LANCASTER, N.Y. — George Stokes sits in his living room recliner, playing with his exuberant puppy, Skye.
"Where you going? Where you going?" George asks her. "Why you so excited? Why you so excited girl?"
As excited as his canine companion is — George feels the same way about every day.
"You gonna bite me? You gonna bite me? I’ve been through everything else," George said.
He has made his share of mistakes. He’s spent time in prison. But for him, the simple act of lacing up a pair of fresh white sneakers, heading outside on a beautiful day, and taking a walk around his neighborhood is something he does not take for granted.
"Oh, absolutely. It doesn’t get any better than this," he said on a mild March afternoon.
George considers himself lucky to be here — lucky to be alive.
"I was sitting in my reclining chair and I couldn’t take it anymore," he said. "Had I not got up and went to the hospital at that moment, an hour later my family would’ve found me in that chair dead."
Back in March 2020, George had a fever and didn’t feel well. It turns out he had COVID-19. He was the first COVID-19 patient admitted to what became a coronavirus-only treatment center at the Sisters of Charity Hospital St. Joseph Campus in Cheektowaga.
George suffered cardiac arrest and had a blood infection during his illness.
He spent much of his time there in a coma and on a ventilator as medical staff worked to keep him alive during the early days of COVID-19 in the United States.
"I didn’t know what was going on until after I came through, which was a blessing," he said.
During that time, his family faced some difficult moments wondering what was to come while George was alone in the hospital.
"They were scared. They didn’t know if I was going to make it or not," he said.
But with the help of doctors and nurses at St. Joe’s, George did make it.
"I have so much gratitude for them, man. I wish I could adopt them," he joked as he thanked them for saving his life.
After more than a month in their care, George was discharged from the hospital at the end of April, flanked by loved ones.
"Here it is that I’m on this side still. That was the whole thing man," George said. "When I came out, I just looked out and thanked God for bringing me this far and bringing me through that."
George had to stay at Kenmore Mercy Hospital for about three weeks for rehabilitation and therapy after his ordeal. Almost a year later, he still has trouble with walking, talking, and his memory. But he’s grateful for the chance to use his experiences to be a better person and help others in his role as a substance abuse counselor and his brand, "The Lord Did It."
If every day is a gift, George is living proof.
"It shows me how good God is, because without him I wouldn’t be here," he said. "He brought me through it so I could be a blessing to the world."
Some photos used in this piece are courtesy of The Buffalo News. The full gallery can be found here.