Waterloo father, 35, recovering after nearly dying of COVID-19

Waterloo father, 35, recovering after nearly dying of COVID-19

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In this undated photo provided by Dzemal Grcic, Elvir Alicajic, right, is seen with his friend Grcic at his home in Waterloo. 

IOWA CITY (AP) — The 35-year-old Iowa father was in critical condition and unconscious last month when doctors warned he was likely within hours of succumbing to the coronavirus.

A friend and neighbor shared the grim prognosis with the family. His mom and wife wept. His 7-year-old boy kept asking, where is my daddy?

Hours passed with no news and then something remarkable happened. Doctors at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City infused Elvir Alicajic with plasma to help fight off the virus. A dialysis treatment helped keep his blood flowing as his kidneys failed.

Within days, Alicajic was awake from a coma, eager to return to his job as a public school janitor in Waterloo. He was later discharged from UIHC and transferred for rehabilitation to UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital in Waterloo, where he’s been regaining his ability to walk.

He could be out as soon as this week and back with his wife, son and parents, who have been largely unable to visit during a five-week hospitalization that included several days on a ventilator.

Alicajic’s survival is a relief for the Bosnian community in Waterloo, where about 3,000 refugees settled in the 1990s after fleeing genocide. But his near-death experience is also a reminder that the coronavirus can devastate even young and middle-aged adults medically and financially.

About 50 adults who were age 60 or younger have died of COVID-19 in Iowa in two months, state statistics show. Hundreds more have been hospitalized.

“It has been a nightmare for all of us involved,” said Alicajic’s friend and neighbor Dzemal Grcic, who has been helping Alicajic get medical treatment for the last month, take care of his family and raise money to pay the “outrageous” medical bills.

Grcic spoke at length with The Associated Press about the experience, saying he believed too many people aren’t taking the coronavirus seriously.

“I can’t even tell you how shocking this is for everybody, how scary this is,” Grcic said. “It’s so hard to explain to people what he went through. Emotionally and physically being beside him for this whole thing was just a roller coaster.”

Alicajic, who came to the U.S. as a child, started showing symptoms more than a month ago. Grcic tested positive for the coronavirus around the same time, as did Grcic’s wife, who got sick first.

Waterloo has been a hot spot for the coronavirus after an outbreak at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant. A 58-year-old Bosnian refugee died April 18 after getting sick while working the production line.

Grcic, 31, said his illness was mild but scary nonetheless. He routinely checked on Alicajic as his neighbor’s condition worsened. It took two visits to a Waterloo emergency room for Alicajic to be tested, and he learned he was positive April 15. It took two more ER visits for him to be admitted April 17. By then, his oxygen levels were dangerously low. His skin started looking yellow and he had trouble breathing.

After days of treatment, doctors at MercyOne Medical Center in Waterloo said they had nothing more to offer. Alicajic was airlifted to UIHC, widely considered the state’s top hospital.

Grcic and Alicajic’s father drove 80 miles to Iowa City, hoping to see him that day, but were turned away due to UIHC’s temporary ban on most visitors.

By the next evening, Elvir was in critical condition on a ventilator. His organs were failing and doctors said he probably wouldn’t last through the night. His family wouldn’t be able to say goodbye.

“I can tell you that was the worst day of my life,” Grcic said. He informed Elvir’s family, and “it just became chaotic from there.”

Elvir’s son wanted to know what was happening to his dad.

“The little one just kept asking because he knew that I had driven him to the hospital,” recalled Grcic. “We said ‘Daddy’s tummy hurts.’ We can’t tell him everything because he keeps crying and asking for him.”

Grcic called the hospital for an update after midnight, and a chaplain had no information. He feared the worst. But the next day came the news: doctors had given Elvir dialysis and plasma treatments. His condition was improving.

The hospital has been using plasma donated from people who have recovered from coronavirus to infuse patients who are suffering from the disease. The convalescent plasma therapy aims to use already-produced antibodies to neutralize the virus.

Alicajic eventually awoke, at first thinking he had been asleep for only 10 hours and that he was in Hong Kong.

Grcic drove Alicajic’s cellphone to the hospital so they could communicate over video calls. Since then, Alicajic has been focused on going back to work at the Waterloo public schools, where he’s been a janitor for two years.

“He kept asking about his job. I said ‘don’t worry about it. The schools have been notified’,” Grcic said. “He loves his job and tells us that he wants to go back to normal life.”

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