LAWRENCE — Confined to his basement, battling a stubborn fever and a persistent cough, Juan "Manny" Gonzalez prayed for the safety of his wife, Gloribel.
"I kept praying, 'Keep her healthy. Let me carry the burden. Don't give it to her,'" said the veteran Lawrence firefighter. "I prayed for my better half not to get this and, thank God, she never did."
Gonzalez, 54, beat COVID-19 but it was two months before he finally tested negative and one of his lungs was affected, requiring him to perform breathing therapy daily.
It was the sickest he'd ever been in his life. But Gonzalez considers himself fortunate, pointing to the millions of other first responders across the country and the world who have not been as fortunate.
"Some have passed away," he noted.
Born in Puerto Rico, Gonzalez came to the city in 1982. He was 15 years old and could not speak English.
But he worked hard to learn the language, through Lawrence High's bilingual program, mostly so he could play basketball and run track, he said.
"I wanted to play sports," he said.
He's been a city firefighter for the past 24 years and also co-founded the nonprofit, Heal Lawrence, which helps fire victims get back on their feet.
Gonzalez and Gloribel have three grown children — Juan David, 33, Jasmine Elvira, 30, and Calvin Manuel, 25. Jasmine and her husband had a baby boy this year. Aidan Ryan is now 7 months old and Gonzalez said he can't wait to FaceTime with him each day.
He initially felt ill on Sept. 11 after leaving work and tested positive shortly after.
"We go to so many calls and places where people are positive in the buildings. But we wear our gloves and our masks," he explained.
Gonzalez said he is "blessed" because he had a basement at home where he could quarantine with his illness, while his wife stayed on the floor above.
"Because we had two levels, my wife and I could keep a safe distance. And she cooked for me and (would) leave the food at the top of the stairs," he said.
A constant symptom was a persistent fever that ranged from 100 to 101 degrees. "It was constant," Gonzalez said, making it hard to sleep and the fatigue causing him to worry about what was happening.
Later, he started coughing and "that lingered for weeks."
"I had never been that sick for that long," he said.
Then, when he finally started feeling better, Gonzalez said he would test positive for COVID-19 three more times. He needed two negative tests in order to go back to work at the Fire Department.
"I was concerned for my co-workers," he said.
His physician told him one of his lungs was affected by COVID, which he said is not uncommon when someone has a virus. He was given a series of exercises and a device to breathe into to help him heal his lung and expand his breathing capacity.
Gonzalez urges others to keep wearing masks, washing their hands, to socially distance and "do what you need to do to keep your family safe."
"Those are things you can control," he said.
The arrival of a vaccine is great news, he stressed, but it won't immediately keep you safe from COVID-19.
Gonzalez said he is happy to be back at work, helping others and "giving back to the community."
"That is something I got from my mother," he said. "I feel blessed. I enjoy giving back for everything I've gotten."
He said he won't remember 2020 as a trying time — but a year of appreciation .
"I have so much to be thankful for in 2020," Gonzalez said.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.