When Donn Adams left for a trip to Mexico in early March, he felt like he had a cold. He returned to Louisville in a wheelchair, barely holding onto consciousness.
Within 24 hours, he was in isolation at Norton Brownsboro Hospital, Jefferson County’s first confirmed COVID-19 case.
“Now, people say, ‘Oh, why didn’t you do this, or why didn’t you do that?’” he said during a recent interview. “But you have to remember, we were the first. We didn’t know hardly anything.”
It’s been nearly two months since Donn Adams first received that diagnosis. He’s home now, and other than having to take a break halfway through mowing the lawn, he’s fully recovered.
He and his wife, Marky, sat down with KyCIR last week to talk about their experience inside the early days of Kentucky’s coronavirus outbreak. Now, the state has more than 4000 cases and 200 deaths; Louisville alone accounts for more than 1000 cases.
Like many of us, Donn is watching the spread of coronavirus at a distance, through news reports and daily press conferences. Today’s pandemic, with strict hospital protocols, expanded testing options and statewide shutdowns, looks little like his experience in early March.
At that point, life was largely unchanged outside the hospital. Inside, all eyes were on him. He was well aware that he was a test case.
“I have nothing but high praise for the hospital and the [metro and state] health departments that we were associated with,” Donn said. “They were upfront with us. They said, ‘We’re learning more about this day by day.’”
Marky cut in.
“A couple of times, they said ‘hour by hour.’”
Even before they found themselves in the middle of a pandemic, Donn and Marky had quite the story to tell. It starts right here in Louisville, at Valley High School in 1966, when Donn worked up the courage to talk to “the cutest thing on two feet” at the school pool.
They dated through high school and after, and had plans to get married in September 1973, after he returned from a 14-month stint in Vietnam. But Donn came back “a different person,” Marky said.
“We didn’t know about those kinds of disorders that people who’ve been in combat face,” she said. “I just knew he wouldn’t talk to me, and he never once brought up marriage again. I just decided he didn’t love me and didn’t know how to end it. So I ended it.”
They both went on to marry other people and didn’t see each other for 30 years, until Donn returned to Louisville for his uncle’s funeral. He dropped by to see Marky’s mother but no one was home, so he left his business card.
A few days later, Marky emailed him to thank him for stopping by the house.
“And he always says that, between the lines, [the email] said, ‘I’m divorced, give me a call,’” she said with a laugh.
“I’m telling you, it was there,” Donn countered. “Because I would not have called if it hadn’t said that. But it did, so I called.”
They got married in September 2013, 40 years to the month after they were originally supposed to.
“We never fell out of love with each other,” Donn said. “We believe we have lived a charmed life. And the coronavirus episode is just another part of that.”
A “Cold,” And A Trip To Mexico
They live this charmed life in a house in eastern Jefferson County, with a garden big enough to keep Marky, a retired teacher, busy. They’re both “bad at being retired,” as Donn puts it. He’s currently working in tech sales and still travels several times a month.
When he returned from a conference in Florida in late February, he thought he was developing a cold. But they had paid for a trip to Cabo San Lucas starting a few days later, and he felt he could power through it.
“By the time we got to Mexico, it was like I had the flu, but much more intense,” he said.
At that point, there were fewer than 100 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. There had been six deaths, all in Washington State. While state and federal officials braced for the upswing in cases that would eventually come, coronavirus was still not top of mind for many Americans, including Donn and Marky Adams.
But eventually, they went to the resort’s health clinic and were sent to the local hospital, where he was diagnosed with a sinus infection. But by the time they were flying back on Friday, March 6, Marky said she knew this was no sinus infection.
“I said to him on Thursday, I said, you have got to look better, you’ve got to act like you feel better, or they may not let us on the plane and we have got to get home,’” she recalled. “He came back from Mexico in a wheelchair.”
At that point, they knew he was sick, and they knew about coronavirus. But Donn said they hadn’t put the two together, particularly because he didn’t have a cough or any of the symptoms officials were touting at that point. Plus, when they’d left town, Kentucky didn’t have any confirmed cases.
The same evening that they returned from Mexico, Gov. Andy Beshear called his first coronavirus press conference.
Kentucky had confirmed its first case, nearly 100 miles away in Harrison County.
“We should expect at least one other confirmed case at some point in Kentucky,” Beshear said.
‘I couldn’t remember ever being so sick’
The next day, Marky took Donn to an urgent care clinic for what they thought was a bad flu. They immediately sent him to the emergency room at Norton Brownsboro Hospital, where they sat in a crowded waiting room annex for over two hours.
