April’s coronavirus death toll surpassed the Vietnam War’s, and it tested almost everyone, yet Americans found ways to come together.The Washington Post, by Marc Fisher, Abigail Hauslohner, Hannah Natanson and Lori Rozsa, May 2, 2020
April was death. Bodies stacked, mothers and fathers discarded in bags piled onto refrigerator trucks in hospital parking lots, dumped into mass graves. People leaving this life without farewells, without a last look of love, without a touch.
April was hope. A frenzy of purposeful energy, scientists and doctors and nurses searching for patterns that might lead to answers. People without fancy degrees snapped on gloves, tied on masks and prayed that the help they gave to people they would never know might not lead also to their own demise.
April was cruel. There have been worse months in the history of human beings, but not many. An average of 446,000 people died each month from August to October in 1942 during Germany’s mania of industrialized murder, the Holocaust. In the United States, the deadliest month was October 1918, when about 200,000 people succumbed to the flu.
The new virus is a swift executioner. In the war in Vietnam, 58,209 Americans were killed between 1960 and 1975. In the battle against the novel coronavirus, 58,760 Americans died in April alone. Both crises leeched into existing fissures, exacerbating political and social divisions. But the war analogy goes only so far; in this conflict, we have no big guns, no ready defense. All we can do at this stage is hide and try to manage the damage.
April 11: U.S. death toll becomes highest in the world (20,429)
April 20: U.S. death toll doubles in 9 days (42,128)
April 29: U.S. death toll now surpasses nation’s Vietnam War casualties from 1960 to 1975 (58,209)
April 30: 62,557 total U.S. covid-19 deaths
The virus that changed America in April is an invisible and insidious killer, aimed at no one in particular and at everyone at once. This disease, covid-19, has the power to cause searing pain, to turn our bodies against us, to rob us of the thing we take most for granted, the air we breathe. It also steals jobs and money and food and the simplest of gestures — a smile now hidden under a mask, a glance that doesn’t happen because you’re stuck at home, a handshake that now shivers with danger.
By the end of the month, more than 2,000 Americans were dying each day and more than 1 million had confirmed infections — about one in every 325 people in the country.
A desperate month
April was a frantic blur, at hospitals, in makeshift wards in hallways and closets, in formless days as nurses tried to salve gasping patients. After 12 hours of tending to people for whom they had no answers, doctors stole a few moments to trade stories in their Facebook groups, telling what they had seen and what they had tried. Somehow, they hoped, their collective anecdotes might add up to something useful.
“There’s no consensus on what’s the right thing to do,” said Kathleen Kelly, an emergency room physician at Reston Hospital Center in Northern Virginia. “It’s just like nothing anybody’s seen.”
Put the patients on their bellies, give them high-flow nasal oxygen, try this, try that, anything to help them draw air. People came in with breathing so labored that nurses could hear them clear across the ER.
There was no such thing as dropping by to check on a patient. Everything was an ordeal, a detailed process designed to keep health-care workers going beyond where they ever thought they would go.
It took five pairs of gloves just to safely remove one set of protective gear (mask and face shield and gloves and gown and booties): Clean an area, remove the gloves, dump them in a paper bag, put on another pair, clean an area, repeat. It took five minutes to prep for each bedside visit.
“But these people need you in there right now,” Kelly said. “We’re used to running to colleagues for advice, but now, nobody can run in to check with anyone.”
There were so many questions, so few answers. Where, for example, were all the other patients — the heart attacks and cooking burns and car crash injuries? (Okay, that last disappearance was explainable: Hardly anybody was driving.) Were people suffering at home, too scared to come to the hospital? Even the neonatologists wondered: Where are people delivering their babies?
When people did arrive, their situation was bad.
“Heart attacks are coming in too late, and they’re ending up with long-term cardiac damage,” said Kelly, who is 63 and started her career during the first big wave of HIV cases. “You protected yourself then, but it was nothing like this. This is so infectious, and we don’t understand it. I don’t know how I’ll know when to take the mask off.”
April 1: The novel coronavirus has killed more than 1,000 people in a single day.
April 2: A record number of people file for unemployment assistance, more than double the previous week.
