The phone rang just after 10 p.m. on a Friday. Already frazzled with fear, she answered.
The caller, her phone said, was her husband.
That was impossible, she thought. Brian Patnoe had been in an induced coma, on a ventilator, battling the coronavirus. The last report she had was that he still had a fever.
As it turned out, the call was from a nurse at Mission Hospital. She had called on Brian’s phone. She wanted to FaceTime.
Nikki Patnoe braced herself for bad news. Since Brian had been in the hospital, “the beast,” as she called the virus, appeared to be winning.
On the nightmarish roller coaster ride, this was about to become a moment Nikki and her family would never forget. Down, down, down, slightly up, down, down. That’s the way this ride appeared to be going.
And then the nurse said, “Do you want to talk to your husband?”
Nikki screamed with joy, alerting the entire family. Their son, Jack, 20, ran up and down the hallways of their Ladera Ranch home yelling “(expletive) yeah.” Their daughter, Elise, 21, came into the room with the family dog, a boxer named Bianca.
The ventilator, that tubed machine that stretched down his throat and pumped his lungs, was gone. Brian is 62. He served in the Marines. He has, his family said, an otherworldly will to live.
“He was sitting up in bed,” Nikki said. “He looked good.”
Brian couldn’t speak above a whisper.
“Hi guys,” he said.
When he saw Bianca, he said what he always says, “Who’s a good girl?” For a fleeting moment, Nikki had her husband, and her kids had their dad back.
The call lasted about two minutes on the night of March 27, Brian’s ninth day on a ventilator.
“I slept like a human being that night,” Nikki said.
And as exhilarating as the call was, the next morning was even more crushing. This, Nikki said, is what COVID-19 does, it attacks your soul.
Two hours after they had cheered for Brian, he couldn’t breathe.
He was back on the ventilator. Another call came from the nursing station to tell Nikki the bad news.
“I was broken,” Nikki said from her porch this week while her visitor sat safely away on the lawn. “Our house became more silent than ever. Everybody retreated to their rooms. You felt dark and defeated.”
Here’s the thing about a Marine. He wasn’t finished fighting. And Nikki was just getting started. Soon their church would get involved. Then other churches. There were prayer chains. People started dropping off food and other supplies. The goodwill stretched around the world, even as far as Wuhan, China, the site of the initial outbreak that demonstrated the danger of the virus.
As Brian battled the beast, the Patnoes learned just how much love there was in their community.
Love, they learned, can be very powerful.
A good fit
Nikki was a hard rocker. Led Zeppelin was her favorite.
“We used to play 45s,” she said. “‘Stairway to Heaven’ took me away.”
She loved Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones.
She grew up in Orange and graduated from Canyon High in 1979. Nikki took some courses at Coastline Community College, but school was not for her. She got several jobs in advertising, and eventually a real estate license. She had a long relationship with a scuba diver, but that didn’t last.
She was 35 when she began dating through newspaper ads. It was the mid-1990s and things weren’t going well. She remembers several disastrous first dates. One guy had a long key chain. Nope. Another guy gave her a ride in his car, which smelled like body odor. Nope. One guy told her on the phone he looked like Richard Gere. He didn’t.
She gave herself one more chance.
In 1996, she answered an ad placed by Brian Patnoe. Title: Hello Catholic Cutie.
Her first thought … He’s spiritual.
Brian is one of six kids, raised poor in upstate New York. And yes, he is Catholic, and so is Nikki.
He joined the Marines to get away. He trained at Camp Pendleton and loved Southern California.
He was color-blind, so he couldn’t fly helicopters. He learned to fix them.
Nikki loved his sense of humor. They were married June 8, 1997. They lived in Tustin. Elise was born in 1998. Jack was born 17 months later in 1999. In 2001, the Patnoes moved to Ladera Ranch.
They got into children’s theater, which Elise loved, and baseball, football and basketball for Jack. They became members at Holy Trinity Catholic Church.
Brian eventually got a job selling Mercedes Benz financing to corporations. Nikki was a real estate agent.
Last Halloween, they dressed up like Uma Thurman and John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.”
They were a fun family.
‘Please don’t make me go’
On March 6, Brian and Nikki started a weekend getaway by seeing a Blake Shelton concert at Pechanga Casino near San Diego. The next day, they went to Imperial Beach.
They think Brian was infected that weekend.
On March 10, he wasn’t feeling well. He had no appetite, a slight fever and cotton mouth. By March 13, Brian asked Nikki to drive him to the doctor.
The doctor said he had a classic case of the flu. Brian got Tamiflu, an over-the-counter medication, and went home to ride it out.
