PATERSON, NJ – In a story of victory over an invisible enemy Tony Diaz, the Paterson Fire Department’s chief of apparatus, emerged from St. Joseph’s Medical Center Thursday to applause from hospital workers, city officials and firefighters. Diaz had been hospitalized for a week in what was characterized as a fight for his life.
While he’ll be at home, continuing to get well, for the next 15 days, Diaz looks forward to his return to the job. He even donned his fire department uniform shirt outside of the hospital, announcing, “I’m ready to get to work! We’ve got to get this done!”
Diaz, whose hospital stay included two days on a stretcher in the emergency room, said, “It wasn’t easy, but you get through it.”
The 51-year-old started to feel sick on April 10, but, based on his symptoms, figured it was the flu. “I had chills, discomfort in my bones and was cold,” he said. “But, by Monday the 13th, I started to look for a doctor to get checked and I called out of work. My record shows I never call out, so when I did, my fire chief, Brian McDermott, started worrying.”
“I’m the type of guy who shows up no matter what – I’m there – so when they notice I’m not coming in, they started worrying,” Diaz said.
His condition grew worse as the days went on. He had trouble sleeping at night due to difficulties breathing, often gasping for air, and developed a fever. “It’s amazing, at first you feel nothing. Then it hits like a forest fire with all the symptoms,” he said. “It got to a point where I had vertigo.”
On Wednesday, April 15, he was able to get tested for coronavirus at a screening site set up at William Paterson University. Within 24 hours, he received his results – positive for COVID-19 – and relayed the message to McDermott and the department’s battalion chiefs.
“The next thing I know, Chief McDermott and an ambulance from the department were outside and they took me right to St. Joe’s,” he said.
“On a scale of one to 10 of being scared, I was about a 10. Seeing what I saw at the hospital, it wasn’t easy – people from the morgue coming in and nurses crying during their shifts. I give all the guys and girls working there five stars for doing what they do every day.”
After a week at the hospital, Diaz can’t say enough good things about the doctors, nurses and staff at St. Joes - “I can’t express how grateful I am to them.”
He also credits his fire chief, who called him several times a day to see how he was doing. Battalion chiefs and even retired firefighters also checked in with him via phone. “The support I received at the hospital and through all the phone calls and text messages is what made me get better,” he said.
His doctors also suspect his positive mood played a role in his recovery, telling him it was “amazing” to see someone in such high spirits while fighting COVID-19. “The reason I got better is because of the people around me and those who reached out to me. That right there helped a lot,” he said.
Diaz is looking forward to his return to work, helping Paterson’s bravest battle against COVID-19.
“I have to keep my guys safe and keep the public safe,” he said of his upcoming return. “I gotta do my job. I can’t let this virus and situation keep me down. And, if a co-worker goes down, I’ll go down, too and make sure he makes it.”
On Friday Governor Phil Murphy announced that New Jersey had surpassed 100,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 5,600 virus-related deaths in New Jersey. In Paterson – one of the hardest hit in the state - 3,796 people have tested positive and 124 have died.
“My heart goes out to the families who lost people. I am blessed – I made it out,” Diaz said.
He also urged the general public to take as many safety precautions as possible during the pandemic, such as social distancing. “People also need to have patience and understanding right now, and we have to work together,” he said.
Mayor Andre Sayegh, who also recently recovered from COVID-19, was on-hand to celebrate the release of the 12-year department veteran on Thursday. During a Facebook Live video, the mayor said Diaz “almost didn’t make it” and would had died had he not be taken to the hospital.
“We were all praying for you and pulling for you,” said Sayegh, adding that Fire Chief Brian McDermott kept officials updated on a daily basis regarding Diaz’s prognosis. “All we hear about is death and despair, doom and gloom, but now, here we have hope and a hero,” Sayegh said.
Calling Diaz “a great friend and great leader,” McDermott said the fire department couldn’t be happier – especially given how frightening his condition was. “If he didn’t go that day to the hospital, he would not be here today,” McDermott said, thanking the staff at St. Joseph’s – and healthcare workers across the country – for their efforts on the frontline of the pandemic.
About 55 city firefighters tested positive for COVID-19 during a mass testing effort earlier this month, according to McDermott.
“The testing was amazing in identifying and quarantining of asymptomatic” fireifghters he said. “We have about 18 out for quarantine or sick from a high of 86 before testing.
Know a story we should share with readers? Email editor Steve Lenox and tell him about it.