Editor’s note: The COVID-19 virus claimed Buckhead Ridge resident Steve Wieland’s life on Dec. 2. On Nov. 7, after being advised by his supervisor at work that a co-worker had tested positive, Steve was tested for the virus. He got the postitive results back on Nov. 12. Glades Public Health set his back-to-work date – provided he did not have fever/symptoms the day before and the day of return – for Nov. 18. He did not have a fever or symptoms, so he returned to work. But the following evening, he was in the emergency room with difficulty breathing. Debbie Wieland decided to share her family’s story to warn others to take the virus seriously. If you or a family member tested positive for COVID-19 and you would like to share your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 863-763-3134.
Steve Wieland, the love of my life, passed this evening. 3/31/1957-12/2/2020. He raised three beautiful sons with me. When COVID entered our awareness, Steve religiously wore a mask, social distanced, washed his hands with soap and water for a full 20 seconds. And yet COVID claimed his life this evening.
The Emotions of COVID 19
Disbelief, Anger, Terror, Loss, Numbness, Grief: To look at Steve, one sees a solid, muscular, healthier-than-normal 63-year-old man. To the day he was put on a ventilator he maintained, “My body feels like I’m healthy… I just can’t breathe.”
Steve arrived home from work in Belle Glade the second evening upon returning to work “recovered from COVID 19” in accordance with Glades County Public Health nurse and Steve’s employer protocol – 10 days quarantine and no fever the day before and day of return-to-work. When Steve came through our front door his face was white as a ghost with beads of sweat collected on his brow. I knew straight away something was not right. He was having difficulty breathing, but he didn’t want to go to the ER ... he wanted his normal routine: shower, put on leisure clothes, sit in his chair and watch a bit of news, eat dinner and go to bed. With one exception – he swore Vicks VapoRub would help him breathe. It didn’t, but he showered and sat in his chair with labored breathing. He couldn’t eat anything, so he wanted to just go to bed. He slept a few minutes, but his breathing worsened and he jolted upright. I grabbed the car keys and dragged him out the door and into my car. Of course, I was driving a bit fast and he told me between gasps for breath, “You don’t have to go so fast … you’re going to kill us.”
At the ER, we walked in and the security guard took our temperatures – both were normal. Steve was whisked away in a wheelchair but not before I stole a hug from his warm, strong arms. My parting words were, “I love you, baby, with all my heart. We got this!” Steve nodded to me, gasped for breath and the nurse wheeled him away. The security doors closed and I watched until they disappeared. Reality struck me, my knees shook – this would be the first time in 46 years we would not be allowed through a life event together. I felt protective towards my soul mate, then anger that I was not with him. I told the security guard I had had COVID-19 right along with Steve and recovered, according to health experts I was now “immune” and not a danger to others. He shrugged and, with kindness in his voice, told me, “they make the rules, not me.”
I was shown a small, well-lit, chilly waiting area and I sat, not knowing what to do next. ALONE, I sat alone, as others came and went. I texted Steve’s boss to let him know what was going on and to let him know Steve would not be coming in to work the next day. I noticed a plexi glassed-in area to the back where a couple of ladies were moving about, and thought maybe I needed to check Steve in through them. I gave them Steve’s basic information and was amazed at how very little was required…just the basics. Sat back down for what seemed like hours. The ER doctor came out in full PPE gear and told me “Your husband is very, very sick man, he may not make it.” I asked her what was wrong with him and she got this look of surprise on her face and said, “COVID! His lungs are full.” I asked her what the course of recovery would be and she just shook her head. She turned to leave, and terror of Steve being alone struck me… I broke down crying. I told her I needed to see him, that I had had COVID with him and recovered, I was not a danger to him, her or anyone. She told me that was up to the Nursing Supervisor. I begged to see my husband. The ER doctor called the Nursing Supervisor who said no, Steve was ‘isolated’ and being ran through battery of tests, then would be taken to an isolation room where only medical personnel in full PPE would enter. I begged and begged and begged to see him, then told them I would sit in the waiting room until they allowed me to see Steve … just to touch his face and tell him he could get better and come home.
