TEARS streamed down Grace Pallo’s face as her husband, Franco, gasped the words “I love you”.
She’d heard the phrase a million times before in their 20 year marriage but this time was special – they were the first words he’d spoken since being struck down with Covid-19 and put in an induced coma five weeks before.
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A&E nurse Franco, 47, from Watford, spent nine weeks fighting for his life in hospital after catching the Coronavirus in April.
Minutes before being put into an induced coma, at London’s Northwick Park hospital where they both work, he told Grace: “Don’t worry. I promise I will come back.”
Last week, on June 26, Franco fulfilled that promise when he became the 1000th person to be discharged from the North London trust – and was clapped out by a huge gathering of his colleagues.
He tells Sun Online: “When they told me I was going on a ventilator, I was afraid and wondered ‘will I ever wake up again?
“It was really scary but I promised Grace I’d come back. No-one is happier than me that I kept my word.”
‘I was terrified of never waking up’
Franco – dad to Francis, 17, Felyse, 15 and Franzen, 12 – has worked for the NHS for 19 years and Grace is also a senior sister at Northwick Park.
When he was first taken to A&E by 48-year-old Grace, on April 18, the asthmatic dad-of-three was diagnosed with pneumonia and sent home.
Four days later, Grace brought him back and tests revealed the level of oxygen in his blood was down to 67 per cent of the normal rate.
“It felt different to the usual asthma,” he says. “This time there was no wheeziness, just tightness and being unable to get air into my lungs.
“At the hospital, I was really struggling but I was nervous and afraid and didn’t want to intubated because that would mean being put in an induced coma.”
After 45 minutes on the CPAP machine – which delivers air through a mask – he continued to deteriorate and doctors insisted he needed to be put into a coma and put on a ventilator.
“I was terrified,” says Grace. “It all happened so quickly, within the hour. I was crying and my colleagues were trying to comfort me but I felt so helpless, because there was nothing I could do for him.”
‘Not being able to touch him was hardest moment of my life’
When Franco failed to respond to the initial treatment, the outlook began to look bleak.
But after six days in the Intensive Treatment Unit (ITU), the respiratory team from the London’s Royal Brompton put him on an ECMO (Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation) machine, which bypasses the heart and lungs to reoxygenate blood before pumping it round the body.
As he was too sick to move a team from the Brompton, one of only five hospitals in the UK to have the life-saving gadget, brought it to him before transferring him back.
Unable to be at his bedside, Grace waited outside the hospital for nearly three hours to catch a glimpse of her husband.
“I waited outside the exit that I knew he would come out of. I could see him from outside the ambulance and I told the doctors ‘look after him’,” she says.
“I was not allowed to touch him and that was the hardest moment of my life, because I knew once he was at the Brompton I wouldn’t be able to see him.”
An anxious 17 days followed, with the family making video calls to the unconscious Franco, but the children were a tower of strength.
“They told me, ‘Dad is a fighter and he will make it through,” says Grace. “They didn’t ever think that their dad was going to die.
“Then on May 14 I went to sleep really late because I couldn’t sleep at night, and I had a dream that Franco was giving me a really tight hug.
“The next morning, I got a phone call saying they were turning off the ECMO, because he had turned a corner. Two days later he was transferred back to Northwick Park and I was so happy because it meant I could see him.”
After five weeks in a coma, Franco finally woke up – unaware of what had happened to him.
“I was in shock,” he says. “As nurses, we are neat and clean, with short hair and trimmed fingernails. But I had a long beard, long hair and long fingernails. I thought I’d only just been moved to an ITU bed.”
Initially unable to speak, due to tube in his neck, Franco surprised Grace one day after doctors fitted a special valve so he could speak.
His first words were: “I love you. And I’m back.”
“It was a very emotional moment because when I saw Grace she was wearing a PPE gown and a shield and she looked like an angel,” he says.
“Grace was crying and all the nurses in the room were crying too.”
Although he was unable to go home for several weeks, he managed an emotional reunion with his three children when they were allowed to come to the hospital on Father’s day.
“I hadn’t seen them for eight weeks and it really melted my heart,” he says. “I cried tears of joy.”
Now recovering at home, Franco is still suffering from shortness of breath but is grateful to be alive.
And the brave NHS worker says he can’t wait to return to work.
“I am so grateful to the people that helped me – my wife and children and all the people in the NHS from the domestic to the security teams, because everybody made an effort to save me.
“I want to give service to the public again because that is what I have done all my life.”