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NEW MILFORD — At first, it just felt like allergies. Then, John Esposito felt exhausted.
The next day, he had difficulty breathing. That’s when the pastor was brought to Danbury Hospital.
“He walked into the ambulance and we haven’t seen him since,” said Tammy Esposito, his wife.
John Esposito, a Bethel resident and the pastor at Gaylordsville United Methodist Church, in the Gaylordsville section of New Milford, since July 2018, has been at the hospital with coronavirus for nearly three weeks.
He spent days hooked up to a ventilator in the intensive care unit, but his condition has improved considerably and he is expected to recover.
“He was at death’s door (two) Thursday(s ago),” said the Rev. John Parille, pastor at Bethel United Methodist Church, where Esposito was an assistant pastor. “Literally, I was shocked that he made it through the night it was so bad. He was in such bad shape.”
Coronavirus in Connecticut
Parishioners at the Gaylordsville church and its sister churches rallied around the Esposito family, holding a virtual vigil and using social media to ask for prayers. Nearly 50,000 people have engaged with those posts, Parille said.
“It’s incredible,” Tammy Esposito said. “That’s what’s getting us through.”
A New Milford couple who lives behind the church has been ringing the bells at 8 p.m. daily for two minutes in honor of Esposito and the whole community.
“No matter what, until the pandemic is over, we will be ringing the bells,” said Kathy Weinzierl, who used to attend the Gaylordsville church, but now goes to the Bethel church because Parille is an old friend.
She described John as caring and good at forming relationships with his parishioners.
“If someone is sick, he always shows up at the hospital,” Weinzierl said. “He’s that kind of a guy, very relational that way.”
Lisa Best, the lay leader at the church, said he visited her once in the hospital. It was shortly after he became the pastor and he did not know her well.
“He’s just down to earth, very down to earth,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what time a day. If you’re down or having something going on that’s troubling you, he’ll be there. He’ll call you. If need be, he’ll come to your house.”
Tammy Esposito and the couple’s sons, ages 24 and 25, self-quarantined in their house for two weeks but were unable to get tested for the virus.
“All of us have like allergy-type stuff, but that seems to have dissipated,” she said. “We’re feeling fine physically.”
Being separated from her husband has been the worst aspect.
“The hard part is not being able to see or talk to him or hold his hand,” she said. “That’s the tough part.”
When he was in the ICU, the family could have watched him through the Zoom platform, but chose not to because it would have been to difficult to see him, but not be there, she said.
The Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, of the New Milford United Methodist Church, has been offering virtual services to the Gaylordsville church.
Hearing Esposito was sick brought the pandemic “close to home,” da Silva Souto said.
“I was a little bit shocked because he looks like a very strong man and very healthy person,” he said. “We had just talked recently, and so (it was like) the shock of knowing someone and then that person getting into a car accident.”
Esposito also works at Ring’s End lumberyard in Wilton, where he is in charge of getting the trucks on the road in the morning, his wife said.
Parille described Esposito as a “big, burly lumberjack kind of guy,” but the virus hit him hard and fast.
“It’s amazing how it took him down so quickly,” he said.
Esposito was hooked up to the ventilator shortly after arriving at the hospital on March 27 because of the inflammation in his lungs, Parille said.
Early in the week leading up to Easter, Esposito’s fever broke and he started to improve. He was taken of the ventilator that Tuesday and brought out of the ICU and into his own room.
“It’s a miracle,” Parille said. “It was just really special that this happened during Holy Week.”
Esposito has not able to speak because his throat is raw from the ventilator tubes, but is expected to start speech and physical therapy, Parille said.
He is getting better at breathing, but is struggling to walk, Tammy said.
The plan is for him to go into a rehabilitation facility that is accepting recovering coronavirus patients, but it has been difficult to find a place, she said.
The hospital does not allow visitors, so Tammy Esposito is unsure when she’ll be able to see him and has only spoken to him twice by phone.
“It’s really not a conversation because it’s just barely a whisper,” she said.