Frank Cutitta never waited for his scheduled return flight home.
The media consultant, whose work has taken him to nearly 100 countries — sometimes three in the same week — jumped at any opportunity to come back a day, or even an hour, early just so he could be reunited with his wife and two daughters.
“I guess being my travel agent is not for the faint of heart,” Cutitta said.
He had stopped traveling in recent years because he disliked being away so much. The girls remember him crying and demanding hugs before every trip.
So when COVID-19 began to ravage his body in late March, it was no surprise the 67-year-old was loath to leave his wife, Leslie, and their lakeside bungalow in Wayland.
But the night of March 25, Leslie lay awake in dread, listening to her husband’s shallow, labored breathing. She recorded him sleeping so she would have evidence bolstering her plea for him to go to Newton-Wellesley Hospital the next morning. When he woke, Cutitta petitioned to postpone the hospital visit until after a conference call but finally and reluctantly obliged.
As his wife helped him dress, Cutitta, a public speaker by trade, struggled to find the words to request his camouflage shorts, calling them instead, “the invisible pants.”
They didn’t know it then, but his delirium was likely due to a rapidly intensifying COVID-19 infection that kicked off toxic-metabolic encephalopathy, a temporary disease of the brain caused by chemical imbalances.
“The man was losing his mind,” Leslie said.
It would be the first of many frightening episodes in his body’s battle against COVID-19, which ripped the star cook, former wrestler, and doting father from his home for 100 days. His family, meanwhile, began a war of attrition of their own, waking every morning for the next two months wondering if Cutitta would survive until the next.
Chalk it up to a wrestler’s grit, a hospital’s care, or even just old-fashioned luck, he ultimately beat the odds — again, and again, and again — to become one of the few success stories to emerge out of the state’s worst days of the pandemic.
But that late March morning he was admitted, as he sat alone in the Newton-Wellesley ER, test results showed fluid building up in his lungs, kidney failure, and dangerously low oxygen levels. Dread set in. The suburban hospital arranged to transport Cutitta to Massachusetts General Hospital that night, where he would be intubated and put on a ventilator.
During his 68 days at the hospital, the Cutittas grew to shudder every time Leslie’s phone buzzed. Her ringtone became a harbinger of bad news, prompting everyone to “melt into a pool of anxiety,” said Genna, their youngest daughter.
But the family ranks the call from Cutitta that first afternoon with news about the move to MGH as the worst.
After the phone calls came the silence as he waited to go to MGH. He persuaded his nurses to let him finish an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” before loading him into the ambulance.
“When somebody says we’re going to put you under and we don’t know when you’re going to wake up, you just latch on to anything,” said Cutitta. “It’s like, can I have five more minutes, warden, before you put me in the execution chamber?”
At that point, just 25 people had succumbed to COVID-19 in Massachusetts. Doctors at MGH followed closely the failures and successes of physicians in Seattle and Italy, where the outbreak was weeks ahead of Boston, to develop their own impromptu treatment plans. Cutitta ultimately remained sedated for five weeks, at which point more than 4,000 had died in Massachusetts.
Mechanical ventilators are not a cure for COVID-19 but rather a life support measure while bodies battle the virus. The carefully calibrated machine, which requires a tube inserted into the windpipe, pumps enough oxygen and pressure to keep airways open without overstretching stiff, inflamed lungs.
The days directly after his intubation were the darkest. On some days, the ventilator was ratcheted to the maximum, supplying 100 percent of the oxygen to his burdened lungs. Clots stymied the dialysis machine, but Cutitta’s simultaneously low platelet count meant that he could not take a blood thinner.
“His lungs weren’t working. He had these constant blood clots. His kidneys weren’t working. His heart was in an irregular rhythm. His body was just in pretty profound shock,” recalled James Mojica, the vice chief and clinical director of pulmonary and critical care at MGH. “There were so many things working against him and, despite our efforts, we were losing ground every day.”
Twice that week, Mojica and his clinical team phoned the Cutittas — who were holed up inside Genna’s small North End apartment just to be closer to the hospital — with warnings that Cutitta would likely not survive. Each night, Genna would wear a tattered tee from the snowboard school called Grays on Trays that her father founded to serve “mature beginners.” She’d remember how he always pulled off impossible stunts, like learning to snowboard at the age of 48.
“His wife would say, ‘Please don’t give up,’ and I’d say, ‘None of us are giving up.’ But at that point, nobody really knew what COVID looked like. We didn’t understand the patience it required,” said Catherine Cusack, a nurse who looked after Cutitta in the intensive care unit.
The unit was packed with critically ill COVID-19 patients, whose tired bodies battled a merciless virus and whose loved ones walked a tightrope of hope and despair. Olivia, his older daughter, sometimes wondered if it would be easier to just give herself a head start on the grieving process.
“I like to count myself among the people who believe in miracles, but there were days where, honestly, I kind of didn’t,” she said. “Days the emotional toll was so big that I just wanted to let myself start grieving, but I didn’t know how much pain I wanted to let myself feel before we knew it was final.”
Nurses placed Cutitta in a prone position, onto his stomach, to increase oxygen flow. Doctors pumped nitric oxide, hydroxychloroquine, and azithromycin into his body. His kidney failure disqualified him from receiving remdesivir, the antiviral drug that has shown early promise, while his clotting made him unfit for a lung-bypass machine.
