For the past 20-plus years, everything was running smoothly for these two workaholic businessmen—PR mogul Sunny Ku and food industry leader George Pua—both passionate, focused, driven, and on top of their respective fields, until one day, something happened that changed their lives forever.
It would take them several days of "deep slumber" to awake with a new and deeper sense of purpose.
In a coma for three days
Sunny Ku is president of Mastermind Asia Communication Inc., a PR and events firm whose accounts include luxury super cars like Ferrari and Maserati; watch brands Hublot, Breguet, IWC and Philip Stein; and spirit brands such as Louis the 13th, House of Remy Martin, Macallan Whiskey, The Botanist Gin, and Berenger wines, to mention a few.
“All the late nights, the alcohol, steak and foie gras, I guess, finally caught up with me,” confesses Sunny.
At 1 a.m. on Dec. 28, 2019, Sunny got out of bed because he had a hard time breathing.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he recounts. “It felt like I was drowning, so I sat on my lounge chair. But after a while, I was already gasping for air.”
He knew something was wrong so he called his brother Dick and asked him to take him to the hospital. The last thing Sunny remembered was the medical staff putting an oxygen contraption on him.
“I was dozing off as they cut my shirt open with a pair of scissors—just like in Grey’s Anatomy!” he says.
Sunny suffered heart failure, causing his lungs and kidneys to give up, too. His cardiologist, Dr. Erlyn Demerre, had a hard time reviving him and stabilizing his blood pressure.
He fell into a coma for three days. While he was fighting for his life, Dr. Demerre didn’t give up on him even as other doctors already threw in the towel. “She would pray with me every day during her rounds and even started a prayer group for me.”
On a roller-coaster ride
By God’s grace, Sunny woke up from his coma after three days and found himself in the intensive care unit (ICU), intubated.
“I couldn’t talk, swallow or drink water because I had a tube stuck down my throat. Multiple IV needles were plugged into my arms. There was also a catheter insertion through the skin into a large vein in the neck for dialysis,” he relates.
While lying in his hospital bed, Sunny would survey his surroundings as nurses alternated in checking his vitals and doing round-the-clock blood extractions.
"Then a doctor, who had a kind face, went to my bedside, and with a soft voice, said: "Mr. Ku, congratulations! We didn't think you were going to make it."
Finally, Sunny was transferred to a regular room and got to see his family and friends once again from afar.
“It was great to see my children Nathan and Nicole, and my brothers, which made me so happy,” notes Sunny. “I saw friends, both old and new. But I also saw tears forming in their eyes, so I knew I wasn’t off the hook yet.”
And then the dreams started coming.
“I had really scary dreams. I would see dead people walking inside the ICU room,” narrates Sunny. “And I would also hear voices whispering these words in my ear: ‘You don’t have to fight anymore! Your prayers aren’t going to do you any good, so just relax and let go.’”
For the next two and a half months, Sunny went on a roller-coaster ride. He had good days, but mostly bad days. But he never complained. The fact that he was given a new lease on life was for him already a big blessing.
All the while, Sunny would just think of the many travels he had with his daughter Nicole, son Nathan and daughter-in-law Chany, and looked forward to doing this with them again in God’s time.
“I was brought back to the ICU twice because my heart and lungs were still weak and weren’t functioning properly,” he says.
To improve his condition, his doctors put an Implanted Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD), a battery-powered device placed under the skin that keeps track of one’s heart rate.
“Thin wires connect the ICD to your heart,” explains Sunny. “If an abnormal heart rhythm is detected, the device will deliver an electric shock to restore your normal heartbeat. Think Ironman.”
After the surgical procedure, his doctor programmed the contraption to limit his heartbeat to 90 beats per minute via Bluetooth and a laptop.
“It helped stabilize my heart. I just had to practice breathing normally. Also, my lungs and kidneys started functioning again. All looked positive.”
Or so he thought. Since Sunny was lying in that hospital bed for almost 80 days, he lost his ability to walk on his own. He lost not just muscle mass, but also his hair.
“I had to go through both physical and cardiac rehab,” he relates. “In January this year, I contracted COVID-19. But despite it all, I was hopeful that this was the beginning of the end of my roller-coaster ride.”
