ARLINGTON, Va. - It felt like a cold. Normal enough, it seemed. After all, it was cold season, and it was something to get over quickly and be forgotten about just as quickly, thought Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Jancsy, an air liaison officer with the National Guard Bureau, when he started feeling sick in March 2020.
At the time, Jancsy was in New York, assigned to the New York Air National Guard’s 105th Airlift Wing, and was looking forward to an upcoming trip with his wife. But his cold just seemed to get worse. He had a 104-degree fever and over-the-counter medication didn’t seem to help.
Then, on March 26, he collapsed on his kitchen floor. Paramedics were called.
“I knew something was wrong as they walked in,” said Jancsy.
One of the paramedics tossed Jancsy a face mask. It landed nearby and they asked him to pick it up and put it on.
“I said, ‘Brother, I can’t do anything without any help,’” Jancsy said.
With his body in its weakened state, Jancsy was physically unable to move. Based on his symptoms, the paramedics told him he had COVID-19 and that he was one of the first people in the area to get it.
When he arrived at the hospital, the doctors stabilized him, gave him supplemental oxygen and confirmed the paramedics’ suspicions. It wasn’t a cold, but COVID-19.
Otherwise healthy before the virus, Jancsy’s condition deteriorated and became bad enough that he needed to go on a ventilator. Things worsened from there.
“April 1, which happens to be my wife’s birthday, by the way, and our anniversary, I wound up in a coma,” said Jancsy.
Though he continued to fight the disease, his condition steadily declined and doctors told his family he wasn’t expected to survive. On April 9, the doctors made the decision to pull his feeding tube and wait for what they saw as the inevitable.
“So, one wild aspect of it was I died,” said Jancsy. “There was no pain, no physical pain, no nothing.”
Jancsy said he felt peaceful and calm and saw a brilliant white light, where he was visited by friends and relatives who had died. That included one friend, a fellow service member, who died a few years before.
“He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It’s good to see you. It’s not your time, Harold will take you back.’”
And then Jancsy woke up, revived by the medical team that had responded.
“The first thing I said when I woke up was, ‘Where’s Harold?’” he said.
That was April 15.
Jancsy said he never figured out who Harold was, but his condition began to improve steadily. He gradually got strong enough to no longer need supplemental oxygen. As the next few weeks passed, he went through intense physical therapy – learning to walk, write and feed himself again.
He also learned the rest of the world was also experiencing COVID-19, with infection rates and deaths rapidly rising across the globe.
“I didn’t realize we were in the midst of a global pandemic,” he said.
While fighting COVID-19 was hard enough, one of the toughest things, Jancsy said, was that his wife and father had also gotten the disease.
“I’d given it to my wife, unknowingly,” he said. “And then, as my father came over to help, I gave it to him as well, unknowingly.”
Jancsy’s wife and father did not get as sick as Jancsy and recovered, though Jancsy’s father also needed a ventilator for a time.
“You know, it was a nightmare at times,” Jancsy said of the experience. “It was a struggle.”
Getting through was possible, he said, in part because of his military training.
“If I wasn’t in good physical condition in the first place, I wouldn’t be where I am at now,” Jancsy said.
He also credited the support from his family for helping him survive.
“My emotional health was stable to begin with,” he said. “And it’s only gotten better because I have people to talk to.”
And he had his unit.
“I learned what my unit did for my family,” he said. “The unit started to deliver food. They made sure we had anything we needed.”
His unit also organized fundraisers and collected supplies and other essential items to bring to his family and the hospital staff treating him.
“My wife was telling me what they’d done over the weeks,” he said. “I recognized that in life or death, they were there.”
Even though he survived COVID-19, when the vaccine became available, he got it.
“I think it helps,” said Jancsy. “It helps all of us. It helps us to be ready.”