COVID-19: New York’s ‘Patient Zero’ talks sickness and recovery

Lawrence Garbuz nearly lost his life to the coronavirus in 2020. Two years later, he talks about his life and keeping positive.

 Lawrence Garbuz, New York's coronavirus 'Patient Zero.' (photo credit: GARBUZ FAMILY)
Lawrence Garbuz, New York's coronavirus 'Patient Zero.'
(photo credit: GARBUZ FAMILY)

The COVID-19 pandemic has infected millions around the world and has left many people reeling. But Lawrence Garbuz, who underwent a grueling battle with the virus and whose battle is far from over, is just happy to be alive.After he contracted the first known severe case of COVID in New York, he became known to many as the state’s “Patient Zero.”

The 52-year-old Manhattan attorney is a resident of New Rochelle in Westchester County, where he lives with his wife and law partner, Adina. He’s seen as a pillar of the city’s Orthodox Jewish community at the local Young Israel of New Rochelle. A father of four children, he was in relatively good health and shape, having even participated in the Westchester County Triathlon.

But his life, as was the case with people around the world, changed when he got sick.

At first, Garbuz had thought it was just a cough. But the symptoms quickly got worse, and he was sent to a hospital. There, his condition continued to deteriorate, and he was hooked up to a ventilator.

 People line up at a COVID-19 testing site in Times Square during the coronavirus disease pandemic in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, US, December 17, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI/FILE PHOTO) People line up at a COVID-19 testing site in Times Square during the coronavirus disease pandemic in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, US, December 17, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI/FILE PHOTO)

This was early 2020. The pandemic was still brand new and, for many people, seemed far away. The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 had begun spreading throughout China and was appearing around the world. But it seemed to many to be isolated, focused mainly on people who had traveled to China.

The possibility of Garbuz, who had been nowhere near China, having COVID-19 was something neither he nor many doctors had even considered.

But on March 2, he indeed tested positive and was put in a medically induced coma as he struggled against the disease.

“I came within inches of dying,” Garbuz told The Jerusalem Post. If it were not for Adina, “I wouldn’t be here to have this conversation.”

Garbuz and his doctors still don’t know how he caught COVID-19, but the disease took a severe toll on him.

He finally woke up around two weeks later after his brush with death.

“When I came to and they told me I had COVID, I didn’t quite know what it was,” he recalled. “It took a while for it to sink in.”

Garbuz’s symptoms were especially severe, which has erroneously led many to assume he had a preexisting condition.

One of the first things Garbuz remembers happening after he woke up again was that two doctors tried to explain what was happening to him.

“They said they were trying to come up with a very small study and wanted permission to take my blood to figure out what it was that led me to defeat this horrible strain of COVID,” Garbuz recalled. “The funny thing is, I said yes right away. But my condition for saying yes was I wanted it to be confidential. I didn’t want anybody to know I had this disease. I wanted to keep it quiet.

“Of course, the doctors didn’t have the stomach to tell me that at that point, the whole planet knew I had COVID – and I didn’t even know about it at the time.”

Indeed, in the time that he had gotten sick and been in a coma, the COVID-19 pandemic had become much worse.

Soon after his infamous labeling as Patient Zero, Garbuz’s illness was followed by more cases throughout the state. New Rochelle became one of the first major COVID hotspots in the US as the pandemic began to entrench itself in the country. The city was put on lockdown with a mile-wide security barrier around it as more cases began to appear. Unfortunately, this included the Modern Orthodox community.

It didn’t take long for more cases to be found among the members of Young Israel of New Rochelle. The synagogue is host to a large and thriving Jewish community of hundreds of families. Its members are often very close to one another, and a large number of Orthodox Jews in New Rochelle have had Shabbat and holiday meals at the Garbuz family home.

The sudden change from such a warm social community to one of lockdown was shocking as the synagogue became the first in the US to be forced to close its doors due to the pandemic. While it has since reopened, the rules remain strict, enforcing mask policies and social-distancing measures.

Garbuz praised the community’s handling of the pandemic and the synagogue in particular.

“I think the shul leadership has done an amazing job,” he said. “They had to spring into action without any playbook and figure this out with the Department of Health here in Westchester. But I think a lot of people were thankful.”

While efforts had been made to keep Garbuz’s identity confidential, people soon found out. News outlets disclosed his name, and he became known internationally – something he and his family were far from comfortable with.

“We had groups in every continent,” Garbuz said of the Jewish community worldwide, which reached out to express support. “And I do mean every other continent.”

Garbuz has survived the virus and has been vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. Despite this, however, his battle with long COVID is far from over.

COVID-19 left him with neuropathy, a condition that causes severe pain in parts of the body, as well as a lack of electrical stimulation between his knee and foot.

“I don’t know what’s worse, the pain from neuropathy or the medicines I take,” he said.

But despite his ordeal, Garbuz is staying positive and likened his experience to having been the metaphorical canary in the coal mine.

“When I got sick, everyone realized that COVID was here. Everybody ran out of the coal mine. I was the canary, and I’m certainly a lot sicker than when I went into the coal mine,” he told the Post, laughingly adding, “Next time, find a different canary.”

Having been improving in health two years later, Garbuz has a new goal in mind: visiting Israel.

“This is something I have wanted to do since I was discharged from the hospital,” he said, adding that it was something he thought was very important for him to do.

In the meantime, Garbuz is thankful to everyone and is staying positive.

“I am thankful to Hashem for being alive... Patient Zero is a fighter, and I’ll keep on fighting as much as I can,” he said.