NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – It was taking all of Antonio Calcado’s considerable strength and stamina to safeguard Rutgers as it faced an unprecedented emergency. This was March, COVID-19 was emerging as a deadly threat and how to mitigate its spread had consumed nearly every moment of his work week. He left the office on Friday looking forward to some relaxation.
Less than 48 hours later, he was fighting for his life in a hospital bed.
“I had these thoughts – they are dark - and there were times I really didn't believe I would make it and I literally thought, ‘I'm going to just die here alone,’” Calcado said.
This is the story of how COVID-19 had rendered powerless the Executive Vice President For Strategic Planning and Operations, Chief Operating Officer and, rather ironically, the head of the COVID-19 Task Force at Rutgers.
It’s also a cautionary tale of the enormous power and insidious nature of the virus told by a man who wasn’t sure he would live to tell about it.
Calcado has since resumed his administrative duties and was seen with mask in place at Jonathan Holloway’s first news conference as university president last week. But in an interview with TAPinto New Brunswick, Calcado talks about the four nights he lied in the hospital, struggled to collect his thoughts as his blood became oxygen-depleted, and wondered if he was going to die.
“I think the story is important,” he said. “So, I tell people my story not because I'm looking for sympathy or something like that. That's not necessary. I tell them because I think they need to understand what this virus can do to you. And I think many just think it's not a common cold. It's deadly and it's quick and it can affect you in ways that you just can't imagine.”
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February was a time when hardly anyone was wearing masks, “social distancing” was not part of the lexicon and store shelves were still fully stocked with hand sanitizer. Yet, COVID-19 had Calcado’s undivided attention.
That month, he assembled top officials from a wide range of university operations, including finance, facilities and public safety, and formed the school’s COVID-19 Task Force.
Calcado began leading a daily 8 a.m. meeting with its members, typically followed by daily briefings from the chancellors at Rutgers campuses in New Brunswick, Camden and Newark, as well as the Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences school.
He kept an eye on what was happening in places such as Italy, where a shortage of equipment left doctors to sometimes decide which patient would get a ventilator and which one would surely die.
The onslaught of COVID-19 hit here in March, and New Jersey and neighboring New York in quick order became the epicenters for coronavirus cases.
New Jersey reported its first COVID-19 fatality March 10. That same day, Rutgers announced it would be sending students home early for spring break while it decided its next step. Turns out, the students never returned, as the school moved all instruction on line.
At Rutgers-New Brunswick, where some 38,000 students study everything from Shakespeare to Sanskrit to Springsteen, it became a daily question of how best to move forward.
One day, it was what do we do about the 5,000 or so students living at Rutgers-New Brunswick who had nowhere to go. The next, it was a question of how to administer midterms.
Calcado remembers feeling exhausted after a meeting on March 27 and decided to return to his home in Livingston.
He had a fever that would come and go and a slight cough, but not some other symptoms such as a sore throat or labored breathing that were regarded as the tale-tell signs of COVID-19.
He spent Saturday on the couch, but by the following morning, he was running a 104 fever and was gasping for air.
“That’s when I knew it was something bad, something was wrong,” Calcado said. “You just your body, when something’s not right.”
At 7:30 a.m. or so, his wife dropped him off at RWJBarnabas Hospital in Livingston.
Within hours, he was wondering if he would ever see her again.
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Antonio M. Calcado comes through the door with a plan in hand and the energy to put it into action.
That’s been his M.O. as he’s moved from vice president of facilities to capital planning, senior vice president of institutional planning and operations to a bunch of other long, fancy titles at Rutgers.
The span of his authority includes oversight of the capital construction program, leading institutional planning and strategic endeavors and serving as the chief operating officer managing a $450 million operating budget inclusive of auxiliary, retail, facilities, transportation, capital planning and construction, safety and emergency services.
At 58, he cuts a distinguished figure, right down to his thick-frame glasses. He’s a workout warrior, too, typically hitting the gym five days a week.
Looking back, being in excellent health – no underlying medical conditions such as diabetes or asthma – is what made it so surprising that COVID-19 hit him so hard.
But, there he was March 29, with double pneumonia and a plummeting blood-oxygen level. When a hospital bed became available at about 10 p.m., he was put on a high-flow oxygen machine and treated with over-the-counter medicine typically givent to someone with the flu.
For several days, he was too weak to move. His thoughts were disjointed from a lack of oxygen.
“I was convinced that this is not going to end well,” Calcado said. “And it isn't a matter of, you know, trying to think happy thoughts because you just can't get there.”
It would be four grueling days before his fever broke and he began to feel better. He was eventually sent home with an oxygen machine. Several more weeks passed before he returned to work.
You can’t go through something like Calcado went through and not be changed. He jokes that he doesn’t buy cheap win anymore.
Kidding aside, Calcado said his grudge match with COVID-19 has not-so-subtly changed how he goes about helping run the university. As he puts it, “It makes it easier to err on the side of caution.”
COVID-19 may have robbed him of several weeks from his life, but it couldn't touch his optimism. It serves him well as he prepares for the fall semester.
“We're not going back to what we were for a very long time, if ever,” Calcado said. “We're going to learn lessons here that will be incorporated as we move forward. You know what the best attitude is? We accept, we work together, we move on, and we build a better world. That's the best attitude. I don’t know if we’ll ever look like last September. I tell my team all the time, don't have that expectation. But, we're going be better. We’re not going to be worse, we’re going to be better.”