Doctors have given Sayville native Larry Kelly, one of New York’s first COVID-19 patients, little chance of survival. He spent 51 days in a coma and on a ventilator.
But on Sunday, Kelly will celebrate another Easter after recovering from near death.
His wife and daughter had been called to say goodbye to him at March 2020, and were asked how long he should be kept on life support.
Then on Easter Sunday 2020, Kelly briefly opened her eyes. This was the start of what medical personnel describe as a seemingly inexplicable healing.
For hundreds of relatives, friends and others across the country who got to know him through social media and rooted for him, he is “Miracle Larry”.
“What happened to me isn’t supposed to happen,” Kelly said. “I believe that I was helped by a supreme being. Being raised Catholic, I can only describe this as God. But there was definitely a spirit.
Two years later, Kelly, 66, is grateful to be alive this Easter Sunday.
He is grateful to his family, doctors and nurses, and a group of longtime friends from Sayville High School who prayed for him and helped pay for his long road to rehabilitation once he was released from the hospital.
Kelly, a tri-sport varsity high school athlete in wrestling, baseball, and soccer, is a retired teacher and supervisor in the New York public school system. There, Kelly developed a program in which he and his team taught suspended high school students for up to three months, with the goal of sending them back to their regular school.
120 days of treatment
Kelly spent 128 days in hospital and in rehab. It was at the height of a pandemic that had turned the city into a grim global hotspot, with refrigerated trucks holding back the dead as morgues overflowed.
On the day of his departure, 150 supporters gathered outside a rehab center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he lives, with signs and face masks saying “Miracle Larry 128 days.”
He was pushed onto the sidewalk in a wheelchair outside his favorite hangout, The Dive, a bar that had become a gathering place for supporters cheering him on to beat COVID. A handmade sign hung in the window: “Let’s Go Miracle Larry.” He is always there.
He told reporters he believed prayers were essential to his recovery and that “my wife saved my life. She wouldn’t let them pull the plug.
Kelly was a rare bright spot amid the worst pandemic in a century.
Today, the medical workers who treated him are still amazed that he survived.
Nurse stunned by decline
Jessica Montanaro, the nurse who admitted Kelly to the trauma ICU at Mt. Sinai Morningside Hospital near Columbia University, said he arrived on March 17, 2020 – St. Patrick – tanned after vacation in Florida. He was having trouble breathing, she said, but was able to communicate and didn’t look too sick.
Two days later, after returning from a day off, he looked “half dead”, she said.
“I remember being completely in shock,” she said. “I’m a trauma nurse, I run the ICU clinically, I’ve seen people sick like this, but not in two days from what he looked like when he arrived.”
“I remember being stunned, saying, ‘Is this what COVID does?’ ”
Montanaro was one of the medical workers who told Kelly’s wife, Dawn, and one of his two daughters, Jackie, on March 28, 2020, that he was near death and kindly asked what they wanted to do about the life support system that was keeping him alive.
“If you were to consider him a stranger you would go, he looks dead. He was not moving. He wasn’t interacting. You could go in there and turn him on his stomach and poke him with a needle – there was no movement,” she said.
Today, she is mystified but happy that he survived. She, Kelly and their families became close friends.
“He’s a miracle, really. He’s really one of the few successes we’ve had,” Montanaro said. , the first two months that have truly been the most hellish in New York in our intensive care unit.”
High school friends help
Two months ago, Kelly visited the hospital workers who helped save her life.
“I’m crying, thanking them all for never giving up on me,” Kelly recalled. “They cry saying, ‘Mr. Kelly, you’re the reason we kept going. Which kind of blew me away, made me cry even more.
The other group that helped Kelly through were his high school buddies from Sayville who have remained close since graduating in 1973.
Dr. Jack Cush, a Dallas rheumatologist who still has a home in Sayville, has known Kelly since kindergarten. He called the hospital almost daily to get updates on Kelly and offer suggestions for her care.
Cush regularly sent Montanaro and his beleaguered staff lunches, dinners, salads, pizzas, sodas, ice cream — both to thank them for their work and to keep communication open. Some delicatessens wouldn’t even deliver orders as high as $200 because they were afraid to enter the hospital, Cush said.
He kept Kelly’s pals in Sayville informed across the country, from Portland, Oregon, to San Diego, Kansas City, Tampa, Atlanta and Washington, DC. They, in turn, sent a message to their network of contacts.
As Kelly’s case gained attention on Facebook and other venues, prayer groups sprang up across the country. All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills dedicated a Zoom service to praying for Kelly to live. A prominent member there, Colleen Dodson, had previously managed Kelly – a part-time actor and the author of an Off-Broadway play about the 1919 Black Sox scandal which premiered in 1986.
“It shows the power of prayer,” Kelly said. “There were so many people”
Cush and the Sayville Group joined in intensely for Easter weekend 2020 prayers when Cush – based on reports he received from hospital staff – was convinced Kelly was on the verge of death.
“It was bad,” Cush recalled. “If you have seizures for six hours straight, you risk frying your brain. He’s been convulsing for almost a week straight. He has brain bleeds” as well as brain swelling.
Massive amounts of drugs were keeping him alive, Montanaro said.
But the day after Cush told the group to prepare for Kelly’s impending death, Kelly briefly opened his eyes, on April 12, 2020, nearly a month after he was admitted to the hospital.
Kelly had been moved to a makeshift intensive care unit at Mount Sinai. When a nurse broke the news to Montanaro, she was stunned.
“I’m like, no way. I do not believe it. I really thought he was going to die,” she said. That day in New York, 573 people died of COVID-19.
Kelly slowly began to come back, and in June was transferred to an Upper West Side rehabilitation center.
He was still in bad shape. He couldn’t eat for weeks because he had lost his swallowing muscle with the breathing tube in his throat for so long. He needed speech therapy to relearn how to speak.
A major triumph came when he was able to walk seven steps with a cane.
After returning home in July, the long quagmire of rehabilitation continued. When his insurance would no longer pay for therapy, his Sayville buddies stepped in and paid for his therapy for all of 2021.
Today, Kelly is almost himself – a charismatic, wise New Yorker with an infectious laugh and opinions on everything. He and a partner wrote a screenplay about his experience coming back from the dead.
He still has some problems. He has a constant tingling sensation in his hands and right foot, which he had to relearn to walk.
But he considers these minor inconveniences and savors every minute of his life.
This Easter, he and his wife will visit their daughter, Jackie, in Buffalo. It will be a special gathering. Both stood by Kelly’s side through the darkest times, believing he would make it through one way or another.
And Kelly recalls the last text he sent his wife before he went into a coma: “I promise I’ll never stop fighting.”