Cedars-Sinai Blog

Papa Chu Pulls Through: ICU Nurse's Dad Shares COVID-19 Story

Nurse Jeffrey Chu, on right, and his family after surviving COVID-19.

Nurse Jeffrey Chu saw the worst of what COVID-19 can do to a person and to a family. He was among the nurses caring for the first cases as they flowed into Saperstein Critical Care Tower at Cedars-Sinai.

Then he got sick with COVID-19. So did his mom. So did his dad. 

"Knowing what I know about COVID-19, trying to balance that with being a nurse, wanting to know what's going on and trying not to overwhelm my own family, it was difficult. It was scary." 

Jeffrey's dad, Kenneth, had the most severe symptoms and spent 40 days in the intensive care unit—the same unit where Jeffrey works at Cedars-Sinai—beginning in April.

"Knowing what I know about COVID-19, trying to balance that with being a nurse, wanting to know what's going on and trying not to overwhelm my own family, it was difficult," Jeffrey says. "It was scary."

During that time, Kenneth became known as "Papa Chu" among the ICU nurses, as they rallied around Jeffrey's family during Kenneth's long bout with the virus. 

"This was emotional because our co-workers are like family to us," says April Kristene Araneta, one of the ICU nurses who cared for Kenneth. "There were multiple times when we thought we were going to lose him. All of us were very devastated because we felt like our father was in that bed."

Papa Chu pulls through

When Kenneth first arrived in the ICU, he was on a ventilator and unconscious. Later, his condition got worse.

"We had Jeffrey say goodbye," April said. "That was pretty rough for all of us. But then Kenneth made it through all of those nights."

After additional treatment, Kenneth's breathing tube was temporarily removed so his care team could assess if he was ready to breathe on his own. 

"When he passed that test, and he could breathe on his own, after caring for him for weeks, we could finally talk to him," April says. "It was just amazing. It felt like there's still hope in these critical situations."

Kenneth speaks warmly of his doctors, especially Dr. Angelena Lopez, a pulmonary critical care fellow, and the nurses who cared for him.

"I admire them," he says. "They paid attention to detail. I was so touched. I just thought, 'Wow, what a great place to be.'" 

Recovering from COVID-19

Kenneth Chu recovering from COVID-19.

Before getting COVID-19, Kenneth regularly enjoyed gardening and biking. He had prediabetes that he was managing well, maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. 

He dropped 45 pounds while he was ill, and it's been a long road to rebuilding his strength.

"If you think once you're out of the hospital you're cured—no," he says. "There's a lot of physical therapy. Recovery continues."

The toughest part has been rebuilding his lung strength. For many weeks after coming home, he would break into fits of coughing if he talked for too long or breathed in cold air. 

Being still in a hospital bed for so long left his muscles weak. About two months after leaving the hospital, his left arm was up to 80-90% strength in his estimation.

He spends time stretching. He walks and swims when he can. He's hired a gardener to pick up the tasks he's not ready to return to just yet, but he spends time with his plants when he can. 

Being there for other families

For Jeffrey, having himself, his father and his mother contract COVID-19 caused him to see his own work in a different, more personal light. 

"When family members call me for updates, I try to be as thorough as possible—I know they're always hoping for good news," he says. "I reassure them that I'm happy to answer their questions, more than happy to FaceTime with them."

Getting updates from patients who have left the ICU is a rare treat, April says. Jeffrey has shared with his colleagues many photos of his dad's journey: looking happy at home, climbing the stairs.

"All of us love Papa Chu like he's our own," April says. "It also made all of this even more real. It's gotten someone in our family. It makes us want to be there that much more for our patients. 

"It makes you appreciate the time we spent with our family and friends, before COVID-19, that we took for granted. Now a simple touch means so much to everyone."