There are life-changing days and for the Sanders family of Radcliff, it was May 1 — the day COVID-19 entered their world.
In one household, Ernest and Teresa Sanders, married for 38 years, went from not feeling well at home to Hardin Memorial Hospital as two of the county’s more than 60 confirmed COVID-19 cases since March 20.
In a matter of days, everything changed forever for the Sanders family.
Initially, not thinking the illness was anything serious, the Sanderses, in fact, were on the brink of dealing with a life-and-death situation that eventually claimed the life of Ernest.
Teresa, 61, works for the Child Development Center at Fort Knox but she hadn’t been at work since daycares were closed in March.
Retired after a 20-year career in the U.S. Army, Ernest, 66, also had retired from Carnes Trucking as a truck driver. He had recently gone back to work part-time to do a few short runs.
His son, Maurice, said his father, known for his love for people and for helping others in need, loved trucking and riding motorcycles. He told his dad to be safe on the road, Maurice said in an interview.
Around April 27, Teresa told Maurice his dad was sick, but she just thought it was a cold. Maurice, who lives in Atlanta, was in the middle of virtual training for a new role at work. The news of his father’s illness wasn’t alarming, he said.
On April 30, his sister, Sharice, texted him and said their mom didn’t sound well either. Since he hadn’t heard from them, Maurice thought they were getting better. He called and said he could hear in her voice she was sick. She was tired, had a headache and hadn’t eaten much. Teresa thought the couple had the flu.
A week later, Ernest died, becoming the second person from Hardin County to die from COVID-19 complications. At the same time, Teresa was in HMH fighting for her life.
Ernest and Teresa were tested May 1 for COVID-19. At the time of the test, Teresa’s oxygen was so low she was admitted to the hospital. Ernest’s oxygen was low but came back up on its own. He was allowed to go home; however, he would need to be in self isolation for 14 days.
Maurice still was in Atlanta and nervous but thought his mom would come home in a day or two when her oxygen was regulated. That night, Teresa was told she had tested positive for the virus. At that point, Maurice knew his dad also would test positive.
He was right.
Teresa was scared and alone at HMH and any family contact was limited to phone calls. Ernest also was scared and lonely, Maurice said.
To see his parents vulnerable was an eye-opening experience, he said.
In the coming days, Teresa’s oxygen levels worsened. One night during a phone call, the nurse told Maurice his mother was very sick. The COVID-19 virus had caused her lungs to become highly irritated, he said. If she got up to use the bathroom, her oxygen levels would drop and all she had done was walk a few steps, he said.
Sharice also lives in Georgia but happened to be in Kentucky that week, so she was able to stay in a Radcliff hotel and check on Ernest. She was very close to their dad and Maurice said it was hard for his sister to see him so ill.
On May 4, doctors told Teresa if her oxygen didn’t improve she would have to go on a ventilator in ICU. Teresa used FaceTime to tell her son. Maurice said she was upset and feeling overwhelmed. She was tired of being in the hospital and felt trapped and alone, he said.
She was placed in ICU that night.
“I went to bed that night upset,” Maurice said.
He fell asleep with his son, Miles, 3, in his arms. Maurice and his wife, Mikal, also have a 4-month-old child named Marleigh.
Maurice only had been talking to his dad by phone, so he couldn’t tell if his health was improving.
At 8 the next morning, his dad connected using FaceTime, something he had never done, Maurice said. While Ernest was telling him he was fine, Maurice noticed his breathing was strained. He called an ambulance to get his father to the hospital, who was able to walk to the ambulance on his own.
Ernest was placed on oxygen and needed more than Teresa and he went straight to ICU, where his wife was.
Maurice said he then realized both his parents might be on ventilators or even die.
He couldn’t talk to his father because he had oxygen through a face mask. His mom’s oxygen was in her nose so he could speak to her. He had to break the news to his mother that her husband also was in ICU.
Both had the same doctor and two different nurses and Maurice was having to digest the information from all of them. He was hearing about his father’s condition worsening and his mother’s improving.
“You don’t want to hear that. It was tough,” he said of his father’s health.
Although still training for work, that night Maurice knew he had to be home. He left Atlanta at midnight and arrived in Radcliff at 5 a.m. By that point, his dad required a ventilator.
The doctors called at 6 a.m. and said while the ventilator was helping him breathe, his kidneys were failing.
