
“I’m also looking forward to a haircut. I remember after I first regained consciousness putting my hand on my head and realising something was up because it was so long!”
Franco credits his faith and colleagues for helping him pull through and - even in the nothingness of sedation - believes a voice inside was urging him to keep fighting.
“It just told me to ‘hold on.’ So, I did.”