New York area's 'patient zero' says coronavirus 'wasn't on my mind' when he got sick

"I really have not focused on any of the media frenzy in terms of one of the first patients to get it. But I have been focused more on ... getting better," Lawrence Garbuz said.

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By Ben Kesslen

When Lawrence Garbuz got sick in February, he thought he just had a cough. But Garbuz had the coronavirus, which left him in a coma and earned him the title of the New York area's "patient zero."

In an exclusive interview with Savannah Guthrie that aired Monday on "TODAY," Garbuz spoke about his experience, saying the disease that almost killed him "really wasn't on my mind" as he was falling ill.

Garbuz, 50, was sick in February before the outbreak was on many Americans' radar, including his own, and weeks before New York took strict measures to prevent the spread of the disease.

"I'm a lawyer. I sit at a desk all day," he said. "I think at the time we were sort of focusing on individuals who had maybe traveled internationally, something that I had not done."

But his case, one of the first in the New York area, sparked a community outbreak in his town, suburban New Rochelle, forcing the governor to create a "containment zone," which shut down schools and places of worship before the rest of the state was under stay-at-home orders. Eventually, New York became the hardest-hit state, with almost 340,000 of the country's more than 1.3 million cases, including more than 27,000 deaths.

"I really have not focused on any of the media frenzy in terms of one of the first patients to get it," Garbuz said. "But I have been focused more on, as I say, getting better."

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And the road to getting better has been a long one. As his condition worsened, he eventually went to the hospital.

"After we entered the emergency room, I have absolutely no recollection of anything that transpired until I woke up from the coma," he said.

His wife, Adina Garbuz, said they originally thought he had pneumonia, but he just kept getting "worse and worse."

"Healthy, vibrant person, all of a sudden overnight gets so sick so quickly. I know that at this point, we're not so surprised by that. But at that time, it was shocking," she said.

When she found out that her husband had COVID-19, Adina Garbuz said, she was "on the phone through the night with various departments of health finding out what to do and sharing everywhere we went."

"I didn't want anybody else to get sick," she said.

Eventually, she decided to transfer her husband to a bigger hospital in New York City.

"I just didn't think he was going to make an ambulance ride," she said. It was Adina Garbuz who made sure he was intubated for the ambulance ride to help him breathe.

"My wife saved my life," Lawrence Garbuz said.

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Garbuz said that he didn't have any pre-existing conditions and that while he was in the hospital his only goal was "to go home."

Now, he's achieved that, back with his family and doing much better. For Ella Garbuz, one of their children, having him home has been a blessing.

"This is just like a miracle for all of us," she said.