It was March 25, on a trip to New Hampshire with his daughter, Erin, that Jim Cracas first felt symptoms.
They were bringing her belongings home from her college dorm because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I felt like I had the flu — achy, cold, dehydrated,” said Cracas, owner and operator of Pickering Valley Feed & Farm in Exton, Pennsylvania. He was so cold, in fact, he was shaking.
But it wasn’t the flu, it was COVID-19. Nine days later, Cracas was on a ventilator in Paoli Hospital, where he remained for almost five days, fighting for his life. He’s now home and back to work, though not 100%.
“I was very lucky,” he said.
Everyone in his family also tested positive, Cracas said. Erin was asymptomatic; his son, Matthew, a recent college graduate, experienced a very mild case; and his wife, Penny, a nurse, was sick a little longer than Matthew.
After the trip to New Hampshire, Cracas’ condition got progressively worse.
“I just wasn’t breathing properly,” he said.
The morning of April 3, his wife took one look at him and said she was phoning 911. Normally, Cracas said he would’ve argued against calling an ambulance, but at that point, he just told her to do what she thought was best.
The reason she realized the situation was dire, he said, is because “my skin was literally gray in color.”
At the hospital, they whisked him in and set up IVs and other equipment “really, really fast,” Cracas said. He arrived there mid-morning, and by that evening his case was so serious the doctors told him, “We’re going to put you on a ventilator.”
His blood-oxygen level had dropped to 64%.
Cracas said his reaction was, “Am I that bad?” The whole thing seemed surreal, he said.
He was put to sleep as they attached him to the ventilator, and Cracas really doesn’t remember anything until the machine was taken off nearly five days later.
Cracas said he was told that he followed commands, and responded to his wife and children when he heard their voices over the phone. He also found out he ripped out the ventilator once.
Among the drugs used to treat his COVID-19 was hydroxychloroquine, he said.
When he was removed from the ventilator, Cracas said he was fed broth before graduating to solid food. “I lost 20 pounds,” he said.
Each day he got better, regaining skin color and more lung function. Doctors were considering discharging him while he was still on supplemental oxygen, but Cracas said he was weaned off by the time he was sent home April 13.
“The first week home I didn’t do much of anything,” he said. “I was trying to get my strength back.”
Then he started working a few hours a day at the store. Now he’s at six hours daily — not quite full time.
“I still get short of breath when I do something strenuous,” he said. Recovery will take a while.
Pickering Valley Feed & Farm is a “pet store, feed store, garden center all in one,” Cracas said. Its logo is Noah’s Ark, because with more than 14,000 items, you can shop for “crickets to elephants.”
After he got off the ventilator, his wife was told that Cracas was only given a 30% chance of making it when he was intubated. The hospital staff did an excellent job, he said, and he’ll never forget it.
At one point when he was hooked to the ventilator, a false report that Cracas had died was spread on social media.
The community has reached out during his family’s ordeal with an outpouring of cards, food and Facebook posts, said Cracas, who was visibly touched. “It’s just been overwhelming.”