Doctor worried he'd lose pastor to COVID-19 says he prayed and things began to change

Dr. Robin Varghese (L), heart surgeon at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City who runs the cardiac surgery ICU, is seen here with Pastor Benjamin Thomas (R), who recovered from COVID-19 after a 100-day fight. | Screenshot: Mount Sinai Hospital

NEW YORK — As the new coronavirus was still ravaging victims at The Mount Sinai Hospital on April 19, Dr. Robin Varghese was worried there was nothing he could do to help then comatose Queens Pastor Benjamin Thomas recover from the virus.

“I was on call that night and he was in the worst shape and many of our team members who were rooting for him were also losing hope as was I,” said Varghese in a video shared by Mount Sinai with The Christian Post.

Only weeks earlier in late March, Thomas had been busy doing God’s work with his congregation at The Queens Church of God.  

He and his congregation had been engaged in an annual 21-day fast for revival. People were only just beginning to understand the real threat of the virus and social distancing was still fairly new. Nevertheless, said Thomas, his church felt the weight of the moment enough to start praying for healthcare workers too.

Then some time near the end of March, Thomas told CP he developed a fever that refused to go away.

“I took Tylenol, Motrin, the temperature was not going down,” recalled the preacher, who is in his 50s. He said he has been preaching for more than 30 years and had never been out sick from his job until then.

On March 23, he went to an urgent care facility and he was told they were not accepting patients with a fever “or anything.” He was eventually accepted by a health facility a few miles away and they gave him the dreaded news.

“They checked for COVID-19. I was positive. They told me I cannot go home,” he said from his East Meadow home.

He was then taken to Plainview Hospital where he was given antibiotics but they could not admit him because “there was no room in the hospital.”

Thomas said he was told if his condition got worse at home, he should call 911 and he would be sent back to the hospital. After taking the antibiotics and staying home, his fever didn’t go away. He also started experiencing shortness of breath. Four days later, on March 27, his frantic wife dialed 911. He was rushed to Nassau University Medical Center alone. His wife could not accompany him due to COVID-19 restrictions.

What happened over the next several weeks, the pastor said, he only recalls from other people's memories.

“I walked into the ambulance. That’s all I remember,” he said.

Thomas said when he got to the medical center he was placed on a ventilator.

“They told me I said ‘put me on the ventilator,’ which I don’t remember. I was there for almost two weeks. They were trying to transfer me to Mount Sinai under Dr. Varghese. My family reached out to him. ‘Can you help us?’” 

At this point, his church had started a chain prayer for him that went global.

A view of the entrance to Mount Sinai Hospital during the coronavirus pandemic on May 14, 2020 in New York City. | Getty Images/Cindy Ord

In his recorded statement from Mount Sinai, Dr. Varghese, who is a heart surgeon and runs the cardiac surgery ICU at Mount Sinai, explained how difficult it was to transport the pastor.

“We made a plan to bring him to Mount Sinai and we did that really at the end of March. Transporting him was a high risk venture because he was on maximal oxygen support. He came over, thankfully, safe and sound to our intensive care unit,” he said.

“During the first couple of weeks of April we were not making much headway and there was one point in particular which was the night of April 19th.”

He explained that he and his team had done everything they could to save Thomas’ life but nothing would work. So that night, Varghese said he went to Thomas’ room and cried out to God.

“At that point, I really went into his room late at night and I was on call as I said and I really just told God there is nothing else I can offer Him. He’s got to take over. We’ve given him everything that modern medicine can throw at him,” the heart surgeon said.

After crying out to God, Varghese said he decided to study the case some more and got some fresh ideas, which he and his team implemented to treat the Queens preacher. And he began to improve.

“At that point, that really was his worst night and since then he started to make slow, very slow but steady progress. His lungs were just ravaged by the COVID-19 virus and he had been in an induced coma for over six weeks. By the middle of May we started to see hope that he was going to make it and we’re very happy that he continued to progress and he started to wake up,” Varghese said.

“We’re thankful for all the people who were continuing to pray for him because we know that that was a very important part of his recovery along with the care by our intensive care team.”

Mount Sinai Chaplain Rocky Walker said when he first spoke with Thomas after he came out of his coma, he asked him to talk about the 54 days he missed while he was in a coma. Thomas cried when he heard about his missed days.

“It just goes to show the power of God. We can’t understand or explain what happened to the others but we do know what happened here. And we’re so thankful,” Walker said.

Thomas detailed that emotional moment, saying, “The chaplain is the first one that [came and told me about it]. Chaplain Rocky came to me and said, ‘Pastor, I was with you from day one. Under my care there are many people who are affected by COVID-19.’ He said, ‘I don’t know what happened to the others but you are the only one which I know came back to life in that area.’ Saying ‘your case was the worst out of all of them.’

“I still haven’t seen any pictures. They haven’t given to me yet. Slowly, slowly, slowly. They don’t want me to have a big shock.”

It was hard not just for Thomas but for his wife, with whom he shares a 17-year-old daughter.

He explained that as the virus began to sweep the state around the time he was first hospitalized, his wife was alone with her daughter. She was unable to visit him and no one could visit her because of the lockdown.

She became so depressed, she had to be hospitalized for 17 days.

“She got panicked. She doesn’t know what to do. She cannot see me. She got into depression. She was in the hospital for 17 days. The same hospital I was in. When I was transferring, she was on another floor getting treatment. She went through a very tough time but my 17-year-old daughter, God gave her the strength. She did not give up,” Thomas said.

“By the grace of God, we overcame that issue. And by the grace of God, I overcame COVID-19. I came home on July 2nd. I’m recovering, limiting the visitors,” he said.

He said he was told in both hospitals where he was treated that several times his family was called and told doctors were losing hope.

“Nothing they could do,” Thomas said.

“At Nassau Hospital, people who were with me, I believe almost 40 people died, they literally [took] the bodies in garbage bags and put in the outside trailer with the freezer. People left and right were dying.”

The pastor said he is grateful to have had a doctor like Varghese who knows how to pray.

Dr. Varghese is “a great man of God,” he said, who wasn’t afraid to “lift the name of Jesus” in his time of need.

The Queens pastor, who is still recovering at home and will have to be assisted with oxygen for a while, said he hopes to get back to his congregation eventually. He currently connects with them through Zoom and other online platforms.

He urged the church to keep praying because “it works.”

“Never give up. Prayer works. No matter what. We see miracles … I’m a living miracle. The prayer of the church works,” he said. “I was dead couple of times at least in the last four months and God kept me. God brought me back to fulfill that purpose.”

He also warned the general public to take the virus seriously by wearing a mask.

“I was a perfectly healthy person, spiritually doing God’s work, fully dedicated to God and His family to do God’s work. Careful, kept the social distancing … I got sick and I got sick hard. So COVID-19, take it seriously. It doesn’t discriminate,” he said.

As of Wednesday, 408,000 people in New York State have been infected by the new coronavirus and more than 32,000 have died. More than half of the infections were registered in New York City and more than two thirds of the deaths also came from New York City. The CDC reported more than 3.3 millions infections nationwide on Tuesday and more than 135,000 deaths.

As of Wednesday, 408,000 people in New York State have been infected by the new coronavirus and more than 32,000 have died. More than half of the infections were registered in New York City and more than two thirds of the deaths also came from New York City. The CDC reported more than 3.3 millions infections nationwide on Tuesday and more than 135,000 deaths.

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