McALLEN — Early Thursday afternoon, Jose Francisco Moreno left McAllen Medical Center for the first time in 21 days.

Moreno is the first of the hospital’s critically ill COVID-19 patients to recover and be released; he was reunited with his wife just outside the lobby, where he embraced her for the first time in three weeks.

Moreno, a Hidalgo resident, was greeted by cheers and congratulations as the nurses and doctors who had successfully saved him waved streamers and wished him well.

One man leaving a hospital in good health might not seem like much, but it’s an encouraging development for the healthcare workers on the pandemic’s frontlines — Moreno’s recovery doesn’t mean they’ve won the war, but they’ve certainly won a battle.

“It’s a phenomenal event, this individual has been through the hardest fight for the last three weeks of his life,” hospital CEO Todd Mann said. “To walk out today is not only a wonderful thing for him and his family, but many of these staff members were off today and they brought themselves in on their day off to recognize this individual. It’s an uplifting moment for all of us.”

Moreno’s wife, Maria Nora Vivian, says her 52-year-old husband was admitted to the hospital in critical condition on April 2. Doctors induced a coma and Moreno was on a ventilator for 16 days; the traumatic 21 days made him lose track of time.

“Yesterday he thought that he was hospitalized for only three days,” Vivian said. “He didn’t know where he was. He was disoriented. … We were explaining to him how everything went and he’s very surprised.”

Jose Francisco Moreno, 52, waits to go home after recovering from COVID-19 on Thursday at McAllen Medical Center. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

Moreno attributed his recovery to the hospital staff and a higher power.

“I’m grateful to the hospital and God for being here,” he said.

Vivian also heaped praise on the doctors and nurses who cared for her husband.

“He received very good attention,” she said. “The doctors, nurses, everyone was very attentive to his needs.”

Vivian greeted those doctors in the parking lot Thursday with tears in her eyes, giving them a copy of “The Purpose Driven Life” and thanking them for saving her husband.

“It’s great, it means the work we’ve done matters,” Dr. Federico Vallejo said. “But the ones that are really sacrificing and are risking are our nurses.”

One of those nurses was Carleen Garza who had a hard time describing the emotions watching Moreno leave inspired.

“You have to realize that we’ve seen them at their worst, at the brink of life or death — and for his wife to be able to give him a hug today, that’s awesome,” she said.

Soon, the 22-year-old will find herself in the heart of the pandemic. Garza has signed on to help treat COVID-19 patients in New York and expects to be there by the end of the month.

“They can use me,” she said. “I believe McAllen Medical has provided me the skill set to help them out.”

Despite Moreno’s recovery, there are signs at the hospital that the fight against COVID-19 is still very much ongoing. Doctors and pulmonologists who wished Moreno well quickly slipped back into the hospital to treat other patients, and yellow tubes snake from heavy equipment in the parking lot to third story windows where once ordinary rooms have been turned into battlegrounds against the pandemic.

McAllen Medical Center nurses applaud patient Jose Francisco Moreno on his recovery from COVID-19 on Thursday at the hospital in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

“As you can see, many of the windows have been transformed, we’ve transformed rooms into negative pressure rooms. We’ve got dedicated ORs for COVID patients, we have dedicated spaces in our ER,” Mann, the CEO, said.

According to Mann, the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital varies, but he said McAllen Medical Center has noticed a downward curve in cases in recent days.

“We’ve seen a tremendous decline over the last few days, and that’s been largely due to us being able to test and appropriately take these folks that need it either in and out of the facility,” he said. “That’s not to say that we’re out of the woods yet, we’re still expecting to see a surge in the next two or three weeks, but we’re certainly better prepared today than we were two or three weeks ago.”