WAYNE, NJ - It was March 28 when Wayne firefighter Albert “Al” Piombo, the former Chief of Preakness Volunteer Fire Company #4, began to feel ill with chills, fever and extreme fatigue. It was a scary time for him and his wife Sue.
Al and Sue are lifetime Wayne residents. They both graduated from Wayne Valley High School, and that same year Al volunteered for the Wayne Fire Department. Over the course of forty-two years as a volunteer firefighter, Al reached the pinnacle, serving as Chief of Preakness Volunteer Company #4 several times.
It was as a firefighter that Al became good friends with fellow volunteer, Dr. James Lampariello, a primary care physician that has been serving Wayne for over thirty years. This relationship proved valuable over the decades but never more than over the last few weeks.
Al reached out to his fellow firefighter, his friend and doctor, and with worry in his heart explained his symptoms. Lampariello kept him calm, but they both feared that this was the coronavirus. “We arranged for him to get outpatient testing,” said Lampariello.
Three days later they learned he had tested positive.
“We were both afraid when we got the news,” said Sue. “But his symptoms weren’t severe at first.” Sue turned to prayer and treated Al from home as best she could. Lampariello checked in with his friend on a daily basis.
“It was on April 5, Palm Sunday, that Al took a turn for the worst,” said Sue. Al had developed a cough, shortness of breath and was very weak.
Lampariello was worried. “I’ve seen patients with the virus turn-around quickly, but the fact that Al was worsening coming into week two was very concerning,’ he said. “I suggested that he go to Chilton for more evaluations.”
Al needed an ambulance to get to the hospital, as he was too weak to walk very far.
According to Lamapariello, within twenty-four hours at the hospital evaluations showed the oxygen concentration in Al’s bloodstream was too low. "They intubated him and put him on a ventilator," said Lampariello
Although Lampariello knew his friend was in good hands at Chilton, a bed opened up at the Morristown Medical Center Intensive Care Unit two days later, and Al’s healthcare team decided to move him there. “It turned out to be a great decision,” said Al's doctor.
At Morristown, Al was kept on a ventilator and treated with Hydrochloroquine, Zithromax (Zpack), a series of steroids, and supplements such as Zinc and Vitamin C.
Every day, Lampariello was in contact with the care teams, both at Chilton and in Morristown. They kept him abreast of Al’s condition. He would then contact Sue and translate the medical jargon into lay terms for her to understand.
Sue could not stay by her husband’s side during the ordeal. Because of the potential risk of spreading the contagion, no visitors were allowed at either hospital. She spent twelve days alone in her house praying and leaning heavily on her faith, but she never felt alone.
“My cell phone rang non-stop with concerned family and friends who were providing great support to me,” said Sue. Many friends and neighbors dropped off hot meals for her, which were a comfort.
“I was praying for the best, and bracing for the worst,” she said. “I had, and continue to have, strong faith in God, in his doctor and friend, Dr. James Lampariello, and the medical profession that was treating him.”
Sue’s faith paid off. Al was weaned off the ventilator as his oxygen concentrations came back and his strength returned. On April 11, Al was off the ventilator completely.
“Each day, there was a little more improvement and when he was finally breathing on his own, that was a big relief,” said Lampariello.
Happiness and hopefulness was how the doctor described his conversation with Sue when they knew Al was going to be ok. “It was incredible,” said Lamapriello. “As firefighters, I relied on him to watch over my life and vice versa. It was a really special moment to know that he was doing well and a major relief.”
“I was so very thankful that our prayers were answered,” said Sue.
Lampariello was impressed with the care that Al received at Morristown Medical Center. “He really turned the corner faster than I’ve seen other people,” the doctor said. “For him to do as well as he did, as rapidly as he did, is a testament to his strength and to the level of care he was receiving.”
On April 12, Sue was able to have a FaceTime call with her husband and communicate with him directly for the first time since he was admitted. There were tears and there was joy.
Al was moved out of the ICU on Wednesday, April 15 and released to Sue's care at home on Friday, April 17. The long ordeal wasn’t completely over, but the worst was in the past.
During all of this, Lampariello also served as the liaison to the volunteers in the Wayne Fire Department who were following Al’s case daily. “He had the whole army of the fire department sending him prayers," said Lampariello.
Current Chief of Al’s fire company, Sam Shakkour explained that the entire company is like a family, and this family was worried about their brother.
Fifty-three-year Company #4 volunteer, John Babitz added: “When one of us gets hurt, we all get hurt; when one of us has a baby, we all have that baby. So, it really hit home when we found out about Al. It was scary.”
“Jimmy kept giving us updates,” said Shakkour, referring to Dr. Lampariello. These updates were then shared with the volunteers of Company #4 on a group email. When they all learned that Al was off the respirator and coming home, there was a flood of emails expressing relief, joy and thanks to God.
“Everybody was thrilled,” said Shakkour with a big smile.
On April 19, Al sat outside his house in a folding chair still feeling weak, but hopeful as he watched a parade of over forty emergency vehicles from Wayne’s Fire Department and Memorial First Aid Squad drive past his house with lights flashing, and sirens blaring.
It was his first responder family coming to welcome him home and show him their love.
“He was emotionally overwhelmed,” said Sue of the parade.
The parade wasn’t only for Al, it was for everyone who supported him and his wife.
With obvious joy in his tone, Lampariello said: “That parade…it was happiness on a beautiful day, with warm sunshine on your face. When there’s been so much in terms of sadness and anxiety, that day was relieving and calming and soothing. It was inspiring for all of us. We derive strength from each other as brother and sister firefighters. We support each other, we take care of each other. It was a very comforting day and that makes a difference for everyone during this time of stress.”
“When I rode the past the house and saw him there, it was like a hundred-pound weight was lifted off my back,” said Babitz. “You know, you hear that he’s doing better, but when I saw him smiling and waving back at us, that’s when I really knew we were past the bad times.”
Later, Al asked his friend, Dr. Lampariello why they had this parade for him. “I’m not a hero,” he said.
“You are a hero,” said Lampariello. “Your body got through something that a lot of bodies can’t get through.”
It was purely the act of surviving that desperate situation, when so many others haven’t, that gave hope to his brother and sister first responders and to all of Wayne Township.
“We just want to thank everyone who supported us during this,” said Sue with great emotion. “We are very grateful and humbled by all the love and caring that everyone showed for us during this difficult time.”
Wayne Mayor Chris Vergano has known Al for more than thirty years, going back to the Mayor’s days volunteering on the First Aid Squad. “I was so happy to hear that he was able to come home and be with his family. He has been a dedicated member of the Fire Department for more than forty years, and is just a super, super guy.”
For all of us during this pandemic, Al’s story of survival is like a ray of light piercing the darkness, and now that he’s back home, Wayne Township is a better place.