I am not sure if it was the ER doctor or Nursing Supervisor but someone dressed in full PPE said, “Come with me, you can see him for a minute,” and I stayed on that person’s heels. I was dressed in PPE from head-to-toe, including a face shield. Entering Steve’s small, dark room, he had oxygen supply going in to his nose and IV’s already in his arms, and so much equipment behind him, flashing and beeping. But there was no mistaking that beautiful smile when he saw me. I hugged him and tried to kiss him…the face shield got in the way. The nurse had left so I snuck a skin-to-skin kiss, then grabbed his warm hand and stroked his warm cheek. Steve asked me what I knew and I fibbed, told him I really didn’t know much except that they were keeping him in the hospital and giving him oxygen and other good stuff. Steve told me between the whistling oxygen and gasps for breath, “Okay, but I want to be home by Saturday.” Personnel in full PPE continued to enter … x-rays, lab, etc. … and each time they entered Steve squeezed my hand … we both knew at some point I would be ejected. I scrunched down and made myself as unnoticeable as possible by his head, and we got about 45 minutes together before the fully-PPE’d nurse came in and prepared Steve to be taken to Isolation. When her back was turned I pushed up that stinking face shield and gave Steve a kiss. He kissed me back. As she wheeled his bed and equipment out, she stopped so I could give him one last hug. His body was so warm, but he did not have a fever. His chest was heaving as he struggled for breath, but he still gave me that grin that is only Steve and told me he loved me, don’t forget to call his work, pick him up on Saturday to take him home. As those double doors closed behind the nurse and Steve, it was all I could do not to run after them. I guess that’s what the medical personnel stationed in the area thought I might do because every one of them kept a good eye on me until I left. Terror, disbelief, loneliness, and what to do next flooded over me. I went back to the small waiting room and thanked the lady behind the plexiglass for her assistance. I asked her if I could just sit in the waiting room chair and wait to hear what’s going on with Steve. She told me I had to leave the hospital but the doctors and nurses would communicate with me via phone. She gave me a sheet of information with Steve’s room number, room phone number, the nurses’ station number and a pass code. It felt so wrong to leave the hospital and I remember sitting in the car for a long time before driving back home to Buckhead Ridge. Cell phone reception is not good in the area, and I worried about receiving calls and information.
The next few hours I spent calling our three boys and telling them to stay put, I would feed them any information as soon as I received it. As long as I kept my cell phone in the living room I seemed to be able to make and receive phone calls, but I checked my voice mail every 15 minutes or so just to make sure. I took baths instead of the usual shower so I wouldn’t miss any calls. I took Steve’s cell phone and charger and other personal things he was requesting in to the hospital. The security guard would take my temperature, have me use the hand sanitizer, then allow me to place the items in a clear view plastic bag. I quickly learned that if I waited there, I would be able to see the shift nurse assigned to Steve and get a verbal update … through their full PPE gear.
Steve’s labored breathing on cell phone calls didn’t keep him from communicating his frustration, loneliness and hopelessness to me. I could tell his condition was worsening, not going in a positive direction. He fought sleep, he didn’t want to go to sleep for fear he would not wake up. The worst times were from 9 p.m. until around 6 a.m. – Steve’s calls intensified and he wanted to be home in the comfort of his reclining chair. I’m a bit hard of hearing already, and his muffled voice from behind the oxygen mask made his words even harder to decipher. He would get so frustrated and I could clearly understand when he would say, “YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO ME!” I wish I had saved one of the voice mail messages Steve left me when my phone was on the fritz. Amidst the sounds of oxygen pumping in to his lungs, he rasped, “Answer your damn phone.”
On doctor’s morning rounds, Steve told the doctor he wanted to just go home. The doctor advised him that was not wise. A bit later, Steve called me. He was very upset and told me two nurses got him out of bed, removed his oxygen and told him to walk. He collapsed to the floor and that was all he remembered until he woke up back in bed with oxygen on. A few minutes later he called, saying he was being taken to ICU. I called the charge nurse and confirmed he was being moved. The Nursing Director called and explained that Steve’s condition had worsened, in ICU he would receive a heated, higher oxygen therapy among constant intensive care.
Somehow I was being left out of the doctor’s update loop so I went directly to the doctor’s office to get update. The office staff treated me so kindly, put me in an exam room to wait for the doctor. He told me Steve was being given the drugs that treat COVID 19 and pneumonia, Steve was a very sick man and all that was truly left was prayer. When asking for answers I received the same response, “We just don’t know or have answers for you. All we can do is pray.” I asked Steve’s doctor to take my lung and give it to Steve and he said, very gently but adamantly, “No, the anesthesia alone will kill him.” I begged him to help me get in to see Steve since I had COVID 19 immunity. The doctor told me he had already tried and that was completely up to hospital administration.