Because both parents were in ICU, Maurice became the decision-maker for them. The doctors asked for consent to put his dad on a dialysis machine. Maurice then received another call at 7:30 a.m.
Hoping doctors would tell him his dad was doing well on the machine, he instead was told Ernest had a heart attack and had to be resuscitated. He was critically ill and his organs were beginning to shut down. Maurice spoke to his sister about their father’s critical condition. They were waiting for plasma to help, but at that point, there were problems the plasma wouldn’t solve, he said.
In the meantime, Teresa continued to improve.
The final conversation Maurice had with doctors was his father was not responding to treatment, and they had done all they could. His body was cold and his organs were not responding.
Throughout the day preceding their final call, his conversations with doctors were a roller-coaster ride, he said. His mother was improving. His father was declining.
While Ernest was on life support, Maurice said he was able to FaceTime him, although he couldn’t see his face because he was on his stomach to try to help his breathing.
“He was basically just hanging on,” Maurice said. “In my mind, I was coming to grips with what would happen.”
Later on that night, the doctors let family members express their last words to him on the phone. Maurice said they told him how much they loved him and what he meant to them.
“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “You can’t see him, can’t touch him, can’t do anything.”
Maurice was told his father was the most critically ill person at the hospital at that time.
He was up all night because he knew another call would be coming, he just didn’t know when.
At about 3 a.m. on May 7, Maurice was told his father had coded and they performed CPR on him for 30 minutes with no results. Maurice told them they could stop. He was on his way to the hospital with his sister, but his mother told them not to come so they could stay safe from the virus. They left flowers and a card for her with the nurses.
During those early morning hours, his mother was laying in the next bed in the ICU unit to her husband and could tell something was going on from all the movement. Nurses wheeled her next to her husband and she was able to kiss him and tell him her last goodbye.
He died at 3:20 a.m.
Maurice said he was crying one moment grieving for his dad, and having to stop to be strong for his mother the next.
One of the worst parts, he said, was having to deal with this alone.
“It’s very serious and could happen to anybody,” Maurice said.
There’s no cure, you just treat the symptoms and hope the virus runs its course, he said.
His mother came home from the hospital last Tuesday but still tested positive for the virus because it remained in her bloodstream. She has to be quarantined for 14 days, Maurice said.
The family is still not able to be together.
“It’s been a nightmare with Twilight Zone stuff going on,” he said.
Everything of his father’s still is in the house, just like he left it, he said. One moment he was enjoying life with Teresa, riding his motorcycle and being a grandparent, and then he was gone in a matter of a few days, Maurice said.
“Take the virus as serious as possible,” he said. “If it doesn’t happen to you, it can happen to a loved one.”
If you or someone you know gets the virus, he said it’s a sad and lonely time.
“It doesn’t hit home until it happens to someone you know,” he said.
People need to be overly cautious, he said.
“You have to protect yourself because of so many unknowns,” he said. “You can’t take anything for granted.”
He knows people are probably having cabin fever and are losing money, but he said you don’t want to lose your life or a family member from the virus.
Maurice said there’s a good possibility his father got the virus on the road, keeping the regional and national supply chain going. But they really don’t know.
Ernest never knew a stranger, loved to work and loved meeting people, Maurice said. If there was someone who needed help, Ernest did what he could to help them. Maurice said a neighbor told him that when they were in need, his dad took them grocery shopping.
“I hear stories like that all the time,” he said.
Because he was a truck driver, Ernest was up all hours of the night. Maurice was often up early to work out and every day at about 5 a.m. and would call his father. Not having that now is hard, he said.
Sharice is a flight attendant with varied work hours. They both knew if anyone was awake, it was Ernest and they could call him anytime, Maurice said.
“Anybody he touched he impacted in some way,” he said.
Both their parents are known as loving, caring people, Maurice said.
Their influence is evident in the amount of people who have reached out to support the family. Maurice said he was getting so many phone calls from friends and neighbors wanting to help that he set up a GoFundMe page. It was a way to give people information and an outlet to express their support. The money from the page will go to support his mother as she starts her new reality without her husband, he said.
“Now it’s just going to be different, but we have to be strong for our mom,” Maurice said.
He said the impact of COVID-19 is devastating.
“You don’t want to see both your parents like that,” he said. “It’s a traumatic experience you don’t know if you’ll ever get over.”