DICKSON — Less than a week before Christmas last year, Carlos Contreras was driving from El Paso, Texas, to Michigan making a delivery for his trucking company, Fatboy Trucking.

During this two-day drive, Contreras began to feel symptoms of what he initially believed to be a mild cold or allergies. As his condition worsened, however, he decided to stop at a hotel in Dickson for a good night’s rest.

“When I got to Dickson, I told (my fiancée), ‘I’m not feeling good at all. I’m gonna rent a room here, and I’ll head out tomorrow morning,’” he said.

After spending six days in the hotel room, Contreras went to TriStar Horizon Medical Center where he was diagnosed with COVID-19.

As soon as his fiancée, Claudia Martinez, heard of his condition, she drove 16 hours from Harlingen, Texas (a small town near the Gulf of Mexico), to Dickson. She arrived on Christmas Eve and both she and Contreras would end up spending almost two months in Dickson.

Because of the severity of his condition (at one point he required emergency intubation), Contreras does not remember much of his time in the hospital, but both he and Martinez recall with immense appreciation the generosity of the doctors and nurses who assisted them.

“I saw a big difference in that hospital … and the way that everybody treats the patients,” Martinez said.

One day when Contreras was severely ill, Martinez was rushing to see him; when she arrived, she said she saw nurses and doctors standing over his bed praying for his survival.

“They were like angels,” she said, “The people were so kind … they gave me the strength I needed.”

A local church also provided support. Martinez found a job so she could stay in Dickson while Contreras recovered, according to a hospital news release.

One nurse in particular, Mark Allen, formed a deep bond with Contreras. Soon after Contreras was admitted to the hospital Allen recognized the area code when Martinez called and was curious as to how someone from Harlingen ended up in Dickson on Christmas Eve.

Martinez says Allen was the person she went to with all of her questions about Contreras’ condition and the Coronavirus. Allen regularly worked in the hospital’s COVID-19 unit.

“He’s a very special person,” Allen said about Contreras. “He’s kind, sweet, never complained about anything.”

During a particularly arduous day when his special patient had severe breathing difficulty, Allen, hoping to encourage Contreras to fight against COVID, promised to go to Harlingen to buy him a steak dinner after he recovered.

Contreras was released from the hospital after a 55-day stay and moved to a long-term care facility in Texas, according to the news release. A hospital official also said that TriStar arranged for a private plane to fly Contreras and Martinez back to Texas.

On May 15, Allen followed through by flying to Texas with his wife to have dinner with Contreras and Martinez.

A few days before Allen’s visit, Contreras was told that he would need to return to a rehab facility. While he tried to resist saying, “I can’t, I have plans this weekend,” both the doctors and Martinez convinced him to go, which allowed only 30 minutes for his dinner with Allen.

On his way to the facility, Allen stopped by Texas Roadhouse and bought the biggest steak available for Contreras.

He also presented Contreras and Martinez with T-shirts from TriStar Horizon, along with several gifts and notes from staff members. According to the news release, the notes said “Thanks for letting us take care of you. We will never forget you. You have made us better people.”

Contreras and Martinez have begun to make plans to come back to Dickson in November or December to visit their new “hospital” family. Allen and Contreras frequently call or text each other, Contreras said.

When asked about his current relationship with Allen, Contreras said, “Mark is my new brother.”

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