By Ahmad Austin Jr.
Source Burlington County Times, Willingboro, N.J.
CAMDEN, NJ—Shortly after Manchester Township police officer Antonio Ellis awoke from his coma and began rehab, he told his wife he wanted to get back to work as soon as possible and get promoted to lieutenant.
Ellis, who had one of the state's earliest severe cases of COVID-19 in mid-March 2020, returned to full duty a year after his health took a turn for the worse; and, eventually, he did get that promotion. On Nov. 22, the 43-year-old went back to Cooper University Hospital with his wife Carla to thank those that saved his life.
"It's a little awe-inspiring," Ellis said as he looked out to the dozens of doctors listening to him speak in the hospital lobby. "And like I said, these are my heroes. They just go to work every day and do their job, and I can appreciate that from my profession, as well. It's a thankless job sometimes, and I just can't say enough."
The lieutenant said the disease hit him hard right away. In total, he spent 44 days at Cooper. He was in a coma for 30 days, and on a ventilator for 37.
Dr. Jason Bartock, one of the ICU doctors at Cooper, said Ellis was "as close you can possibly be" to dying of the disease. He lost 40 pounds and suffered three cardiac arrests.
"There are many facets to COVID disease that we understand," Bartock said. "There's a lot of focus on the lungs not being able to breathe, but COVID affects the entire body — the lungs, the kidneys, the brain. He had just about all of it. When we say, 'miraculous,' we mean miraculous. There's a part of this that is science and medicine, but there's a part of it that we can't fully explain. We are grateful for that."
With his case being so early into the pandemic, Ellis was one of the first patients to receive extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) to treat the coronavirus. He was supported by the system for 16 days.
Though he survived the disease, he had to relearn basic things like walking, talking and writing. By the time he regained consciousness, the pandemic was in full force and everything around him had changed.
"I got sick in early March and I woke up sometime in April," Ellis said. "And I had a full beard and the world changed. It just hard grasping all this and how much everything had been locked down."
Ellis went through six weeks of in-patient physical therapy and five weeks of outpatient physical and occupational therapy. In total, he was away from his family for 90 days.
He returned to the police department on light duty in January 2021, and by March, he was on full duty. Ellis was also sure to praise his wife for being by his side through what he called a "rollercoaster" of events during his battle with COVID-19.
"As I was out of this, she was making those critical care decisions for me," he said.
In addition to being back on the force, Ellis has joined a ICU recovery support group at Cooper to help those who've also survived traumatic events. He said he quickly saw how the groups helped both the patients and the doctors leading them.
"Resiliency is an important part of this job," Ellis said. "And taking the traumatic events that you've all experienced, day in and day out, through this pandemic — the ones you couldn't save, the ones you didn't save but you tried so hard to — that weighs on your soul. And it's important you find your true north in all of this."
Once remarks were finished and questions from the media were answered, Antonio and Karla hugged and spoke with the doctors in attendance. Then, when the cameras went away, they walked through the halls of the hospital, going door-to-door with a wheelchair full of donuts to give to
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