April 3: Retailers furlough nearly 1 million workers in a week, and Trump fires intelligence watchdog Michael Atkinson.
April 4: 640 people die of coronavirus in New York City, bringing total above 3,500.
A hunger for air
Shani Evans, 50, thought it was just menopause. Hot flashes, chills. Then, after two days, the sore throat, headache, and dry cough. Uh-oh.
But she had a job interview — she was in the process of switching from one Lowe’s store to another, where she would be working in the lawn and garden department — and the teledoctor she called told her she probably just had a seasonal allergy.
Then everything got worse. The symptoms stacked up — add nausea and fever to the mix. She called in sick and drove from her home in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to an urgent care clinic 15 minutes away in Charles Town, where they told her she didn’t meet the criteria for getting a coronavirus test. They gave her cough medicine and sent her home.
Then the virus took her breath away.
“I was never sicker,” Evans said. Thirteen days into the suffering, her boyfriend, Ronald Grey, drove her to the ER at Jefferson Medical Center. She was gasping for air.
On the third try at the hospital, Evans said, a staffer decided she needed help and rustled up a wheelchair.
Pete Paganussi, a doctor in the ER, saw Evans. “He was so nice,” Evans said. “He stayed with me for hours.”
Paganussi explained that the best thing he could do for her breathing was to intubate her — put her on a ventilator.
“I explained it, and she got up and ran out,” Paganussi said.
Evans said she refused the treatment because “I’m a strong person, maybe stubborn, too. I was scared to go on the ventilator because I didn’t want to lose control. I wanted to keep my lungs moving.” (In a study of covid-19 patients in New York, 88 percent of those who were put on ventilators died.)
Evans went home. The hours crawled by. She drank tea, used an inhaler. She did whatever she could to avoid lying down, because that’s when the cough intensified. She vacuumed the floor, dusted, anything to keep active, keep her lungs going. Not normally given to anxiety, she was scared beyond imagining. Time became a blur. For seven days, she barely slept, getting just minutes of rest at a time because the coughing would wake her.
“I was in and out of my mind,” she said. “It was really weird.”
She tried to watch TV. She put CNN, Fox News and MSNBC on split screens and she had no idea what to believe. “Everybody says different things, and I don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “Fox plays it down and CNN takes it more serious, and I can’t get anywhere with it.”
Paganussi kept calling from the hospital and leaving messages. No answer.
“I was afraid she’d died,” the doctor said.
On the third day after the hospital visit, her breathing eased. She called the doctor back. She was okay, she said.
“It’s been a long month,” Evans said. “A very long month.”
The sickness lifted. The cough lingered, then resolved. But the anxiety remained, even after her employer paid her for her time in quarantine. Her boyfriend is okay, and she’s back at work, but “mentally, I’m changed,” Evans said. “I don’t know how I’m going to go back to going places.”
Her doctor shares her anxiety. “I’ve been a doc since 1985, and I’ve never been afraid to walk into a room,” Paganussi said. “This virus scares me.”
Before every shift, he reads the 91st Psalm to the nurses: “You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”
When he finishes, the nurses break into applause.
April 5: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted to hospital.
April 6: U.S. death toll from coronavirus passes 10,000.
April 7: Trump fires inspector general set to oversee stimulus spending, and U.S. has highest daily death toll of any country, with more than 1,800 fatalities.
April 8: Data show hundreds of young Americans have been killed by the virus.
Silent and eerie
April was still. Silent schools and eerily empty highways, shuttered shops and deserted offices. Outside their homes, many people were muffled — masked, gloved, fearful, possible vectors of a contagion that knew no bounds.
Even death seemed more still than usual. No bedside farewells, no last hugs, no comforting gatherings of loved ones.
From their homes in the Boston area, Shannon, Jean and Kellie Lynch could only listen on the phone to the beeping monitors in their mother’s Florida hospital room. A nurse propped the phone on Carol Lynch’s pillow at the Villages Regional Hospital.
“We love you,” said Kellie, 59, the eldest. “Mom, if this is too much and you can’t do this, you can let go.”