I went back to the hospital. Having worked with the Public Relations Director during my tenure as Advertising Representative for Okeechobee News, I had a name and demanded to see her. Determined to get in to see Steve I told her the whole story, noting Steve’s frustration, lack of human touch, some patient care concerns that Steve had shared with me and the fact that I had had COVID 19 and now have immunity – I was not a threat to Steve nor any one. I had gone to Urgent Care and tested Negative and had the paper to prove it. Jenny took all my information, talked with me a bit about patient care and hospital protocol, and told me she would speak within the next few minutes to top administration regarding the situation. I told her I would be in my car in the parking lot, I wasn’t leaving. A few minutes later the vice president and nursing director called me and asked to meet me out front of the hospital. We met, face-masked and social-distanced. They explained that hospital protocol precluded anyone being in Steve’s room other than necessary, properly PPE’d medical personnel. The patient care issues I had were properly and immediately addressed and they promised to keep me in the loop, but they would NOT allow me to see Steve or Steve to see me. I could barely see through my tears to drive home, probably should not have been driving. There is a cell phone “dead zone” right after crossing the Kissimmee River bridge and I remember speeding through it to get home and test my cell phone to make sure I could receive calls.
That evening was even worse. Steve was given relaxers and Ambien. He slept but when he awoke his oxygen levels were tanked. He called me, and I could hear the terror in his voice and determination not to take any medications that would send him into slumber. I got his charge nurse’s update and any progress had turned into regress. Determined to see Steve, I put on a bright pink dress Steve always liked me to wear and headed to doctor’s office as soon as the doors were opened. The doctor did not smile at all, looked at the floor and shook his head. “All we have now is prayers.” When I was leaving, the doctor’s nurse promised to give Steve’s shoulder a squeeze the next day (I think it would be Thanksgiving Day) and tell him his wife loves him.
I headed back to the hospital, demanded to see the VP and Nursing Director and I remember telling the security guard “I WILL SEE MY HUSBAND NOW.” The security guard got on the phone, told me to sign in. I remember that under reason for visit I wrote “VISITING DYING HUSBAND.” The VP and Nursing Director came and escorted me to the PPE Room where I was outfitted with a tight-fitting mask and face shield, then ICU for a plastic chin-to-floor gown. They opened the door and there was my Steve. His brown eyes recognized me right away, his long lashes fluttered … oh, what a handsome man. I hugged him amidst all the tubes, lines, etc. My face shield kept me from kissing his warm cheeks … for a moment … but when no one was looking I got in a few. He smiled and in between labored breaths told me “I love you, babe.” The ICU Nurse came in to check his vitals and Steve jokingly said to her, “Who is this woman you brought in here? This isn’t my wife!” If you could have seen the look of surprise on that nurse! As I stroked Steve’s cheek with one hand and squeezed his warm hand with the other, he told me to look out his window. I did, and noted the surroundings…a picnic area set up for medical personnel to take a quiet break … his window was closest to that area. I realized what Steve was telling me…identify his window so I could sneak a peek if not allowed in again. Steve’s body seemed to relax the more I stroked his cheek. He seemed to drink in the human touches. His lunch tray arrived – sliced roast beef, mashed potatoes with gravy, French green beans and fruit. He did thumbs down on the beef and mashed potatoes but said he would try green beans. He had to pull the oxygen away from his nose and mouth as a I gave him one green bean at a time. He reached over and grabbed a few with his fingers and told me, “You gotta be quicker, babe, ‘cause I gotta get this oxygen back on.” We had a bit of a laugh on that. He finished off the green beans, fruit cup and even drank the juice out of the cup with a straw. I couldn’t keep my hands and arms off him, leaning over him and squeezing a hug…didn’t realize I was sweating profusely inside the PPE gown until Steve said, “You’re getting me wet. What are you, a rain forest?” The ICU nurse poked her head in at 1:20 p.m. and told us I would have to leave at 1:30 p.m. At 1:30 p.m. sharp, Steve told me I better do what they say so maybe I can come back. We both had tears, hugged and kissed before I had to leave. After discarding the soaking wet PPE garb, I had to sneak back to his indoor ICU window for another look. He smiled and waved his fingers, threw me a kiss. SO HARD TO LEAVE, but I knew I had to.
