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'Very lucky:' Retired firefighter in hospital for one month battling COVID-19


WINNIPEG — Rick Sterzer was lying at home struggling to breathe. Each day it was harder to get air into his lungs.

The 65-year-old retired Winnipeg firefighter had tested negative for COVID-19 after returning from a hellish journey on a cruise ship filled with infected passengers.

"I said you better get me to the hospital because I'm not going to die at home," Sterzer says he told his wife on April 2.

"That's where I've been ever since."

A second test determined that Sterzer did in fact have COVID-19. He is one of more than 56,700 people in Canada to have contracted the virus. More than 280 have been in Manitoba.

Two days after he was hospitalized, he was transferred to an intensive care unit and hooked up to a special oxygen machine. He was able to leave the unit this past week but is still unable to go home.

"I don't feel sorry for myself. I'm very lucky. I am very fortunate I beat this thing," Sterzer says.

He takes a moment to let air fill his lungs between his sentences as an oxygen machine buzzes in the background.

"I know what this thing can do."

Sterzer and his wife boarded a ship in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 5 for what they thought was going to be a 25-day cruise to Europe. It quickly became clear that the deadly novel coronavirus was circling on board.

A few sick passengers were removed from the ship during its first stop in Puerto Rico. The boat wasn't allowed to dock at the next planned stop in Antigua, but continued its five-day voyage to Europe. Its pools, casinos, gyms, spas and restaurants were still open.

Police wearing haz-mat suits and holding guns were waiting for the ship when it docked in Spain, Sterzer says. They took sick passengers into waiting ambulances. No one else could disembark.

As the ship sailed to France, it was clear COVID-19 was transmitting between passengers, Sterzer says  People were confined to their rooms and staff took their temperatures twice a day.

Sterzer began to feel ill but says he never had a high temperature. By the time the ship arrived in Marseille, the cruise line had arranged for Canadians and Americans to fly home. Sterzer says passengers, many who were clearly sick, were put on buses, then onto a crowded plane.

"The man beside me was so sick ... and he wouldn't keep his mask on and had difficulty breathing," Sterzer says. He later learned through social media and other passengers that the man died from COVID-19.

Sterzer and his wife arrived in Winnipeg on March 20. They self- isolated and tested negative for COVID-19. Sterzer's health, however, continued to decline.

A firefighter for 36 years, he is normally healthy and active. He knew that something was wrong so he went to the hospital.

It's been four weeks of serious health struggles, but Sterzer feels optimistic.

He says he's grateful he was never put on a ventilator. And he gets emotional speaking about doctors and nurses in the intensive care unit who gave him strength and celebrated each little victory he had.

It was especially important since Sterzer's family was unable to visit him.

A visit from his firefighting comrades was also a game changer, he says.

On April 11, a parade of fire trucks parked outside the hospital. Three crew members climbed up a ladder and taped a firefighter flag outside Sterzer's window.

A nurse handed Sterzer a phone so he could thank them. He didn't know there were more than a dozen other firefighters below. If he had known, he says, he would have lost it.

Looking ahead, Sterzer is hopeful his oxygen levels will improve enough that he can go home with an oxygen tank within two weeks.

As Manitoba prepares to lift some public health restrictions and reopen some businesses Monday, Sterzer says his story shows why it's important for people to stay vigilant.

Smoke alerts people to the dangers of a fire, but COVID-19 is a battle you cannot see, he says.

"Everybody has to take this seriously."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2020

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press

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