Indeed, it was. On Feb. 13, Sunny celebrated his birthday with his family and friends filled with gratitude, hope and optimism.
“We should celebrate life by appreciating how precious it is,” the “mastermind” with an iron heart says. “God has blessed us with these life-changing moments to mold us to be better people, and live not just for ourselves, but for others as well.”
'Asleep' for 21 days
Restaurateur George Pua had no idea that he was asleep in the ICU for 21 days due to COVID-19.
A passionate foodie and workaholic, George still went to work every day despite the government-imposed lockdown. “To survive the pandemic, restaurateurs had to learn to pivot,” he says. “We are still looking for ways to fine tune the way we are selling, serving and delivering food.”
George was last seen in his office the day before July 14, 2020, when he was rushed to the emergency room of UST Hospital.
“I was not feeling well the week before that,” he says. “I was tired and my eyes felt they were burning. I never lost my sense of taste (thank God) and smell but had a bout of hiccups that lasted a week.”
“I was told that I needed to be intubated immediately in the ER,” he shares. “Upon admittance, the doctors told my nephew Mighty Ramirez and my niece Edeleen Ramirez—both doctors—that I had only less than 10-percent chance to survive.”
But God, George adds, never left his side throughout his ordeal.
George was put under sedation, as he was struggling and resisting the intubation. The doctors did all sorts of treatments and blood transfusions.
“There were days that my system would drop, as though I were a goner, so my sister started crying,” he adds.
When he woke up from his three-week coma, George couldn’t believe he was asleep that long. The last memory he had was taking a nap on the afternoon of July 13 in his office, because he felt so tired and sleepy.
What he remembers, though, were the dreams he had while he was “sleeping.”
“I dreamt that I was brought to a clinic somewhere on Wilson St. in Greenhills, to have my face fixed,” George elaborates. “I wanted to ask him why he had to do it, but I couldn’t speak. In my lifetime, I only had one facial treatment and I swore that I would never do it again.”
When he woke up (in his dream), he was already in a building somewhere along Mall of Asia overlooking an events place.
“Then the dream shifted. This time, I was recovering in a dorm with interns. There were nights when I couldn’t breathe, as the room was too warm. I was gasping for air until I passed out,” George goes on. “I still couldn’t figure out the meaning of that dream.”
On the 19th day, George began to pull all the tubes while he was still under sedation. When the doctor saw that he was breathing well on his own, George was finally extubated.
George, president and CEO of Rico’s Lechon, travels for food. And so, when he finally woke up on Aug. 3, he asked the nurse to call and ask his driver to buy him lunch at Thai BBQ in Tiendesitas, which is the closest to Greenhills, “where I thought I was.”
“I was wondering where I was. The nurses, who were in hazmat suits, looked like aliens to me,” notes George. “In fact, the nurse thought I was hallucinating when I asked her to call my driver. I just wanted that Thai BBQ ASAP!”
To new beginnings
On Aug. 17, 2020, George was finally discharged. He had lost 40 pounds due to COVID-19, but not his will to live.
“From 168 pounds, my weight gradually became 128 pounds,” he says. “I have physical therapy three times a week to rehabilitate my muscles. I’m still having shortness of breath. I’m like a goldfish in an aquarium, always gasping for air through my mouth.”
Before the pandemic, George had several projects on the pipeline, and further expansions on Rico’s Lechon into QSR (fast-food service) and his Japanese restaurant Ogawa.
“The food scene will not be the same for at least three years unless a joint-venture prospect comes along,” notes George. “I still have so much to do, and so many places to explore with my grandchidlren.”
George adds that he has no regrets if these projects will not materials. “Maybe it’s God’s way of telling to slow down,” he says.
Asked about his thoughts and feelings after all this, the restaurateur with a big heart hastily replies, “Life isn’t all about success and material things. In this materialistic world we live in, most of us aspire to be the best, the richest. My near-death experience made me realize that all these are temporary. Be content. Always have a grateful heart. Be good to others. And treat each day as a blessing.”
Indeed, for these two survivors, every waking day of their lives is a blessing.