Before leaving the hospital grounds, I sauntered back and identified his room. I peeked in through the blinds and he saw me, smiled and waved, called me on his cell and told me he loved me – his rain forest. We talked a little bit until his nurse came in. I drove home with a bit of hope, I felt surrounded with Steve’s warm hug and musky smell. Regardless, I sped through Buckhead Ridge’s “dead cell phone” area to get home and test my cell phone for signal. But for once I could update our sons with actual “hands-on, eyes-on” Dad facts.
That evening I snuck back to Steve’s room outdoor window with a small sign that read “I LOVE YOU”, taped it towards Steve on his outside window. He saw me, waved and called me on his cell. He wouldn’t let me stay long, didn’t want me to ‘get caught’ and not be able to come back. I drove back home, and he called me almost the instant I got inside our home’s front door. He was enjoying a vanilla shake I had taken him.
That evening he got some rest, and his oxygen levels stayed elevated. His chest x-ray showed a small bit of progress. He was hopeful, so was I.
Thanksgiving weekend, the usual daily chest x-ray didn’t happen. For the first time, Steve began to complain about horrible pain in his chest, he said it felt like a million knives. He made the comment to one of his sons that he didn’t know how anyone could survive getting shot in the lung. Steve’s oxygen levels were tanking again. Despair began creeping in again. I did not want our oldest son, Darrel, to put himself in any jeopardy – I wasn’t sure whether to believe my Negative Covid test after all that had transpired, but Darrel insisted on coming up and I finally agreed. I was at Steve’s outside window when Darrel arrived. Darrel peeked in (you peek through built-in 1 inch vertical slats) and his knees buckled when he first glimpsed his Dad surrounded by all the ICU equipment. I grabbed his 200-pound body and steadied him. Steve saw him and waved, called him on his cell phone and they talked a bit. We told him we would see him later. Steve was resting as we left for home in Buckhead Ridge.
We returned at night for a bit. I can’t tell you how relieving it was to see him moving his arms a bit and having a somewhat peaceful demeanor going into the nighttime. Sunday night was not to be peaceful. His oxygen levels tanked and his ICU nurse tried upgrading his oxygen levels with a BiPap. He rested a bit, then called me and frantically told me his levels were worse. At 6:30 a.m. he called Darrel and told him to “Listen to me. I need you to know things. I need you to take care of your mother.” I immediately called the ICU nurse in charge and verified his oxygen levels were the worst and he had made the decision to go on the ventilator. We dressed and headed to the hospital.
There was no fooling around this time begging to see Steve, a call was made and we were dressed in PPE and taken in to Steve in his ICU room. He was in pain…I could see it in his lined forehead, his eyes and tight-drawn lines around his mouth. He was taking short, painful breaths and wanted to tell us life-ending things, which he painstakingly did. The Ventilator Team was bringing in equipment. When the Team indicated they were ready I kissed Steve, hugged him, and told him I loved him with all my heart, thanked him for the beautiful life he made possible for me, told him I wanted more of that beautiful life with him, and to trust in God… Darrel did the same. We were taken to the ICU Waiting Room. The doctor came in to explain the ventilating procedure, told us at this point there was minimal chance of recovery, and all that was left was prayer. I thought we were able to remain in the ICU Waiting Room but I was wrong, we were escorted out of the building by the ICU Head Nurse.
Chest x-ray revealed his lung had collapsed… when that occurred was unknown because no x-ray was done Sunday. A procedure was done to insert a tube between the collapsed lung and chest wall.
That night we returned to his outside window. He was being proned – 16 hours on his tummy to allow his lungs to rest and 8 hours on his back. His face was towards us … he looked so peaceful and the lines on his forehead were no longer there. His hand was stretched over the pillow, his fingers relaxed, not clenched. There would be no cell call this time, but at least he seemed to be peaceful.
The next morning the ICU nurse update was positive, Steve’s oxygen levels stayed elevated and his vitals were good. Darrel stayed at the house to get some work done (works for the United States Coast Guard). I headed to Steve’s outside window, armed with an umbrella to ward off the sun. I could read his Patient Care board: 1. Ween off vent. 2, 3. 4. Ween off sedation med. His nurse waved, then showed me a note that she was thinking of Steve’s family, praying for him and us, and she noted the procedure she was doing for him. He came around a bit and she called me, held the cell to his ear and I told him I loved him. She told me he was crying happy tears. She turned him a bit and his eyes opened. I think he saw me because he moved his fingers like waving. He slipped back into sleep. Throughout the next hour a couple other nurses smiled at me and waved. So comforting, so human.
