Charlie Parker graduated from Riverhead High School in 1969, then did construction and other jobs around town, played a mean bass in Curtis Highsmith’s band, Little Curtis and the Big Men, and enlisted in the Army National Guard.
In search of more opportunities, he joined the 106th Rescue Wing of the Air National Guard at its base in Westhampton Beach. In 1991, when Operation Desert Storm got underway in Iraq, he was deployed to an air base in Kuwait. He later returned to Kuwait after 9/11 for a two-month deployment as an aircraft maintenance superintendent. He can recall other deployments as well, including two to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and one to Saudi Arabia.
But nothing Mr. Parker, now 69, experienced while serving overseas holds a candle to his battle against COVID-19. His was a very personal war — him against the virus. The troops behind him were doctors and nurses. He said the virus hit him in early March “like a ton of bricks. I could barely breathe.”
When he was released from Peconic Bay Medical Center last Thursday he received a standing ovation from the very hospital staff that saved his life. As a longtime employee of PBMC, where he is a housekeeper, Mr. Parker knows the staff on a first-name basis. They are all his friends.
“Charlie Parker is the best of the best,” said Andy Mitchell, PBMC’s president and CEO. “From his hard work and dedication to his civic and military duty, he serves as a role model for all of us at PBMC. … We are honored to have contributed to his return to good health.”
As he spoke from his Riverhead home Monday, the virus’s signature cough and shortness of breath lingered in Mr. Parker’s voice. He would make a point, clear his throat, slow down for a moment and then pick up again to finish his story about getting sick and the month he spent as a patient at PBMC.
“The hospital became ground zero pretty quickly,” he said. “I got it in the very beginning, when the hospital was not loaded with patients. I remember one day I parked my vehicle and walked to the front entrance and I noticed when I got there I was out of breath. All day it was like that. I knew something was wrong.”
He got a coronavirus test at a walk-in clinic in Riverhead, but was told it would be 10 days before the results were in. He didn’t think he could wait that long. One day at home his wife, Lourdes, took his temperature: It had soared above 102 degrees. On the morning of March 26, Mr. Parker was having such a hard time breathing that he headed for the hospital.
“I had no breath at all,” he said. “I couldn’t walk to the bathroom. I got to the emergency room and they did a chest X-ray, and the doctor came in and said, ‘You have double pneumonia. You are a sick puppy.’ I went right to the ICU and was there for nearly two weeks. I gave them permission to use a ventilator if they had to, but luckily the oxygen mask was all I needed.”
Lying in a bed in the ICU, the mask over his mouth, Mr. Parker thought about his family every waking minute. “You know, the times I was deployed, I wasn’t scared. This was different. Fear factor? I was so sick I could not think. I was in isolation and could barely breathe. The frightening part was the idea of dying and leaving my family. And with this virus, you have no control over it,” he said.
“I saw people on vents and I wondered if that would be for me,” he added. “After I got out of the ICU, I ended up on Three South [a wing at the hospital]. I was there another week, then to skilled nursing.”
When he was released last Thursday afternoon, hospital staff surrounded him as he was wheeled out the front entrance, clapping and cheering that one of their own had won his war against the virus.
“I am so lucky,” he said in the interview. “I know that.”
Looking back on growing up in Riverhead, Mr. Parker said it is fitting that he went to work at what, in the early 1980s, was Central Suffolk Hospital, where his father also worked in housekeeping. His high school years were marked by playing bass with popular local band Little Curtis and the Big Men at proms, parties and a host of events.
“I started as a housekeeper,” he said, adding that the nearly 40 years he spent in the Air National Guard helped supplement his family income. “I remember going to the hospital to look for work and being hired on the spot. During the day I was packing parachutes in Westhampton. So I was looking for something really different, since getting the parachute done right was so critical.
“I would clean rooms when there was a discharge,” he said. “Or I’d be cleaning corridors. If they were short someone I’d pick up trash. I was doing it all. As the years went by I waxed and stripped floors. Now, I get there around four in the morning and distribute linen to all the rooms. I usually work ’til two or so.”
Mr. Parker retired from the Air National Guard in 2011, and for the first time in years he had only one job. He’s fine with that.
Asked what he will do once he fully recovers from the virus, he said, “I know one thing, I am not going to quit working. I told my boss that. I will go back to the hospital. I have some projects here at home to do. And I will always have music. Mostly, I am just feeling lucky.”