He was so disoriented that he couldn’t find the bathroom at his own White Bear Lake home. He had a stomachache and shortness of breath. At St. John’s Hospital, his condition worsened dramatically, and doctors warned his wife that he had maybe three hours to live.
Nachito Herrera lapsed into a coma for 14 days.
“I can’t remember anything; I barely remember when they tried to put me in my car in the back seat to go to the hospital,” said Herrera, the great Cuban-American pianist who is the most famous Minnesotan to recover from COVID-19.
But everything has been explained to him — the transfer to M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center, the two weeks on an ECMO machine, the dozens of doctors, the phone calls to specialists in his native Cuba where “they treat me as a celebrity,” the daily prayer vigil at his Minneapolis church, the iPad in the hospital so his wife and two adult children could watch him during the state-mandated stay-at-home order.
Herrera — who will perform at the Star Tribune’s virtual grandstand series on Saturday — speaks with a soft voice but, like his piano playing, he converses with the force of a tornado. He’s nonstop and propulsive, punctuating his remarks with exclamation points of gratitude.
“I have no words to say how grateful we have to feel to this team of doctors at the University of Minnesota,” Herrera said recently from his home.
Herrera knows he was at death’s door. He feels his story is something of a miracle.
It all started on March 28, a day he’d been scheduled to perform at the Dakota music club in Minneapolis. Of course, the popular restaurant with music was closed then because of the governor’s lockdown directive. Herrera’s family took him to the hospital in Maplewood.
“It was really frightening,” recalled Dakota co-owner Lowell Pickett, who is a close friend of Herrera’s. “They told Aurora [Herrera’s wife] that they didn’t expect him to survive.”
Herrera’s heart and lungs were failing, so after moving to the U hospital, he was hooked to an ECMO machine, a heart-lung device typically used in heart surgery, which at the time had been used only on COVID patients in China.
“When I wake up on April 11, all the doctors and nurses come to my room and ask me: ‘Do you know where you are? Do you know what happened?’ ” Herrera recalled. “I say: ‘What in the world am I doing here? I have no idea.’
“I can’t remember how I get [COVID] or when I get it. I can’t remember anything.”
Except he remembers being in the hospital intubated after he came out of the coma. He remembers the next day when Pickett and another Dakota staffer dropped off a portable electric keyboard that orderlies dispatched to Herrera’s room. He remembers something that happened soon thereafter.
“On the third day, when I wake up, a melody came into my head and I was able to play it,” the pianist said. “I compose a piece when I was in the ICU room. I call it ‘Hope’ — ‘Esperanza’ in Spanish.”
Close to 100%
Now, more than four months after being discharged from the hospital, Herrera pronounces himself “pretty much back 100 percent. Thanks God, I didn’t get any kind of side effects.”
Even though he lost 20 pounds, he says his energy is “full charge.” He can drive his car and resume all his pre-COVID activities.
His only lingering issue is tenderness — “like an internal bruise” — from an incision where doctors connected devices when his heart was failing.
The situation was much different when he returned home in mid-April. He was very uncomfortable. His right leg was swollen from an aneurysm. It took two or three weeks before he could control his fingers.
“I try to sit at my beautiful Steinway, and I couldn’t even play anything because the action of the keys was so heavy for me,” he recalled. “I didn’t have any power to play one major scale.”
Soon Herrera built up the strength and flexibility to play his beloved grand piano for 15 minutes. He eventually graduated to 45 minutes and then to an hour. He’s pretty much back to his regular practicing duration.
He has a daily regime of exercise, physical therapy and habits.
“As a good Cuban person, I cannot start my day without a cup of my Cuban espresso,” Herrera said. “Then I try to follow the news with this whole development of the situation with the COVID-19 and the vaccines.”
For the past three months, he’s been doing his daily physical therapy at home, 10 different exercises he checks off on a list, but no weightlifting. He walks laps around his patio, usually for 2 miles, then lunches with his wife, takes a little break and goes “straight to the piano.”
First, he does his warm-up exercises, the same ones he’s been doing for years — fingers, knees, arms, elbows.
“I like to play so intense,” which is an understatement. With his powerhouse style, whether he’s playing classical music or Latin jazz, he reminds listeners that the piano is a percussion instrument.
He’s been practicing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which, government directives willing, he hopes to perform Feb. 14 at Orchestra Hall with the Wayzata Symphony. It will also celebrate his 20th anniversary of arriving in Minnesota from Cuba.
Misses State Fair, Twins
A classically trained prodigy, Herrera, at age 12, played that challenging Rachmaninoff concerto with the Havana Symphony Orchestra. Four years later, famed Cuban pianist Ruben Gonzalez of Buena Vista Social Club invited him onstage, inspiring the teenager to explore the traditional rhythms of his country with Gonzalez, Chucho Valdes and others.
After earning a master’s degree in music in Havana, Herrera began performing with state-sponsored orchestras, eventually joining Cubanismo (and becoming its musical director) and touring Europe, the Far East and the United States, where they recorded in New Orleans.
Ignacio is his given name and the name of his father. Since “Nacho” is the conventional nickname for Ignacio, he became “Nachito,” or Little Nacho.
Since moving to Minnesota in 2001, Herrera has developed a fondness for the people here.
“You meet someone one day and the next day they treat you like family. I love that because it is exactly what we do in my country.
“And I really love what they call the Minnesota goodbye. It is the same as the Cuban goodbye. You say you have to go, and you spend another hour and a half. And you get to the door finally, and you spend another 15 minutes saying goodbye.”
Two of his favorite Minnesota spots are off-limits this year: the Minnesota State Fair (he’s partial to the diverse music as well as corn dogs and cheese curds) and Minnesota Twins games (he sits with his buddy Tony Oliva, the former Twins great from Cuba).
The Minnesota place that means the most to Herrera, however, is the Dakota, also shut down during the pandemic.
“The Dakota is my musical house. I cannot live without the Dakota,” the pianist said. “That is one of the things I’m missing right now.”
Over the years, he has played there solo and with various combinations of musicians, including duetting with violinist Karen Briggs and leading the Habana All Stars and the Universals.
Confident in his recovery, Herrera is planning to do a livestream concert on Sept. 25 via the Dakota’s Facebook page.
“I can’t wait,” he said.
He’s also eager to get in front of a live audience, but he knows that will be in the unpredictable future as the world continues to contend with COVID-19.
As a coronavirus survivor, Herrera realizes his words may resonate in ways that those of doctors, politicians and health experts don’t.
“A lot of people aren’t taking this serious,” Herrera warned. “This is the worst thing I’ve had in 54 years of my life. It is just horrible. It can kill anybody in just 24 hours. I’m scared to get it. It’s not 100 percent guaranteed you’re not going to get it again.
“The most important thing is to work together. Anything to continue to save lives. It doesn’t matter if you live in Cuba or Russia or United States, China, Vietnam or Japan. You need to take this seriously. This is something that changes your life. I can’t believe in my brain what I went through. It is important to work together to save the most lives we can.”