“Mrs. Wieland, Mrs. Wieland!” I backed away from the window, put down my umbrella. The nurse that escorted Darrel and me the previous day from ICU was front and center, along with a male nurse. She told me hospital protocol mandated I could not be on hospital property. The male told me there were alligators and such in the area and it was not safe. I told them I would leave but wouldn’t lie – might sneak back to get a quick peek – she told me at that point she would have me trespassed from the hospital. I will admit I was extremely angry but picked up my purse and umbrella, walked past hospital personnel that were taking advantage of a quiet outdoors break, got in my car and left. My son had arrived just at this point and followed me in his car. I felt like someone had taken a baseball bat and smacked me over the head and gut repeatedly. The drive home was numbing.
I didn’t sneak back to Steve’s outside window ever again. I did drive past the wooded area just to make sure that nurse hadn’t taken down my “I LOVE YOU” sign. At least if he awoke he would see that sign and know we weren’t far away.
Steve began coding first light the next morning. The ICU nurse called and was on the phone calling out levels throughout the code while Darrel and I dressed on the way to the car. We waited until he was stabilized before we left the house because of the cell phone dead zone, then raced to the hospital. We were put in PPE gear and brought in to his room. I stayed by his right, stroking Steve’s face and squeezing his hand, Darrel on his left unless moved for access to equipment. The ICU team and doctors responded valiantly to two more codes as Steve’s vitals tanked again and again. The Nursing Director stayed with Darrel and me through each code, explaining in plain terms what was happening and what to expect. She made certain I wanted to continue to do everything possible and I said yes each time she asked. She explained the drug they were giving him took the blood flow from Steve’s extremities and directed that blood flow to his vital organs. I was by his head and could see his mouth appearing to fight the ventilator. The Nursing Director asked me if he coded again did I want her to do heart compressions. I said “yes.” I noticed a flicker of what appeared to be pain in Steve’s face and asked if he could feel pain. No one answered but I could see the exhausted and painful wretching in Steve’s chest, face and body. I remembered him telling me once to please, never leave him on a respirator … if life ever came to that to let him go. I turned to Darrel and said, “I think we have to let him go.” Darrel nodded yes. I asked the Team is there any chance for him and they all shook their heads. Steve’s eyes began to roll and I heard Darrel gasp. I yelled at Darrel to go out, and I think a couple of people helped him go. Steve made a couple of gasps and his face went white. I asked the Nursing Director if Steve was still here, and she said he was gone. It was the hardest thing to do … I knew his body was only an empty vessel and his soul was no longer present. I kissed his face and left the room to comfort Darrel and call our other two sons. I said an unladylike comment about COVID 19, and I apologize to anyone that heard that comment.
Darrel and I waited in the ICU Waiting Room as they removed the lines and equipment. The Nursing Director prepared us before taking us to see Steve’s body. They covered him with a blanket, leaving his head and torso exposed. Because of the COVID 19, they left the mouth and chest tube in for safety reasons. They brought us in while Steve’s chest and arms were still warm. I put one of Steve’s warm, muscular arms around me one last time and lay my head on his chest; gathered Darrel in to his Dad’s chest on the other side. We wept. We lost our rock, our foundation.
COVID 19 doesn’t care. COVID 19 does not respect any one. COVID 19 is ruthless. COVID 19 is real.
The ICU nurses and medical team worked feverishly throughout Steve’s hospital stay to recover him to health. They didn’t pull any punches expectancy-wise. The fact remains: Medicine doesn’t have answers when it comes to COVID 19… doctors simply don’t know. Medicine can treat the established symptoms… pneumonia, etc. … but COVID 19 will ravage and tear through vital organs and yank the very life from even the healthiest of our human race. The patient goes it ALONE. The family goes it ALONE. Whether it makes sense or not, that’s proper established “hospital protocol.”
CDC guidelines and back-to-work protocol are not infallible. Guidelines leave discrepancy as to whether to heed or not to heed. CDC guidelines should be mandates. Back-to-work protocol should not be left to temperature checks – remember, Steve never had a temperature. Accurate testing should be required. The requirement of testing and receiving a true NEGATIVE test prior to returning to work may have saved my husband’s life.
WEAR YOUR MASK, SOCIAL DISTANCE and DO NOT ATTEND LARGE GATHERINGS, WASH YOUR HANDS FOR AT LEAST 20 SECONDS. And maybe, just maybe, you will be much luckier than my husband … Steve Wieland … who was ripped from the arms of his loving wife of 46 years and the Wieland family at age 63 by COVID 19.