Texas City resident Crystal Gutierrez recently put on her own shoes for the first time in nearly half a year to head to HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake. She now uses a wheelchair; her legs still don't work since spending months in a hospital bed - 152 days to be exact - battling COVID-19. Her pink hair is short, since her husband, Rafael, shaved her head to hide the bald spots resulting from the length of her treatment. "Let's start fresh," she told Rafael. Even though her breath is still somewhat labored and movement remains a challenge, Crystal had a mission. This time, she wasn't going to HCA Clear Lake for a checkup. This time, she wanted to thank the nurses and doctors who saved her life. On Feb. 12, Crystal, 36, her husband and children, were greeted by chief nursing officer Puneet Freibott and Peyton Elliott, CEO at HCA Houston Healthcare Medical Center. Then she saw Dr. Keshava Rajagopal, the cardiac surgeon who performed the emergency procedures that kept her alive. "I just told him thank you for not giving up on me," she said. It was the first time Rajagopal was able to hear her voice. "I'm a husband and father, and I understand what her family went through, to have a child who does not know if his mother is going to make it home," Rajagopal said. He remembers at the most dire moments telling other doctors and nurses, "We cannot let this woman die." Still, in her critical condition, survival was a struggle. "They gave me a 15 to 30 percent chance of making it," Crystal said. "They told my family to call a priest twice." On HoustonChronicle.com: 'The true, staggering toll': U.S. surpasses 500,000 COVID-19 deaths The odds stacked against her, Crystal remembers telling her nurses that she couldn't make it. "I was ready to give up," she said. But her health care team wouldn't let her. "The doctors and nurses kept up the fight. They made sure they were doing everything they could." Seeing them again brought tears to her eyes - and Rafael's. "I tried not to show it, but there was a moment I had to turn my head the other way," he said. "It really hit me. HCA has gone above and beyond for us." Crystal was 36 weeks pregnant in June when she noticed her breathing was labored. At first, she attributed it to her pregnancy. Rafael wanted her to be safe in the pandemic, so he preached caution. Crystal had avoided the grocery store and even refrained from descending the stairs of their second-floor apartment. "Regardless, we did end up getting sick," Crystal said. "We both got COVID at the same time, but we were in denial. We thought it was a summer cold. We got Sudafed and Mucinex." The symptoms worsened. Finally, Crystal called a doctor, who insisted she get tested right away. She headed to the emergency room at HCA Clear Lake. Nurses noted she had no fever, but they ordered X-rays, gave her a Tylenol and started an IV with fluids. Then her temperature began to rise, and the X-rays revealed fluid in her lungs. "The symptoms were consistent with COVID," Crystal recalled. "I broke down and cried, just hearing, 'You tested positive.' I was worried about my husband, my family. My sister had just been over, too." At first, she was placed in a room for COVID patients but was soon moved to labor and delivery. Then she called Rafael, still sick himself, to report that she was getting an emergency C-section. "The anesthesiologist offered to pray with me," Crystal recalled. "And she's the one who took the first picture of my son." Once the baby - Matthew - was delivered, he went straight to a NICU incubator. They tested him daily for COVID-19, and when Rafael was better after a month, Matthew was finally able to go home. But his mother remained in the hospital, unable to see her son until October. Immediately after Matthew was born, Crystal was sent to the ICU. She remembers being told, "This is life or death right now. You need to do breathe with this mask or you'll be intubated, and there's no guarantee you'll come out." It was like a prophecy. On July 6, Crystal was intubated and placed in a medically induced coma. While under, she was transported to different hospitals for treatments. Rajagopal was at HCA Clear Lake when he first learned about Crystal through Hannan Chaugle - a physician on his team at Houston Heart, a cardiology department for HCA Houston. Chaugle served as her doctor in Clear Lake. Together, Chaugle and Rajagopal determined that an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation, or ECMO treatment - a temporary machine that functions as a patient's heart and lungs - was necessary. Then, the two surgeons realized that Clear Lake did not have a bed for Crystal. She was transported to HCA Houston Northwest, then a few days later to the HCA Houston Healthcare location in the Medical Center. After Crystal's lung function improved, Rajagopal said their team was able to wean her off the ECMO and performed a tracheostomy. "Then, she proceeded to deteriorate," Rajagopal said. Her lungs failed. Doctors attached her to more machines. "She would have died if she wouldn't have gone on ECMO," Rajagopal said. "This was absolutely life or death." Crystal doesn't remember any of it. Everything was relayed to her later. On HoustonChronicle.com: How will the deadly winter storm affect COVID vaccinations in Texas? An expert explains. "When I woke up, I was in the Medical Center," Crystal said. "The hardest part was the separation anxiety. The lights go out, and no visitors are allowed. It's lonely. I'm used to being with my husband and kids." She had missed one of her older son's birthday and her wedding anniversary. And she wanted to see her new son. When visitors were again allowed, her father, Jimmy Martinez, came during the week. Rafael, who was acting as the sole parent to the children - Mark, 7, Rafael Jr., 6, Angel Gutierrez, 4, and Matthew - visited on weekends. During the week, he was a father and Zoom teacher, and could not return to his job. Instead, he relied on his savings for income until her release. "I was able to save enough to float us through the months," he said. "It was so stressful. I tried to do the best that I could." Sometimes, Rafael would load the boys up and drive to the beach. "We would hold hands, walk in the water and just pray," he recalled. "We would pretend to talk to her. I would do whatever it takes to just get her back home." At night, he said, the hospital often called for permission for another surgery or procedure. He waited until his children went to sleep so they would not see him cry. "Then, I would just let the waterworks go," he said. Crystal struggled to come out of her coma. Sometimes, Rafael recalled, she would seem alert, then start tearing at tubes and have to be sedated. "At one point, her eyes opened, and they didn't know if it was her body on its own or her," Rafael said. "They didn't know if she was brain dead." Finally, on a video call, he told her that they were waiting for her to come home. Right as he was about to hang up, she cried out, "I love you." "I got on my knees and thanked God," Rafael recalled. Two days before Thanksgiving, Crystal was discharged and able to finally go home. Come Christmas, the hospital staff that had become like a second family ensured they were able to celebrate. Jennifer Milholland, critical care manager at HCA, explained that all of the nurses banded together to host a toy and diaper drive for the family. "Her story broke our hearts," Milholland said. "She had to walk away from her newborn, because she was so sick. She was at death's door more than once. The staff sort of adopted her and made it our mission to help her out." Recovering from COVID-19 isn't easy, Crystal said, especially after intubation and months of bed rest. "Recovery still means a lingering cough," she said. "I lost muscles. I can't walk. My feet feel like they're asleep. I'm still on oxygen." Losing movement has been a challenge, especially as a mother of four. When a tornado hit Texas City in January, she could not get up to find safety. With the recent freezing weather, she again felt trapped. But she is making progress. Last week, she rolled into the kitchen, parked her wheelchair and used the countertop to prop herself up. "I washed dishes," she said. "I washed a few bottles, and I put some away." She called Rafael to show him that she was standing. "I want you to see that I'm trying," Crystal said. Being in the hospital for so long has made her appreciate being with her family and doing the little things - even dishes. "It's the simple things, so simple you take for granted," she said. "The main thing is not to forget the simplest things." Lindsay Peyton is a Houston-based freelance writer.