And then, Kellie said, “all of a sudden, the beeping stopped.”
Carol Lynch was 84 when she died of covid-19. She died alone, and that is not how the Lynches pass from this world.
“In our family,” said the middle sister, Jean, 56, “we’re all there by their side when they die.”
They were there, at home, when their father, James, succumbed to a stroke, in 1999.
“I administered his last dose of morphine,” said Jean, a real estate agent who lives in Chelmsford, Mass.
When the fourth sister, Susan, died of leukemia at 23, her parents were by her side.
Now, Carol was gone.
“Can you imagine being surrounded by people with face masks, no one you know?” Jean said.
Their mother had suffered from occasional bronchitis but was otherwise healthy. When the virus struck, Carol thought it was her usual ailment. The daughters persuaded her to see a doctor, who said she had “a teeny bit of pneumonia,” Kellie said. Carol wanted to charge ahead with planning her birthday party. Her daughters told her to cancel it because of the virus.
“They get their news from Fox down there,” Kellie said. “They believe what Trump tells them. She said she had a lot of shopping to do for the party. I said ‘No, you’re not.’ She grumbled and complained, but she canceled the party.”
The decline came swiftly. One day, Carol was cooking up a storm, making beef stew and meatballs for her friends. The next day, she was delirious, with a high fever.
Kellie — who owns a fitness studio in Cohasset, Mass., where the youngest daughter, Shannon, 50, also works — went down to Florida to bring their mother home. But when Kellie arrived, hospital staffers wouldn’t let her into her mother’s room.
A few days after Carol died, Kellie received a box containing their mother’s ashes.
“I just kept moving it around the house,” Kellie said. “Finally, my girls were like, ‘Mom, you have to open the box.’ When they unpacked the urn, I started to shake all over.”
She put it in the living room, near a picture of her mother.
There could be no family gathering. “No big funeral, no wake, no ritual,” Shannon said. “There’s a lot to be said for having your people around you, where you can express your pain and cry your eyes out.”
The daughters hope to arrange a small family funeral in May, as well as a celebration of Carol’s life in June in Florida.
Jean said she has been “crying so hard that it actually hurt me. I couldn’t hold a thought. I was like, what the hell is wrong with me? Why do I feel so heavy? I called a friend, and she said, ‘That’s grief.’”
April 9: Total number of Americans who have filed for unemployment reaches 17 million in the past four weeks.
April 10: Worldwide death toll passes 100,000.
April 11: The United States becomes the country with the most coronavirus deaths in the world, with more than 20,000.
April 12: The Pope gives an Easter Sunday Mass to a nearly empty basicila.
A rain of blows
April was punch after punch, a beating that knocked some families down, then slammed them again.
Miguel and Maria Hernandez were inseparable. Their love came late — they were already in their 40s when they met in a shopping mall — and endured through civil war in El Salvador, migration to a new country, and years of troubled health.
In Elizabeth, N.J. — where the couple settled and raised their son — Miguel, 77, and Maria, 80, were rarely seen apart.
“If people saw one of them alone, they’d be like ‘Where’s your husband?’ ‘Where’s your wife?’” said their son, Jose. “They were attached at the hip.”
Miguel and Maria lived upstairs in the family’s main house; Jose, now 36 and married, with one son, lived in the apartment below.
In recent years, Miguel had battled prostate cancer, and then heart problems. He had a pacemaker installed. He was shocked with a defibrillator twice.
When the epidemic began, the family was cautious. But, as March ended, Miguel fell ill. For many years an active bicyclist, he stopped eating, struggled to climb stairs, lost his balance. He grew confused and dehydrated.
At the beginning of April, Jose, Maria and Miguel donned masks and drove to the hospital.
Almost as soon as Miguel was admitted, Maria, who had long suffered from asthma, began to cough. They both tested positive for the virus, and Jose shuttled them back and forth to the hospital.
With his mother hospitalized and his father at home, Jose juggled his hopes and his emotions, his duties to Miguel upstairs and his concern about his wife, Kimberly, and their 5-year-old son, Marius, downstairs. Jose wore a mask and a separate set of clothes to feed and bathe his father.
