Lawrence Garbuz, New York’s First Known COVID-19 Case, Reveals What He Learned About Attorney Well-Being From the Virus

By Christian Nolan

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Manhattan Attorney Lawrence Garbuz was dubbed “patient zero” after testing positive in the first known New York City coronavirus case, which led to the shutdown of his suburban neighborhood of New Rochelle.

The moniker, he says, may be a bit unfair since other people unknowingly had coronavirus, but the 50-year-old with no underlying health conditions believes that the lawyer lifestyle left him susceptible to such a severe case. In addition to weeks in a medically induced coma, he spent several more weeks hospitalized at Columbia-Presbyterian and at Burke Rehabilitation.

“I think that as a profession we’re going too fast and not taking care of ourselves,” said Garbuz. “I really believe the reason I got this was that I was so concerned with how my clients were doing, I should’ve also been taking better care of myself. I was completely exhausted as a lawyer, and the disease, even though I was otherwise perfectly healthy, found me.”

Garbuz likened it to the counter-intuitive announcements on an airplane where passengers are told to put their own oxygen masks on first before helping others. He says that in order to be effective lawyers, we must take the time to be good to ourselves too.

Garbuz, a practicing lawyer for 25 years, works in the field of trusts and estates and estate litigation. As such, he said he is painfully aware of the many conflicts within family dynamics and the need to find lasting resolution. These work experiences and current medical experience have only led Garbuz “to appreciate more that we need to savor all that each of us has,” he said.

Still, several weeks since his discharge home, he has neuropathy in his left leg and is unable to move his leg from his knee down. He relies on a cane and help from his wife while taking his now daily walks.

Now that he isn’t constantly on the run, he says he takes time to appreciate all of the wonderful things that surround him. As a religious person, he is convinced that part of his recovery is his learning to appreciate the beauty around us, such as nature.

“We can still be effective professionals even if we all hear the message just sent to us: Let’s slow down a little bit and that we are always rushing, rushing, rushing,” said Garbuz.

Now, despite several setbacks, he’s very much thankful to be alive and with his wife and children.

‘Am I Going to Die?’

Garbuz’s story begins in late February after just concluding several large and bitterly contested estate litigation matters. He is a partner and co-founder of Lewis and Garbuz, a firm that limits its practice to the field of trusts and estates and elder law. He commuted each day via Metro-North to his offices located across Grand Central.

He had developed a slight cough, but it was not initially significant or bothersome. Then during the night of Feb. 26, he developed a mild fever. He decided to take the next morning off to visit his general internist. The result of that visit was not what he expected.

“My doctor concluded that I needed to go to the emergency room right away,” Garbuz recalled.

A friend then drove him to local Westchester hospital (his friend later tested positive for the virus, as did members of his friend’s family). Because there were no documented cases of community spread coronavirus in New York, the hospital was unable to determine the cause of the cough and his fever.

Garbuz said that his local hospital treated him like a pneumonia patient and most of the hospital staff were not wearing any masks. His condition, however, quickly deteriorated.

Within 48 hours following his appointment with his internist, he was moved to the intensive care unit and his oxygen levels were decreasing rapidly. By the weekend, Garbuz was too weak to even speak and could no longer communicate with his family or doctors.

He slipped a note to his emergency room doctor asking, “Am I going to die?” The doctor responded ‘no’ but later admitted to his wife, Adina, and his son that he was gravely concerned at his worsening condition.

“The hospital was fearful I was going to die,” Garbuz acknowledged.

Next, the decision was made to place Garbuz on a ventilator and transport him to Columbia-Presbyterian. There, he was treated as a potential coronavirus patient and on March 2 tested positive for the virus.

He was put in a negative pressure room and hospital staff were all wearing personal protection equipment. His wife and family weren’t allowed to visit him, and his family was all placed in quarantine. Soon thereafter New Rochelle was placed on lockdown and the National Guard were deployed there.

Tablecloths on the Windows

So as Garbuz spent the next two weeks on a ventilator, his family remained in quarantine and the members of his firm were also quarantined. His son’s college, Yeshiva University in Manhattan, shut down for a week and then resumed classes online. His daughter’s school, SAR High School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, was also shut down for a number of days before resuming classes online. A short while later, as the pandemic worsened throughout New York, schools and businesses all began to shut down.

Garbuz has two other children who were out of the country when he was diagnosed – one in Israel and the other in Poland. They flew back immediately but did not stay at the family home as the family did not want to risk anyone else contracting the virus.

Meanwhile, the family was bombarded by national and international media with relentless requests for interviews. Media trucks were camped outside their home and his wife needed to put tablecloths on their windows to prevent members of the media from peering into their home.

As he approached two weeks on the ventilator, doctors began weaning him off it to see if he could breathe on his own. Soon thereafter he was taken off the ventilator.

Despite breathing without the ventilator, he still needed oxygen to breathe, was very weak and could not walk. It took several more weeks until he tested negative for the coronavirus.

The Need to Recharge

Notwithstanding his medical ordeal, he freely discusses his experience and opines as to lessons learned. He has progressed from needing a walker to using a cane. He also has a brace for his leg that without it would make it nearly impossible to walk.

The overall prognosis for his leg is not good but he remains hopeful he will one day regain his feeling in the leg and be able to walk unassisted. While currently unable to return fully to work, he is able to continue to guide and advise his staff and clients to maintain the same quality of counsel his firm has always provided.

Because he feels he is uniquely positioned to be part of the cure, Garbuz regularly participates in several research studies in the hope to find a vaccine and/or a cure for COVID-19. He says he wants to help even though, “I’m a person who is very much on the mend and I’m trying to think positive and have trust in my doctors.”

Overall, his clients have been very supportive and understanding. He stated that he received an outpouring of support from other attorneys for which he remains most appreciative. In turn, his advice for busy lawyers is to take better care of yourselves.

“To better help your clients, you need to recharge,” he said.

He is eager to return to work full-time and yet to continue to employ his new lifestyle changes. He loves being an attorney and helping families find legal solutions. He says that by also focusing on taking care of himself, his clients will be better off for it and so will he.

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