Last year, Darryl Ciarlante-Zuber nearly died from the novel coronavirus while his husband, Joe, sat in quarantine.
After 40 days of intensive care at Beebe Medical Foundation and a year of support from their friends and the community, the duo have since opened a second restaurant and are thriving.
Joe, who was in Mexico, received a call on March 28, 2020, from his husband complaining that he was having difficulty breathing. After instructions from his doctor, Darryl packed for a supposed three-night stay at the emergency room.
“It was like [my doctor] really wants me to go to the ER, and I don’t really feel that sick,” Darryl said. “I said, ‘I’m just out of breath, up and down steps, but other than that, I really didn’t feel sick.’”
Three nights turned into a call from clergy, asking Joe if Darryl would like some prayers. The second call Joe received was from a doctor in the ICU.
“They said Darryl has 30 minutes to live and is severely ill,” Joe said. “[They said] his lungs are nearly totally collapsed and filled with stuff, and we want to put him on a ventilator.”
Joe’s impromptu and urgent flight from Mexico back to Rehoboth was filled with anxiety, especially since not much was known about the coronavirus that early in the pandemic.
“Is he going to be alive? Is he going to be dead? It’s COVID, what is this COVID thing?” Joe said. “I was on a plane, and I was one of the only ones with a mask. The reason I had a mask is because my friend who drove me to the airport had a mask from his maid and said, ‘Here, use this.’ It was a whirlwind experience.”
Darryl spent 23 days on life support, while the recommended time for a ventilator is a maximum of six days.
“The doctors told [Joe], ‘We just don’t know how he’s going to come out,’” Darryl said. “But at the time, the doctor said, ‘Well, that seems like it’s the only solution at this point.’ So he pushed it for Joe until the 23rd day.”
Prolonged time on a ventilator can prove dangerous, Joe said, as he was warned about potential negative effects on Darryl’s brain.
“They routinely told me that he would have brain damage and he may or may not be the same person that I knew,” Joe said. “And I said, ‘I’m OK with that.’ When I took my vows, we said that we would be partners forever, husbands forever. If he has brain damage, I’m the one that’s going to deal with it, nobody else.”
Darryl was the third patient in the Beebe ICU to be diagnosed with COVID-19. While in the ICU, Darryl’s white blood cell count fell to only nine, according to Joe.
“They basically said to me, ‘Look, it’s been 20-some days. There’s no recovery, you need to let it go,’” Joe said. “And by some goofy chance, his [white blood cell] numbers jumped from 12 to 25,000, and they went up to 50,000. They have to be 80,000 to take the trach out, and Monday morning, they were at 83,000.”
Darryl said he does not remember much after being led into the ICU from the hospital waiting room.
“I had Joe on FaceTime the whole time just to make sure I was getting there OK,” Darryl said. “I was like, ‘OK, they’re probably going to take me in soon, I’m going to probably lose reception in the hospital and I can’t call but I’ll call you when I can.’ And I just remember hanging up. They took me out of [the entrance] and that’s all I remember after that.”
After 23 up-and-down days on life support, Joe said the Beebe team members spent 40 days dedicated to Darryl’s treatment and that he was constantly given updates, since quarantine protocols were in effect.
“Darryl’s nurses in the ICU were my link to being with him when I couldn’t actually visit,” Joe wrote in a Feb. 9, 2021 essay for the Cape Gazette. “They would assure me that he could hear my voice, even though he made no response. They would tell me that sometimes Darryl would move his feet in reaction to certain things I said to him.”
While Darryl received treatment, Joe updated family and friends through Facebook.
“If I didn’t post something by 11 in the morning, people were calling, ‘What’s happened, how come? Is everything OK?’” Joe said. “Sometimes you just didn’t hear and I didn’t have any information from the doctors or the nurse, they were full, and they had these patients.”
Darryl’s 40 days of treatment finished with physical therapy and rehab.
“I had no movement, I had to relearn walking,” Darryl said. “I had lost all my strength in my arms and so the first two weeks was to try to get me, at least somewhat capable, to move forward to the rehab center.”
Darryl also said that Joe kept a lot of information from him so as not to worry him or worsen his condition, including the severity of the coronavirus in the United States.
“One of the things he had asked me when he was in the hospital, he said, ‘Why aren’t you working?’ and I said, ‘Darryl, everything’s closed,’ and he looked very confused,” Joe said. “You know Nicola Pizza? They never close, never. I said to Darryl, ‘Nicola’s is closed, because of the pandemic.’ He said, ‘Nicola’s is closed?’ [Darryl] got really sad in his eyes and he said, ‘It’s bad, isn’t it?’ So I said, ‘But everything’s getting better, so don’t worry about it, just get yourself better.’”
Darryl and Joe opened Diego’s Bar & Nightclub in 2018, the name a nod to Darryl’s nickname. The bar closed in 2020 like all other businesses due to the pandemic, however the duo did not let Darryl’s condition or the lockdown procedures keep them down.
“Some of the positives about Diego’s is, we were able to create a beach. We took over some of the parking lot and created a beach atmosphere, tables and chairs and umbrellas and transporting nine tons of sand, and socially distanced all the tables,” Joe said. “It really made a lot of the customers feel even more safe, especially being outside.”
Darryl was unable to return to his typical work day, as pinched nerves were causing pain from standing for too long.
“That’s kind of an emotional thing, because you’re used to doing something then all of a sudden, you can’t,” Joe said. “Everybody looks at him and says to him, ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ and he says, ‘I know,’ and they said, ‘Your charts, you are truly a miracle.’”
Before the pandemic, Joe and Darryl made several attempts to open a new restaurant location. In February 2021, the timing worked out and the two opened Square One Grill.
“Fortunately, we found our head chef in December and we just talked about opening up by the end of January, to get it in time for President’s Day weekend,” Darryl said.
Square One general manager Trish Carlin said the restaurant began with experimental takeout dishes for the community, since lockdown efforts kept indoor seating to 50 percent capacity and the team decided to keep the dining room closed.
“[Darryl and Joe] just reached out to so many people that they knew and they set up [takeout] for a group of days, where people could order food and pick it up for free,” Carlin said. “They would want comments on it, how did this work? What did you think about that? They got a lot of feedback.”
Diego’s dance floor opened in late May and the dining room in Square One is also open for customers. Darryl, Joe and Carlin all discussed the community’s positive efforts and support in keeping the businesses alive.
“I felt like the community was waiting for Joe and Darryl to finally be able to do this. And maybe that was part of their motivation,” Carlin said. “I was never worried, honestly, that it wouldn’t work, because it’s them. I think the community really backs them. They really, really love Joe and Darryl and they follow them wherever they go. They want them to be successful and it’s a wonderful thing to see.”