Miguel couldn’t sleep. He struggled to pull in air. “He would close his eyes, start to drift off, but he wasn’t breathing right,” Jose said. “He’d open his eyes, startled.”
Jose called an ambulance. The paramedics showed up looking like first responders at a chemical spill.
At the hospital, Miguel was placed on a ventilator. Within three days, he died in his sleep.
Jose couldn’t tell Maria. He knew it would break her heart.
But then Jose got an urgent call from the hospital. As doctors prepared to intubate Maria, too, they asked Jose whether they should start chest compressions if her heart stopped — as it would — warning that performing CPR on an 80-year-old in her condition might break her ribs and cause serious harm.
Jose thought of what his mother had told him a few years earlier when his grandmother died: “I don’t want them keeping me alive when I’m not really alive.” Now, Jose told the doctor: No chest compressions.
Just like that, his parents were gone. Married for 37 years, dead within three days.
On top of the loss, Jose faced the sudden cost of two funerals — $12,450 for two plots, two caskets, two services.
Miguel had worked hard his whole life, doing maintenance in warehouses. And Jose had a full-time job as a supermarket security guard. But money to cover the cost of dying simply didn’t exist.
Jose’s aunt — Miguel’s sister — and her children set up a GoFundMe appeal. They posted pictures of the man who played the guitar and loved mariachi bands, who regaled relatives with stories of the old days, who was always up for a game of checkers.
The money arrived in 500 donations — $10 here, $100 there.
“No one should have to worry about funeral expenses while mourning such a painful loss,” one man wrote.
Jose would have to wait for the funeral. For now, at home in a house left only half full, he and Kimberly searched for a Disney movie that might help explain the death of a loved one to a 5-year-old. The only one that came to mind was “The Lion King,” in which the father lion is killed, but it didn’t seem quite right.
Jose and Kimberly put off telling Marius about what had happened to the grandparents he had visited every day, with whom he played and watched cartoons. But he soon began asking. Where were they? Were they feeling better?
April 13: Navy reports first coronavirus death from the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
April 14: Trump halts U.S. funding of the World Health Organization.
April 15: Retailers log an unprecedented 8.7 percent decline, and worldwide cases surpass 2 million.
April 16: New unemployment numbers show that a decade of job gains have been erased.
Plunged into crisis
April was lost — jobs evaporated, bank accounts run dry. Liquor sales soared, as did prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications and calls to suicide hotlines. Food lines and empty grocery shelves became commonplace in a nation accustomed to a life of plenty.
In the California valley that prides itself on being the nation’s salad bowl, Yiling Cui named her farm Everlasting Garden, and for more than two decades, the name seemed accurate. She grew tiny French breakfast radishes and lemon grasses and six kinds of basil for high-end San Francisco restaurants.
Like many other business owners across the country, Cui saw the impact of stay-at-home orders almost overnight. With restaurants closed, she went from 55 clients to none. Cui was left with five acres of food she couldn’t give away.
She tried to shift to serving her neighbors. She tore out those specialty crops and planted foods people needed now that they were cooking at home: baby carrots, scallions, fava beans.
Cui, 67, put notices on Facebook and went to farmers markets. While locals were happy to buy some greens — they drove up, popped their trunks, and Cui deposited a box of produce — the revenue was a tiny portion of what she usually brought in.
She had no work for her two seasonal employees. She and her partner did all the labor now — mostly sad work, plowing in plants that used to end up on $30 plates in Bay Area eateries.
“Every day now, we just try to figure out tomorrow,” she said. “I just try to keep going. At least we can eat what we grow.”
At Andrea Osorio’s house in San Antonio, they planted seeds for beans, tomatoes and squash in the front yard and started building a chicken coop in the back.
It’s not enough. After she chastises her sons for eating more than two eggs, after she calculates how much she owes the bill collectors, and after she feeds the men in her life frijoles — refried beans — for the fifth night in a row, Andrea retreats to a corner of her living room to cry.
The panic felt tighter each April day without work, without a way to buy food. On this night, the worry left her breathless.