By March 15, he was coughing and throwing up.
On March 17, he asked Nikki, “Please don’t make me go to the emergency room.” It was his 62nd birthday.
Nikki didn’t honor his wishes. On St. Patrick’s Day, she took him to the Mission Hospital ER. His son Jack helped him walk inside. He was tested for the coronavirus, but he was told it would be four to eight days before he got the results.
On March 18, he was put on a ventilator and under sedation.
“That’s when the (expletive) hit the fan,” Nikki said. She started thinking she and her children were also in jeopardy. She thought her husband was going to die.
On Friday, March 20, Brian’s test came back positive for COVID-19.
“It sounded like a death sentence,” Nikki said.
‘Never felt alone’
Nikki was posting every day on Facebook, asking for prayers.
Her friend, Pam McCoy, who also lives in Ladera Ranch, said the Mello-Roos taxes they pay in their neighborhood are worth it.
“The community never lets you down,” McCoy said.
Soon, groceries and meals were showing up on her doorstep.
She remembers posting on Facebook that she needed to go to the store, but she didn’t have a face mask.
By the time she opened her front door, there were 10 masks waiting for her.
“I never felt alone,” Nikki said. “I opened my mind and my heart like I never have before.”
Through a friend of a friend, she was connected to a Zoom conference with a doctor in Wuhan, China, which had been dealing with the coronavirus since the end of 2019.
“Wuhan really wanted to help,” Nikki said. “They were way ahead of us. They were very concerned about what was going to happen here. We weren’t prepared.”
Nikki put the Wuhan doctor in touch with Brian’s doctor at Mission Hospital. Brian’s treatment plan included what the Chinese had recommended: hydroxychloroquine and Remdesivir. Both are unproven drugs that are undergoing clinical trials around the world.
“I just felt despair,” Nikki said. “I can’t remember half of that meeting.”
‘Given a second chance’
Brian was on the ventilator between March 18 and 27. Then off for two hours (in which he talked to his family), and then back on again for almost another week.
It was during that second stint on the ventilator that a small bible study group decided to go to Mission Hospital to pray for Brian. Then the word got out.
On April 2, Pam McCoy parked her car in the lot in front of Macy’s so she could see the Mission Hospital floor where Brian was being treated.
Nikki arrived with her family, expecting a small group for prayer.
When they saw what was unfolding, Jack climbed on the roof of his mother’s car.
More than 200 cars were in the parking lot, flashing their lights. People were praying and singing.
“It was this amazing feeling of hope and love and support,” McCoy said. “It started for Brian, but it became something bigger.”
Then suddenly, an announcement. Brian Patnoe was off the ventilator.
This time, for good.
“It was a life-changing event,” Nikki said. “I knew then that everything was going to be OK. Everything good he had done in his life was being rewarded.
“He was given a second chance.”
Brian called his wife. He said. “I guess I’m a little mini-miracle.”
‘My dad is a beast’
Brian is now at the Mission Hospital rehabilitation center in Laguna Beach. He has had no physical contact with his family in the rehab center. He’s been told he’ll need about a week of rehab for every day he was on the ventilator. That’s about 14 weeks.
He’s still not able to walk on his own.
He is scheduled to come home to Ladera Ranch on Sunday. Nikki is fixing up a room downstairs with a bed for Brian.
She will have balloons, banners and a cake in the shape of a Lysol wipes container.
“You know how he did this?” Jack said. “My dad is a beast. God had his back.”
A bigger beast, as it turns out, than the coronavirus.
Brian, for his part, has had a lot of time to think. He sent a text describing what happens next in his life.
“First, I need to say that is hard to put into words the love I have for the doctors (Daniel R. Ponticiello and his thumbs up attitude and his colleagues) and the wonderful, caring, compassionate nurses at Mission Hospital,” Brian wrote. “They all worked to save my life. I will never forget them.
“I am surely going to be more spiritual as this has made me appreciate all of the prayers and much God loves us. I will find more ways to give to back to those in need. I will also be more patient and forgiving and will not worry about the small stuff. I will also work to be a better friend to those I have in my life now and to those I have lost touch with over the years because our relationships are fundamental to our health.
“For the rest of my life I will tell my family I love them every day (I had gotten out of this habit long ago ). I will thank God everyday for bringing Nikki into my life. She truly is my better half and an amazing woman and I am very blessed. Sometimes it takes a dramatic event like what I experienced to remind us of what’s most important, God, family, and friends.
“I will be a better Brian Patnoe with my second chance.”