I’m a healthy 34-year-old who spent 17 days in a coma after contracting COVID-19. Now I’m trying to keep my barbershop in business.

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Miles Martinez had to be intubated and placed in a medically induced coma for 17 days, during which he lost 40 pounds. Photo by Wayn O’Hara Reid
  • Miles Martinez is a lifelong New Yorker who owns a barbershop called Tuft in the Lower East Side of Manhattan that has been decimated by COVID-19.
  • About 80% of the shop’s staff became sick with COVID-19, but Martinez was hit particularly hard: He had to be intubated and placed in a medically induced coma for 17 days, during which he lost 40 pounds.
  • The barbershop has been closed since March 13 and all of his staff has been furloughed, but they’re now making safety plans so they can reopen as soon as they’re allowed.
  • The experience taught Martinez the importance of being prepared for any situation, and he wants people to know that COVID-19 can seriously affect even young, healthy people who think they’re invincible.
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My name is Miles Martinez and I’m 34 years old. I was born and raised in NYC and currently live in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, with my wife, Cree, and our 3-year-old daughter, Elle. I’ve been cutting hair since I was 15 years old, and I now own a barbershop called Tuft on the Lower East Side that’s been open for two years. Before that, I worked at and was part-owner of Freeman’s Barbershop for many years.

When I first started feeling sick, I didn’t even realise it was COVID-19.

I had no pre-existing health conditions. I was in the process of remodeling my bathroom, and I thought I had just been working too hard or breathing in too much dust. But after about five days, I realised that I couldn’t ignore my high fever and continuous coughing any longer. On March 15, I did a virtual visit with a doctor at New York Presbyterian Weill-Cornell and qualified to receive a test.

When I got to the hospital, they immediately put me in isolation, assessed my symptoms and vital signs, and gave me the nose swab test. I was admitted that night and got my results the next evening – positive for COVID-19.

For the first week in the hospital, I literally couldn’t talk without coughing.

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Martinez outside of his barbershop, Tuft. Photo by Wayn O’Hara Reid

I felt terrible, had a really high fever every day, and had a lot of trouble breathing, too. It was hard to talk to my family, and the nurses and doctors weren’t really telling me what was going on. They only gave me Tylenol for my fever, which didn’t really help. At the end of the week, I was finally put on a five-day dose of hydroxychloroquine.

After days of the same pain, the doctors suggested having me intubated and put into a medically induced coma to give my lungs a rest, for what they initially said would be about five to seven days. The idea sounded terrifying at first, but after feeling so sick for so long, I realised that it was the best thing for my condition and I accepted it. As soon as I found out that it was actually happening, I FaceTimed with my wife and told her. She was very scared and it was such a strange feeling when we said “goodbye” because neither of us were sure if it was temporary or permanent.

In the very early morning hours on March 23, I was transferred to the cardiac ICU to be intubated and put on a ventilator for 17 days. From what I’ve been told (although I wasn’t aware when it was happening), my path during this time took many twists and turns. There were many days that the doctors and my family thought might be my last, and it became increasingly difficult to identify what was making me so sick. I did not respond to the hydroxychloroquine, and we also went through several other types of medications that did not help my condition improve.

After five days, my fevers wouldn’t stop, and antibiotics weren’t working.

The medical staff thought I might have a bacterial pneumonia from being on the ventilator for so long. I also had issues with my lungs, kidneys, and heart.

Ultimately, it turned out that my immune system was overreacting and a cytokine storm was taking place in my body – which is when the body starts to attack its own cells and tissues rather than just fighting off the virus. Only after several rounds of intense steroids, I finally began to turn a corner. Apparently I was giving signs that I was “ready” to be taken off the ventilator, and even in my sedated state, I was quite aggressive about making this clear.

When I finally ‘came back,’ it felt like my brain was a computer that had been restarted.

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The author with his daughter, Elle. Courtesy photo

When I was extubated on April 8, I had a severe case of what is called ‘ICU delirium,’ a condition in which patients have intense, vivid hallucinations and irrational thoughts. It was impossible for me to determine what was real and what was not for several days. When I first awoke, I was told that I was very aggressive toward the doctors and nurses and actually had to be physically restrained, which I don’t remember. I was unable to speak, walk, move my limbs, sit up, or even eat food or drink water.

About a week after I was extubated, I was transferred to a less severe ICU, where I stayed for three days before moving to a rehab facility where I received intense physical, occupational, and speech therapy. I was in rehab for about a week before being released to go home.

I lost 40 pounds in 17 days while I was in the coma.

It took a while for me to fully grasp what had happened to me (and to the world) during those 17 days I was in a coma, right at the beginning of when things in New York took a turn for the worse.

Once I got home, I also began to have several cardiac issues that had not occurred in the hospital. My heart rate became extremely elevated, my blood pressure was through the roof, and my oxygen levels dropped significantly several times. I had to put my physical therapy sessions on hold until these issues were under control.

It took several weeks, but after seeing two cardiologists, many EKGs and echocardiograms, and the help of three medications that I’m still on, my condition has finally started to stabilise. I am also on a completely salt-free diet, and after being home for four weeks, I resumed physical therapy to start rebuilding my strength.

It turns out that 80% of my barbershop employees also contracted COVID-19.

We’re not entirely sure how we all got it. It affected everyone differently, and no one had it as bad as I did. Thankfully, everyone who was sick is now fully recovered.

We had to close the shop on March 13, and still don’t know when we can reopen.

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Inside Tuft barbershop. Courtesy photo

As with most businesses, COVID-19 has impacted us significantly. My barbers were furloughed until we can officially reopen in accordance with NYC guidelines. Needless to say, it’s been a scary time for my business and all of my employees.

While I was in the hospital, my wife started a GoFundMe account to help support me, the shop, and all of our barbers, which thankfully has been a big help during this time. I am beyond grateful for the Tuft family and how much they all supported one another (and the shop) to make it through. We truly are all a family, and that showed more than ever during this time.

I’m still so grateful for the overwhelming amount of support that was shown during my time in the hospital. The shop community came out and supported us in such an impactful way. Friends, family, coworkers, clients, nearby businesses, and even other barbershops helped keep Tuft’s doors open. Not only were we able to raise the amount of money we needed to stay in business, we were also able to see firsthand the tremendous amount of love people have for Tuft, which to me is absolutely invaluable.

I plan on taking every safety precaution possible when we are able to reopen.

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The staff at Tuft. Courtesy photo

Because I have a true understanding of just how dangerous this virus can be, I feel that I have an obligation to set a high standard for safety – maybe even more so than other barbershops in the city.

Our safety plans include mandatory masks at all times, sterilization of barber chairs and stations after each appointment, sanitation of all doorknobs, seats, and surfaces, barriers between barber chairs, extensive disposable PPE for the barbers (and available to clients as well) to be changed after each client, disposable capes for clients, and more. We have also installed a controlled entry system to limit the capacity of clients in the shop at one time.

I want people to know that COVID-19 can seriously affect even young, healthy people who think they’re invincible.

This experience has also taught me, as a business owner, the importance of being prepared (both financially and logistically) for any situation. Anything can happen, and it’s the ability to adapt that can make or break the future of a business.

I am confident that my barbershop will be able to fully recover, and come back stronger than ever, primarily due to the outpouring of support we received when we were at our lowest point. For the community that supported us, I will be eternally grateful.