Family of four plays at the beach with coastline in background

Paramedic beats back COVID-19

December 23, 2020 | UCI Health
Anaheim paramedic captain Joe Aldecoa, who has battled back from a severe case of COVID-19, enjoys park time with sons Ethan and Ryan.

Anaheim fire captain and paramedic Joe Aldecoa enjoys spending time with sons Ethan, center, and Ryan, after recovering from a severe case of COVID-19 that left him with 50% lung capacity.
Photo by JP Cordero for UCI Health

This Christmas, Anaheim fire captain and paramedic Joe Aldecoa is plenty grateful to be alive.

In the early days of the pandemic, he and his colleagues with Anaheim Fire & Rescue routinely transported COVID-19 patients from several nursing homes to hospitals for treatment.

In late May, Aldecoa developed symptoms of COVID-19 despite wearing the full complement of protective gear on his calls. He and six firefighters at his downtown station were stricken by the virus. The Whittier man spent four weeks at UCI Medical Center before being discharged in late June, severely weakened and with a portable oxygen tank. He worked hard to regain his strength and lung function.

In October, Aldecoa, 47, returned as fire captain and paramedic on Anaheim Truck 1. The father of three is happy to celebrate the holidays with his daughter and two sons, and glad to be back serving his community.

He also has words of advice for anyone who will listen.

"My paramedic partner was the first to test positive. We were going on COVID-19 calls to nursing homes. The nurses there were covered from head to toe in protective gear including respirators. We wore our N95 masks and our department’s protective gear. The nursing homes had areas with COVID-19 patients blocked off with plastic sheets. It’s hard to say where we contracted the virus.

My partner was the first to come down with a fever. I sent him home on a Friday. On Sunday, May 31, I started getting a headache and body aches. On Thursday, my fever shot up to 105, my oxygen stats were dropping and I was coughing up blood. I got scared.

I asked a buddy to take me to the ER at UCI. A chest X-ray showed my lungs were filled with fluid. They decided to admit me. That was June 4. Shortly after that I was moved to intensive care for about a week. The days are a blur. It was pretty nerve-racking. Eventually, I improved enough to move to a regular floor. But I couldn’t take deep breaths.

In late June, they said I could go home if I watched my oxygen levels and proved I could walk far enough to get up the 14 steps to my girlfriend’s apartment without getting fatigued. When I got released, it took me five minutes to climb those 14 steps. Before I got sick, I could run up the stairs in a 20-story building with 80 to 100 pounds of fire gear without getting winded. Since my release, I’ve improved substantially — it now takes me 10 seconds to climb the 14 steps.

Fighting COVID-19 was scary. You’re by yourself — no visitors. You get pretty down because you’re so unsure of the outcome. But my doctors and nurses had great bedside manners. I’d ask for something sweet and they would bring me Italian ice. I could tell they really cared.

I took all the precautions and followed all the recommendations to avoid the virus, and I still got sick. Even if it’s not you who gets sick, you could give it to your loved ones. Stay home, minimize your exposure to people, wear your mask, wash your hands and maintain your distance. This virus is real. We all need to take it seriously.

I’m very grateful to be able to return to work and continue to protect the citizens I serve."

— Joe Aldecoa