Before the pandemic, Osorio, 46, did not have to ration. The undocumented domestic worker found a way to provide for her Mexican American family. If work was slow, the mother of four pushed harder. She usually made nearly $500 a week cleaning houses in San Antonio, bolstering her husband’s construction wages.
Before, Osorio’s 75-year-old father, Victorio, did odd jobs to help bring in money. Before, her youngest, Osvaldo, a plump 10-year-old, would sneak snacks and his mother would let it go. Before, Osorio sent what money she had left over to her mother in Mexico.
Now, the mother eyes her son warily in the kitchen. Now, the old man stands at attention after each dinner to deliver a formal thank you to his daughter.
“At the beginning, I thought I could do this,” Osorio said. “But two weeks became three and then four and now who knows when I can work again? I cry, but never in front of them. I wait until they go to sleep and I’m alone.”
Her husband, Oscar Sanchez Sr., leaves every morning before 7 to finish off the roof of a resort home miles away. At least they have that, Andrea said.
They are paying their bills in bits and pieces. Ten dollars toward the monthly car payment. One hundred for the taxes. Twenty bucks for the water and electricity. Undocumented families don’t get stimulus checks. They can’t apply for unemployment. With so little money coming in, they emptied their freezer for the first time.
While her husband works, Andrea struggles to assist her youngest son with homework. He receives special help at school and attends a tutoring program. But his parents had to stop payments for the tutor.
Andrea came to San Antonio from Mexico as a teenager, learned some English, graduated from high school and wanted more. But not having papers meant not having chances, she said. She married, escaped an abusive ex-husband shortly after becoming a mother and saw her two oldest children go to college. Her daughter’s college diploma is the first thing on display inside the family’s front door.
For Andrea, April has meant tears, often shed alone in the living room. But not every day was bleak. Oscar Sanchez’s boss paid him a bit extra. The other day, a man called offering Andrea some work. And Oscar found an envelope stuffed with $240 in their mailbox.
For the first time in April, the family had meat for dinner.
April was families forced into close quarters, roles reordered — parents becoming teachers, students left to learn on their own, rites of passage skipped over.
Laura Simons held her 5-year-old daughter’s hand in her left palm as she scrolled through slides of physics equations with her right.
On the child’s laptop, set up next to Mom’s, a teacher sang “Days of the week, days of the week!” The singer asked her pixilated pre-kindergarteners to cheer because “yesterday was Thursday,” meaning today was Friday.
Chloe Simons yanked her mother’s hand. Chloe said she did not understand: “Why are they cheering?”
Laura had an hour and 44 minutes before she had to log in to Zoom to teach her AP Physics 1 class. But she pulled away from her preparations to peer at her daughter’s screen.
“Well, normally when you go to school,” Laura told her daughter, “you get to stay home on Saturday and Sunday.”
Had Chloe forgotten weekends already? Weekends no longer really existed here. The line between school and their home in Springfield, Va., between work and family — a line she’d fought to find through her decade in Alexandria City Public Schools — had vanished, too.
Throughout April, Laura, 37, had led online classes in the kitchen on weekday mornings, with Chloe underfoot and her 17-month-old son, Oliver, on her lap.
Laura’s 109 physics students knew by now that Oliver liked to dump anything in the lowest kitchen drawers onto the floor. That Chloe spilled Cheerios and pretzels. Laura had canceled class once when her children dissolved into simultaneous meltdowns.
She spent weekends in her basement — drawing up lesson plans, evaluating student work — while her husband, a bridge engineer also working from home, focused on the children.
How much longer, Laura wondered, could she keep this up?
She picked up her son’s fidget spinner — hardly a good replacement for how she would usually teach that day’s lesson on angular momentum. She should have been asking her students to step onto turntables. She should have been handing them spinning bicycle wheels. She should have been laughing at their shock when they, too, began to spin.
Thankfully, the AP test had been adjusted, like everything else in Laura’s life, and would no longer focus as heavily on rotation. But things still didn’t feel right.
She had added two questions to a recent online assignment: “How are you doing?” “How’s life?”
“I miss school so much,” one student wrote, adding, “never thought I’d say that.”
“The middle of the night,” wrote another, “is my most productive time.”
