As the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus threat, musicians everywhere have been looking forward to resuming the live performances that are their lifeblood. “Grateful anticipation” might be a good way to describe the mood of White Bear Lake's most accomplished piano virtuoso, Cuban emigre Nachito Herrera.
On the morning of March 28, Herrera was struck down by the disease that has been dominating the headlines. Herrera began experiencing severe symptoms, including disorientation and trouble breathing. His wife Aurora, daughter Mirdalys and son David took him to St. John's Hospital in Maplewood, where doctors unsuccessfully tried to intubate him. With Herrera's oxygen flow at about 35 percent of the normal rate, doctors called for immediate transfer to M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center ICU, an experience Herrera didn't remember and had to be told about later.
“The big question was if I would survive the trip from Maplewood to Minneapolis,” says Herrera. “The doctors didn't know if I was going to make it.”
Shortly after his arrival, doctors placed him on an ECMO (extra corporeal membrane oxygenation) machine, which acted as his heart and lungs. After almost two weeks, on April 11, he began to regain consciousness. His recovery was surprisingly quick; the next day he started physical therapy, beginning with using a walker to move around the hospital room, still connected to cardiac, oxygen and blood pressure devices. Later that day he began eating and drinking.
Herrera says his caregivers “couldn't believe someone could be in a coma for 14 days [and turn around so quickly]; usually people in that condition need four to five days before they start to drink liquids and eat.”
While recovering, Herrera was fortified when his wife showed him iPad video from musicians “all around the world sending messages.” She also brought him an electric piano; 24 hours after regaining consciousness, he was able to play simple pieces.
On April 15, Nachito was eager to be discharged, but had to take two tests for the virus, he was confirmed as virus-free. Through the glass surrounding his room, Herrera saw his people—and a few strangers—celebrating. “A lot of people there knew who I was.”
He returned home after 18 days of hospitalization.
Regarding his rapid recovery, Herrera credits the prayers of people as far away as Afghanistan, and as close as his own neighborhood. Another morale booster was greetings he received from the Cuban ambassador—who helped set up an ongoing collaboration between the U of M doctors and the Nuclear Institute of Epidemiology in Havana, which has had success in treating the virus—and U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith.
As of early June, he was still doing physical therapy twice a day at home and working on the piano a couple of hours per day (not yet ready to resume his eight hours of daily practice) to regain his world class facility. His doctors periodically checked in with him, using Zoom.
As he continued to regain strength, Herrera was looking forward to a scheduled performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the White Bear Lake Symphony this fall at Orchestra Hall; the event, which also features the Wayzata Orchestra and conductor Marlene Pauley, has been postponed to February 14, 2021.
Looking back at his brush with death, Herrera’s opinion of his adopted home was affirmed. “One of the reasons we love Minnesota—where we've been for almost 20 years—is that, when people need to get together and help, I don't think any other state can compare. Minnesota has something very special.”