It’s unclear what, if anything besides time, ultimately helped him overcome the virus. It took 33 days for him to be weaned off the ventilator.
But by late April, Cutitta stabilized enough for the many tubes that had anchored him to this earth for the past four weeks to be removed. He was transferred to a step-down unit, leaving behind nurses and doctors who’d kept him alive without ever being able to look him in the eye. They didn’t know he could cook like a Michelin-starred chef or that he not only looked like the Dos Equis man but was often referred to as “the most interesting man in the world.” They just knew Cutitta was leaving their unit alive, a gift never granted to so many other patients.
“We knew, by voice, his daughters and wife. But really, of Frank all we knew is what we talked to him about when he was asleep,” said nurse Roxanne Chvirko. Before he left Chvirko and Cusack’s unit, the duo thought it might be nice to give the patient a clean shave. Little did they know, Leslie had never seen her husband without a beard in their three decades of marriage.
On May 4, after five weeks, Cutitta woke up and returned to a far different reality than the one he’d faced back in March. It was a monumental moment for the family and his clinical team. But for Cutitta, it was the first day in a body 40-pounds lighter, with pressure wounds in place of his perennial silver beard, chef’s arms too weak to lift a frying pan, and a once-whipsmart mind scrambled by months of sedation.
“Everyone said, you have no idea how much progress you’ve made. And I’d say, ‘Well, maybe it’s because you knew me when I was dead. Progress looks a lot different to a guy who wakes up midway through it all and is like, what the hell happened,’ ” said Cutitta. The former college wrestler admits he needed to lose some weight but wishes the transformation came under different circumstances.
Still, the battle continued. Cutitta spent May at MGH, as MRSA, the notoriously antibiotic-resistant superbug, led to necrotizing pneumonia which, in turn, caused the rapid death of lung tissue. Both were secondary infections, likely the result of months spent on a ventilator and in the hospital. Doctors doused his lungs in a complex cocktail of antibiotics.
“Even then, he could have died any number of times,” said Rachel Knipe, a pulmonary care attendant at MGH.
Cutitta arrived at Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in early June. While rolling into the Cambridge facility, he pumped a fist into the air and blew kisses toward his family. A day later, Governor Charlie Baker eased restrictions on visitations at rehab facilities, allowing the family — who have all tested positive for antibodies — to reunite with Cutitta officially.
“I don’t have to tell you what an emotional experience it was to see them and, I dare admit, touch them for the first time in 70 days,” he said.
“The brain is not designed to have such large gaps in its ability to recall. It struggles to make up for lost time,” explained John Horras, a social worker at Spaulding who worked with Cutitta. “Normally, families who were at the bedside can help the patient understand what they went through because they witnessed it, but for our COVID patients, those family members weren’t there so the loneliness has been huge and, at times, debilitating.”
In a never-ending series of “I can’t do its” that became “I did its,” he spent the month regaining the muscle strength and coordination necessary to do all the things he had once taken for granted: walking, eating, showering, and dressing. He played cornhole one day and made guacamole another, all ill-disguised tests of his mobility.
But even the rigorous rehab left him with 22 hours a day to kill. He’d often stare at the graphics on TV in awe of the sheer quantity of people the disease has affected.
“You know where they put the bar up and they have the number of cases on the left and then the deaths on the right? Thank God he’s in the left-hand column,” said Genna. “But it gets lost that even to survive is no easy task. He’s living proof that that’s not the end of this.”
It’s frightening to speculate how easily Cutitta could have become infected with the virus. He visited his mother for her 90th birthday in early March in New Jersey and could have contracted it on the flight home, but his wife and daughters, as well as five extended family members also tested positive, so it could have come from a wedding shower they attended in the Berkshires that same weekend.
“There was a level of comfortable deniability back then. No one was told to wear masks,” he said one day in late June. “But nobody in a Texas bar or at Daytona Beach today can say, ‘I didn’t know what was going to happen,' if they end up getting infected or infecting someone else that ends up like me.”
Cutitta aimed to be discharged on the Fourth of July. His family and rehabilitation team balked at the prospect. Hospitalized COVID-19 patients, particularly those with prolonged reliance on the ventilator, often linger in rehab facilities for weeks and months overcoming severe muscle atrophy and neurological deficits.
But he revels in a challenge.
“To make the analogy more obnoxious than it already is, COVID had me on my back with one shoulder slightly off the mat, and my job was to wrestle to my stomach, then to my knees and then to my feet,” he said.
And so, 100 days since first walking into Newton-Wellesley in his camouflage shorts, Cutitta was released from Spaulding. He waved like a beauty pageant queen as Leslie rolled him to the car.
“Elvis has left the building,” Horras, the social worker, said with glee.
When his doctors and nurses at MGH learned of his release, they were dumbfounded by his progress. Cutitta endured one of the longest stays on a ventilator of any COVID-19 patient at the hospital.
“It is very good for us to hear these stories of success because obviously, this is our hope, but we really only get to see a piece of the story,” said Knipe.
Cutitta sat shotgun as Leslie snaked through their Wayland neighborhood, where dozens of friends ushered him home by dancing in the streets to “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor.
“Thank God you’re home. We’re starving,” shouted a neighbor.
He traversed the front lawn, summited the three steps to the front door, and walked inside to the kitchen, where the clock on the stove read July 3, a day earlier than the discharge date others had once dismissed as wishful thinking. Because Frank Cutitta, as we all know, never misses a chance to come home a day early to his family.