After testing positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 4, Joe LaMantia quarantined for a time and intended on heading down East Burlington Street from his downtown Riverside home on Jan. 14 to meet with his employees at his business Landmark Kitchen Design.
“I called the doctor, I stayed home for 10 days and I felt great,” said LaMantia, 60, who had gotten tested because he was supposed to fly to Florida on Jan. 7 and was feeling a bit under the weather. “I thought, ‘Good, I got this over with.’”
He was a no-show for the meeting. Alex Darling, a kitchen designer for LaMantia, sent him a text message asking what was up. Although he said he’d been feeling better in recent days, LaMantia on Jan. 14 felt bad. He tested his oxygen level. LaMantia says the digital readout showed it was in the 80s. Darling says he responded in a text that it was in the 70s.
Either way, this was trouble.
“I told him, ‘You must go to the hospital,’” Darling said, adding that LaMantia resisted, joking that he’d be OK. “I said, ‘If you don’t leave right now, we’re calling 911.’”
Meanwhile, on that same day, Matt LaMantia, Joe’s 35-year-old son, had just started a new job.
“The first day at my new job I get a call from him saying he’s going into the hospital for COVID pneumonia,” Matt said. “He says, ‘If there are any difficult decisions, I’m putting you in charge.’”
LaMantia checked into LaGrange Hospital on Jan. 14. He did not return home until May 29 from Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital — four-and-a-half months and three hospitals later.
“Everybody thought I was going to die,” LaMantia said during a phone interview last week.
They had good reason to think that.
By the time he checked into LaGrange Hospital, COVID-19 had already badly scarred LaMantia’s lungs and things weren’t getting any better. Within a week, LaMantia was intubated and on a ventilator. By the end of January, LaMantia – though he wouldn’t know it until much later – was transferred to University of Chicago Medical Center.
According to Matt LaMantia, one of the reasons for that move was because that hospital did organ transplants, “and we needed that capability.”
Joe LaMantia doesn’t remember anything about the weeks he spent at University of Chicago, but they were harrowing for his family and employees.
Prior to being put on a ventilator, LaMantia placed Darling in charge of the business.
“We had a will written up; he signed the papers while he was in the hospital,” Darling said. “I went into all-panic mode. I was good at doing my job, but I needed someone to run the company. I had to get into QuickBooks, print checks and sales reports. If it wasn’t for my two assistants, I’m sure I would have gone mad.”
Carmella DiMarco took on accounting and payroll, while Lydia Lando, who started at Landmark Kitchen Design only six months earlier, handled delivery schedules.
“We just figured it out as we were going along, and stressing a lot about [Joe],” Darling said. “He’s like a second dad.”
The business has hummed along in the interim; the pandemic that almost killed LaMantia turned out to be a boon for the home improvement sector.
“Thank God my business survived,” LaMantia said. “I’m very fortunate I have these people working for me.”
The pressure on Matt LaMantia was enormous. Although he had a family to help him navigate the waters, Matt held power of attorney. He would make the final call on literal life-and-death decisions.
“I didn’t sleep the entire month of February,” he said.
As Joe LaMantia’s conditioned worsened at University of Chicago Medical Center, his family was given a deadline to decide whether or not to have surgeons perform a tracheostomy – an invasive procedure that would involve opening up LaMantia’s neck to insert a tube directly into his windpipe to bring air into his lungs.”
There were no guarantees it would work or, if it did, that it wouldn’t be permanent. The family had no idea whether the damage done to LaMantia’s lungs would impact his mental faculties.
“The trach was risky because we didn’t know the full quality of life he would have,” Matt LaMantia said. “We were told there were so many unknowns. We didn’t know if he would ever be able to breathe without oxygen assistance.”
But, LaMantia was not improving on the ventilator and in mid-February, the family made the call to have him undergo the tracheostomy. Doctors also induced paralysis and had LaMantia lay face down to give his lungs all of the assistance they could.
“They told me he had a 5 percent chance of making it, and then it dwindled,” Matt LaMantia said. “I mourned his death twice.”
Joe LaMantia woke up from his induced coma on March 10 in RML Specialty Hospital in Hinsdale. It was after doctors induced paralysis and placed his father facedown that he began to show signs of recovery, according to Matt LaMantia.
“It’s honestly a miracle,” he said.
After a couple of weeks at RML Hospital, said Matt, his father’s lungs began healing and he was taken off oxygen.
“Once the COVID left his body and the scarring shed from his lungs, he miraculously turned a corner,” Matt said. “It’s like someone woke up from the dead.”
But Joe LaMantia still had, and has, plenty to overcome. He still doesn’t know the long-term impact of COVID-19 on his body. For now, he’s confined to a wheelchair and wears braces to help strengthen his limbs. He continues to undergo physical therapy and it could be months before he’s walking, he said.
LaMantia also suffers from neuropathy, numbness in his hands and feet, a holdover from the induced paralysis and the reason for the special braces.
And then there’s the psychological impact of having survived COVID-19 and other life events have transpired in the past 12 months.
Last August, LaMantia’s wife and business partner, Lynn Larsen-LaMantia, died. In late January, while he lay unconscious in the hospital, his father, Anthony, died. He learned that in March.
“I have a lot of stuff to process,” Joe LaMantia said.
Last week, Joe was able to put on his own clothes for the first time in months – they don’t fit anymore; he lost 35 pounds in the hospital – and he even ventured downstairs from his condo to La Barra, where he was a frequent visitor prior to his bout with COVID-19.
“I’ve been getting a lot of calls and texts from friends saying everyone was praying for me,” LaMantia said. “Those prayers must have worked. I didn’t realize how many people were praying for me.”