'Don't lose hope': ICU nurse goes home after 8 months in hospital battling COVID-19

Merlin Pambuan told other patients with COVID-19 to keep fighting.

An intensive care unit nurse is finally home after spending eight months in the hospital battling COVID-19.

Merlin Pambuan walked out of St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, California, on Monday to an emotional round of applause from hospital staff.

They weren't just cheering for a patient, but one of their own -- Panbuam, 66, has also worked at the hospital for 40 years, where she treated COVID-19 patients before she became one.

Throughout her long treatment, Pambuan spent three months in the ICU, the hospital said. She was put into a medically induced coma and placed on a ventilator as part of her treatment, and has spent the last few weeks undergoing physical therapy to be able to walk again, Reuters reported.

Her doctor said she came close to death "multiple times."

"I would say this happened at least half a dozen times, that she was very near death," Dr. Maged Tanios, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at St. Mary, told Reuters. One concern was her oxygen levels, he said, as the hospital had a "hard time keeping her oxygen compatible with life."

Pambuan told other patients battling COVID-19: "Don't lose hope."

"Just fight. Fight," she told Reuters. "Because look at me. I'm going home, and I'm walking."

Pambuan's message comes as hospital capacity in Long Beach is "at a breaking point," Mayor Robert Garcia said.

"The COVID crisis in Long Beach is not getting better, in fact, it's getting worse," Garcia said Wednesday during a press briefing.

On Tuesday, Long Beach reported a record 14 deaths, which was double the previous record, Garcia said. The city is just starting to see the impacts of Thanksgiving gatherings on hospitalizations, he said, as some hospitals, including St. Mary Medical Center, are nearly full. Morgues are also nearing capacity, Garcia said.

"They are struggling," Garcia said of St. Mary's staff. "Their doctors and their nurses are pleading for your support. They are seeing more and more patients every day, and they're doing everything they can to provide excellent care."

Long Beach-area hospitals were at 1.5% ICU capacity on Wednesday, while regional ICU capacity was at 0%, he said.

"We are in a serious place with our hospitals, and folks need to do better," he said.

Hospitalization rates remain high throughout California as COVID-19 cases in the state have surpassed 2 million. The milestone is a "reminder that this virus continues to spread through our communities," Dr. Mark Ghaly, the secretary of California's Health and Human Services Agency, said.

"Hospitals are full, ICU beds are few, people are dying," Ghaly said in a statement Thursday. "The simplest thing we can do, but also the most significant, is to stay home. We are the first line of defense against this virus and we must act now."

What to know about the coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map
  • Tune into ABC at 1 p.m. ET and ABC News Live at 4 p.m. ET every weekday for special coverage of the novel coronavirus with the full ABC News team, including the latest news, context and analysis.

    Top Stories

    Top Stories

    Top Stories

    Top Stories

    ABC News Live

    ABC News Live

    24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events