The middle of the night was when Laura awakened now, her dreams colored by the fears she represses by day: Worry for her 70-year-old mother, who is prediabetic. Terror over what would happen to Chloe and Oliver if she and her husband caught the virus and died. And constant anxiety: How can she possibly teach next year’s physics students if school doesn’t reopen in the fall?
Better, she told herself, to focus on this year’s class. Forty students joined her Zoom session. Laura whipped the fidget spinner to a frenzy, then flipped it over. “It feels weird, it fights you,” she said, “and this is angular momentum.”
One 12th-grader’s eyes widened. Another threw his hands above his head.
Laura laughed: “I see your little brains breaking on your faces. I miss that look.”
April 21: Trump announces plan to halt immigration for 60 days.
April 22: New data shows most patients on ventilators don’t survive.
April 23: Vice President Pence says virus could be under control “by early summer.”
April 24: U.S. coronavirus deaths top 50,000.
April 25: Global deaths surpass 200,000.
Heartbreak and hope
April was boredom and heartbreak, sports unplayed and sweethearts unkissed. With schools closed and games canceled, the embers of teamwork could be tended only from afar.
As the month began, Cy Harwood, a star infielder at Huntingtown High in southern Maryland, was not ready to concede his senior season. He pushed himself with the possibility that everything might return to normal. He lifted weights in his basement, did throwing drills with his father in the driveway and went on long runs through his neighborhood, still driven by the dream of returning to his friends and their mission to win a state championship.
But in mid-April, Maryland’s governor extended at-home learning through May 15. Harwood took out his phone and crafted a message to his team’s group chat.
“This is obviously the worst news ever,” he wrote. “I wish we could have our season and our chance to win it all. I’ll always be here for every single one of you no matter what.”
That last part was hard. He was one of the team’s captains and had known some of the other players since he was 6 years old. And this was supposed to be the year they broke through.
Harwood had a shot at setting some school records at the plate this season — at-bats, hits and RBIs, his coach said. Harwood had committed last summer to play baseball after graduation at Salisbury University, a Division III program two hours from home. But some other colleges had shown interest last fall, and in early March, Harwood called Salisbury to de-commit. That had been a long, hard conversation with the head coach.
Three weeks later, after the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc, sending high school recruits across the country scrambling for opportunity, Harwood called Salisbury back for a harder conversation: He told the coach he was sorry, he’d made a mistake and now he was again excited to be a Sea Gull. They took him back.
Harwood ended the month at home, playing baseball video games, watching sports documentaries, spending at least three hours a day on his craft — lifting, throwing and sprinting with an eye toward college.
A crater had opened in the part of his existence where Huntingtown baseball once thrived.
“It’s not the same when you’re not out there,” he said. “There’s just been no way around that. We have to accept it.”
Seven hundred miles away, in Sparta, Mich., April was spring. Birds beckoned and flowers bloomed, and many who were stuck inside found ways to plant seeds of hope.
Kendyl Bjorkman’s spring was a quest for new diversions. She and her two sisters baked and cooked and played cards — Garbage and Exploding Kittens — escaping from remote school into their yard as often as possible.
Kendyl is 14, a freshman at Sparta High School and determined to get through this without wallowing in the unfairness or the boredom.
“The month was so long and lonely,” she said. But she didn’t want to look back 10 years from now and “say I spent all that time watching YouTube.”
She and her sisters, who are 17 and 9, wrote and recorded song parodies about the epidemic.
“Stay at home, stay at home, can’t go to school anymore,” they sang, to the tune of “Let It Go” from the Disney film “Frozen.” “Stay at home, stay at home, soccer season is no more.”
The order had come seemingly out of the blue. “It was just one Thursday and then you never go back to school again,” Kendyl said. “I don’t think it’s going to be back to normal for a long time.”
She does an hour or two of school work each morning, but it’s busy work, mostly. To make the new life palatable, you have to create your own satisfaction.
“You have to enjoy each other’s presence,” she said. Her family — her mother is a teacher, now working from home, and her father still goes to the office, at the local health department — plays games. The girls go outside. “It’s good to be in your yard because it can get sad in the house,” Kendyl said.