“By the time I got to the emergency room, I couldn’t remember ever being so sick,” Donn said.
Marky remembers he was in a wheelchair, running a high fever and shivering. Then he passed out right there in the waiting room. They were moved to an exam room, and the situation quickly changed, Marky said.
“Within about 15 minutes, nurses and nurse’s assistants would leave the room and they would come back with masks and with robes,” she remembered. “The doctor was very calming and he said, ‘We’re going to treat him as though he has coronavirus.’”
They remained in the emergency room for several more hours while the hospital prepared the negative pressure isolation room. Meanwhile, as was standard, they were testing him for everything, hoping the answer was something other than the virus on the verge of becoming a global pandemic.
On Sunday morning, the tests came back. The Louisville Metro Public Health Department called Marky to tell her that Donn had tested positive for coronavirus. As she spoke with them on her cell phone at Donn’s bedside, the state Department for Public Health and a doctor from Norton came in to tell Donn the same information.
“They really wanted to make sure we knew all at once,” he said with a laugh.
At that point, that diagnosis didn’t come with many other answers, and that uncertainty was the hardest part for Donn. He’d heard that coronavirus was deadliest for people over the age of 60 and with underlying conditions. He’s generally “fit as a fiddle,” he said, but he had previously had a quintuple bypass and continues to have heart disease.
“I never suffered from the coughing,” he said. “Where it was affecting me was my lungs. My lungs were filling up with fluid, and so I couldn’t get a deep breath. I was scared then.”
He said he was put on a lot of different medications, from steroids to antivirals to medication to treat bacterial diseases.
“It was pretty much, we’re going to just shoot him up with everything, because we have no idea what’s going to take care of this,” he said.
The hospital told Marky to stay put, and she quarantined with Donn in the isolation room. By then, she knew the worst was over. He’d gone from babbling incomprehensibly and drifting in and out of consciousness to being alert and communicative.
She got an up-close look at the hospital’s ever-changing protocol for their first coronavirus case. She said the nurses would come in dressed one way and then, the next time, they’d be wearing a different assortment of personal protective equipment.
“They’d say, ‘Oh, well, they decided we don’t need that,’” she said. “So it was constantly changing.”
Marky wasn’t allowed to go home until Donn was discharged, so while he recovered in the hospital bed, she spent her time on the phone with public health officials helping with contact tracing. Over three lengthy phone conversations, Marky provided them with everything from who his Lyft driver was at the airport to where he sat on the plane to everywhere they went in between.
She said they were able to trace the initial infection to the conference in Florida, where Donn has since heard four more people have tested positive as well.
“They were tireless,” she said. “[We were] able to give all the details [and] they immediately were able to go into action.”
After he was discharged, Metro Public Health called every day to record both of their temperatures and check in.
Marky said this was an advantage of being the first — they had the full attention of the hospital, and city and state officials.
Donn sees it differently: “I think if you get it now, there should be a little more comfort knowing that the knowledge base is much greater,” he said. “At the time we went through it, it was a new thing.”
He was also worried about the downside of all that attention. He worried how people he knew might react when they found out he was the unnamed Jefferson County male being discussed at press conferences.
But his family put those concerns to rest. Marky’s son, Eric, took a screenshot of the map of Kentucky that showed just one red dot, representing a single case in Jefferson County.
“He sends it to the entire family saying, ‘We’re number one! This is it! Donn’s special!’” he said with a laugh. “So just almost immediately for us, the fears went away.”
A Long Recovery
After being discharged from the hospital, Donn was required to quarantine at home while he continued to recover. For weeks, he said, it was all he could do to get up, get dressed and walk to the living room before needing to rest.
Recovery “takes so, so long and much, much longer than I think it should,” he said.
“It ravages your body,” Marky added as Donn nodded.
But now that he’s through the worst of it, Donn said, his big takeaway is that coronavirus doesn’t have to be a death sentence — especially if people take the appropriate action.
“And the appropriate action for someone our age is much more immediate than the appropriate action for a 25-year-old,” he said, encouraging people to seek medical care when they start to feel sick.
Despite traveling with and spending several days in isolation with an infected person, Marky never developed any symptoms. At the time, the protocol was to only test people who had symptoms, so though she asked, she has never been tested. She’s hoping to get tested now that tests are more widely available, and would also like to get the antibody test that indicates whether she had the virus without showing symptoms.
But either way, they aren’t taking any risks. They wear masks anytime they leave the house and disinfect religiously. The science isn’t conclusive on re-infection, and Donn said living through coronavirus once is enough for him.
Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.