UNION, NJ – Philip Pugliese, a patrolman of 23 years with the Union Police Department, received a hero’s welcome on Saturday when he returned home from the hospital after a long, extensive, terrifying, but ultimately successful, battle against COVID-19.

“I put out an email to let people know Phil would be going home,” said PBA Local Union 69 President, Union Police Detective Joe Sauer.  “I asked who would be available to help welcome him home.  The emails just kept coming in.”   Sauer said over 40 Union officers with nine radio cars, and officers and patrol cars from Pugliese's home town of Marlboro were on hand to welcome him home last weekend.

Debra Pugliese, Phil’s wife, said she was planning a welcome home surprise with family and friends when Sauer contacted her about a police reception.  “Joe went above and beyond,” she said.   “We had friends that we see often and friends that we have not seen in years, family and friends that traveled far to join in, family on FaceTime to see him arrive. It was an emotional day but so incredible with all the love you felt.”  Pugliese lives with Debra and children Ashley, 18, Alexa, 13, and Logan, 9. 

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“We wanted to celebrate Phil’s return home and let him know he wasn’t alone,” said Sauer.  “We are all with him.  We were excited one of our own got out of the hospital.  Phil’s a fighter.  He’s continuing to fight.”

Pugliese’s COVID-19 experience began on April 1 when he suffered with ear pain and sinus pressure.  He said the symptoms continued for a few days.  Pugliese said he has moderate asthma and when he experienced a tightness in his chest, it was the normal feeling he gets when getting sick with an upper respiratory illness.  “There were no signs or symptoms of COVID,” he said.

Pugliese, 49, said several days later he had a 102 fever and severe headache.  He said he quarantined himself in his bedroom until he could get tested for coronavirus.  Pugliese said none of his asthma medication helped.  “I felt like an elephant was on my chest.”   Pugliese said by midnight his breathing was unbearable, and his wife called 911.

He was taken to Hackensack Meridian Health Bayshore Medical Center because other hospitals were on divert and not accepting patients.  Once at the hospital, he received intravenous, a chest x-ray, and was tested for COVID-19 and the flu.  They provided him with asthma medication and within two hours he was released.

Pugliese said he was discharged at 4:00 a.m. and by 6:30 that night he was gasping for air.  He went back to the hospital and was told he was COVID-19 positive.  Healthcare professionals provided him with a prescription for medication and released him.

Pugliese said within a week of his symptoms first appearing his wife had excruciating joint pain for five days, and loss of taste and smell for two over weeks.  All three of their kids lost their taste and smell for a week.

“After discharge, I suffered at home with breathing episodes all day,” said Pugliese.  “My wife and kids were beside themselves watching me suffer.”   By Wednesday, Pugliese said it felt like someone was squeezing his lungs, and he went back to Bayshore Medical Center.  “My wife and girls were crying.  My son was yelling ‘Daddy, I don’t want you to die'.”  At the hospital, Pugliese was diagnosed with pneumonia and was given Hydrochloroquine.  He said he continued to struggle to breath, received oxygen, but felt he was getting worse. 

Pugliese said the doctors were recommending discharge to home five days later, but his wife requested another x-ray, and he was found to have double pneumonia.  “No one watches you all day like my wife did,” he said.  He said nurses and healthcare workers came in and out of his room taking vitals, giving medications, or helping if requested, “but it’s not the same.” 

“My wife was on FaceTime with me 12-14 hours a day watching me and giving me the strength to fight,” said Pugliese.  “She knew every breathing episode I was struggling through, and talked me through it.  She knew every time I was due for a medication, she knew my oxygen levels, heart rate all day long, she knew I was getting worse.”

Pugliese said the hardest part was that he couldn’t be with Debra.  “But I thank God for FaceTime, without it I would not have made it.”  He said he continued to deteriorate and “thought I was on my death bed.”  He said he could barely speak, everything was an effort, even texting was hard. “I felt myself getting weaker by the minute.” 

Pugliese’s difficult breathing episodes were lasting three, four, even five hours at a time. “Only my wife was able to talk me through them. We were both scared, but she is the most positive person in the world and convinced me if I stayed positive, I was getting through this.”

“The days were long, lonely, depressing, and frightening,” said Pugliese of his time in the hospital.   He said by April 20 he felt he was making some progress, “or I should say my wife convinced me that my breathing episodes went from hours long to an hour here and there.”  He said each day that week, his wife made him do exercises in bed, move his legs, stand up. "It was so hard but I did ten minutes and that exhausted me.”

Pugliese was discharged on Saturday, April 25, his 21st wedding anniversary.  Debra said nurses and staff at Bayshore Medical Center had a ‘clap out’ for Pugliese as he left the hospital.  “The amount of texts and calls I received from my friends, family and co-workers was incredible,” he said.  “The love and support was amazing. I heard from guys from high school that I have not spoken to in over 25 years. It’s truly amazing.”

“Having Philip coming home was the best feeling in the world,” said Debra.  “I’m not going to lie, it’s also scary. We are all traumatized from this.”  She said the experience has been  mentally, emotionally, and physically draining on the entire family, and it’s not over. “Phil was the most fit man I know, a healthy eater, who went to the gym everyday he wasn't at work since he was 15 years old. Now he can’t walk, he’s extremely weak, and on oxygen all day.”  She said their kids cried when they saw their dad get out of the car.  “This is going to be a long recovery,” she added.

“I could not have gotten through this without the support of my sisters, brother in laws, in-laws, aunt, uncle, cousins and every one of my amazing friends,” added Debra.