She wakes these days around 8 or 9 — a welcome respite from the usual 6 a.m. school day alarm — puts on her running shoes, and takes off, flying along empty streets, training for cross-country meets that will not happen.
No school, no church, friends are only images on a screen, so Kendyl sings: “Stay at home, stay at home, will I ever be set free?”
April 26: White House announces social distancing could last months.
April 27: The Post reports that U.S. deaths soared in early days of the outbreak, with cases possibly undercounted.
April 28: U.S. coronavirus cases pass 1 million.
April 29: With significant drops, U.S. economy faces the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
April 30: As deaths surge past 62,000 in the United States, Trump administration describes dash for vaccine.
A yearning for recovery
April was a prayer, a yearning for recovery.
Eugene “Gene” Campbell learned he had covid-19 days after he turned 89. Everyone feared that was the end.
He was one of more than 120 mostly sick and elderly residents infected with the coronavirus at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home near Lake Washington, northeast of Seattle, site of the first major coronavirus outbreak in the United States. More than 40 people died.
Campbell had arrived in February for two weeks of rehabilitation after a stroke. But fever and cough soon racked his body, and an ambulance took him to the hospital.
At the Swedish Edmonds emergency room, his frightened sons could only watch through glass doors as their father shook, hacking.
“He just seemed so alone,” said Todd Campbell, one of Gene Campbell’s three sons.
Within days, the symptoms faded, and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams hailed Campbell at a White House briefing as proof that even the elderly could vanquish the virus.
But in April, Campbell was still confined to a hospital room with a bed, television and an empty chair. He needed two negative coronavirus tests to return home to his wife, Dorothy, 88, known as “Doe,” at Vineyard Park, an assisted-living facility in nearby Bothell.
“I just want to get out of here,” Campbell would say.
He endured multiple invasive nasal swabs, but never got consistent results. In early April, after a sixth swab came back positive, he began to refuse the tests.
“This is your ticket out,” Todd told his father. “If you don’t do it, you are stuck there.”
Nobody could remember a time when Campbell had been sick — or alone.
He had been student body president of Lynden High School’s class of 1949. He sang in the choir and captained the football team. The yearbook called him “a born executive.” He finished college, was drafted into the Army, married Dorothy, and taught their three sons to clean their plates, work hard and save their money. He worked his way up to president of a textbook distributor — a job he didn’t like — to provide for his family.
“His number one priority as a father was to teach us how to survive,” said Todd, 59, an industrial engineer.
Gene Campbell spoke through his actions; he never told his boys, “I love you.”
When he arrived at Life Care, his sons told him they loved him, and they prodded him to say it back.
“He’d say ‘Yeah, okay,’” said son Charlie, 61, a retired registered nurse. Their father would wave them off with a smile.
Then the virus invaded. Barred from visiting, his sons could be with him only by phone.
Campbell told his sons one night that he had decided to refuse meals. He said his “quality of life going forward wouldn’t be worth living.” His sons hung up and cried.
But by the next morning, Campbell cheerily reported that he had just finished breakfast and the eggs were a little cold.
As April crawled by, with tests both positive and negative for the virus, Campbell seemed to change: At the end of each call, he told his sons, “I love you, too.”
Finally, on April 17, Campbell got the word: He had received two negative test results in a row.
Smiling behind face masks, his boys picked him up outside the hospital on April 20, hugged him and helped him into Todd’s SUV.
In all its complexity, in all its despair, in all its glory, April was life.
Campbell still faced two more weeks of quarantine at home, but first he had 30 minutes in the car with Todd and Charlie. Now they could envision another Christmas together, maybe another Seattle Mariners game, certainly another phone call to tell their dad they love him. And to hear him say it back.
Credits Rozsa reported from Central Florida. Arelis R. Hernández in San Antonio and Michael Errigo, Ellen McCarthy and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.
Design and development by Joanne Lee. Graphics by Joe Fox. Photo editing by Haley Hamblin. Copy editing by Gilbert Dunkley.
Weekly unemployment claims from the Department of Labor. Cause of death data from the CDC.