THE BRONX — Court Officer Anibal Ortiz never thought the cough that began last February would turn into a life-altering disease that’d cost him his left arm and emotional health.
Ortiz, now 54, said a medical show depicting a patient going on a ventilator can trigger a panic attack, but he’s learning to navigate his new normal with help from his daughter, son-in-law, girlfriend, cousin and his son, a Bronx police officer.
“Bad dreams, PTSD, and anxiety,” Ortiz revealed to PIX11 from his living room in Co-op City. “The thing about PTSD and anxiety — it hits you when you’re not expecting it.”
Last March 12, the officer’s supervisor at the Harlem Community Justice Center advised him not to come into work the next day, because his cough was so bad.
Within a week, Ortiz’ daughter summoned an ambulance to his Bronx apartment building, because her father’s breathing was labored.
Ortiz made his daughter, Alyssa, his medical proxy but begged her not to allow doctors to intubate him and put him on a ventilator.
“To me, a ventilator means death,” Ortiz said, even though his daughter approved the intubation when it was clear he was severely ill.
Ortiz only spent five days on a ventilator.
He already had Type 2 diabetes as an underlying condition, so the blood and oxygen flow to his left arm was badly affected. Doctors at Montefiore Medical Center performed surgery to try to save the arm, but gangrene was setting in.
Ortiz said he was actually sent home in excruciating pain with his arm in terrible shape, with the bone exposed as his flesh died. His daughter felt helpless as he screamed throughout the night.
Ortiz landed back in the hospital and his daughter was asked to approve an amputation just below his left elbow in mid April.
“I often feel guilty about it,” Alyssa Ortiz Vidal told PIX11, “but I knew the surgery on his arm was necessary to save his life.”
The dutiful daughter took a two month leave from her job to help her father transition to life without his arm.
Ortiz said he arrived home to find an $1,800 dollar bill for the ambulance, along with multiple co-payments expected as part of his insurance plan.
“The former president said they were going to make this like a 9/11 situation,” Ortiz said, referring to the huge compensation fund set up 20 years ago after the Sept. 11 terror attacks killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
“The government still hasn’t done their part,” Ortiz told PIX11. “They still haven’t addressed who’s going to pay for all this.”
The Latino Court Officers Society, Inc. — led by President Jessica Hernandez — and the Fraternal Order of Court Officers NYS (known as FOCO) raised nearly $50,000 to assist Anibal Ortiz with expenses.
Union President Dennis Quirk checked in with Ortiz daily for months.
But the worry about his future led to depression and anxiety.
“I got this from going to work” Ortiz said. “I just went to work like I was supposed to.”
Ortiz said he did start noticing people coming to the courthouse wearing masks by March 2020. He was out sick by the time protective gloves and masks arrived at his workplace.
“Eight people got sick,” Ortiz said of his colleagues at the Harlem courthouse on 121 Street. “I got the worst of it. That’s just bad luck.”
Whether fair or not, he said he sometimes holds himself accountable.
“I don’t know who to be angry with,” Ortiz remarked, “but sometimes I’m angry with myself. Somehow, you say, ‘Oh, if I would have masked up, if I had protective equipment.'”
He holds the previous White House administration responsibly, too.
“We had a president then who said it was the flu, so we all thought it was the flu,” he said.
Insurance paid for a $60,000 prosthetic forearm and hand, but Ortiz said he can’t do that many daily routines with it.
He can’t lift weights the way he used to before his 9 a.m. shift started at work.
His cousin, Vic, does a five mile walk with him when the weather permits.
Ortiz did survive to witness a beautiful moment in October, when his daughter married her fiance in an intimate, backyard wedding.
“I started crying like a baby,” Ortiz said.
Father and daughter danced to a Tim McGraw song, “My Little Girl.”
“I just told her, ‘Thank you for saving my life,'” he said.
Ortiz is grateful to his longtime girlfriend, Diane, who helps with food shopping and cleaning at his apartment.
And one of his most joyful moments happened recently, when he was reunited with a colleague he met 16 years ago as a rookie court officer.
Sergeant Darrell Cross had spent 30 days on a ventilator battling COVID-19 and weeks in the hospital and in rehab.
The two met near a watch store in the Bronx and took a selfie.
“I consider Darrell Cross and me to be the luckiest people alive,” Ortiz said. “When we see each other, it’s like New Year’s Eve.”