Bent over nearly in half, Tina Lewis crawled into her husband’s gold Nissan in her pajamas, gasping.
“Hurry,” she told him.
Jeff Lewis started the car, gripping the steering wheel with one hand and Tina’s cold hand in the other as he headed to the emergency room.
Their daughter had tested positive for COVID-19 a week earlier, at the start of March, one year after the pandemic started and one month before the vaccine would be available to people like them. Although she had shut herself in her bedroom, the coronavirus crept through their house until her mom and dad and brother also were infected.
While the rest of the family recovered from the coughing and body aches, Tina, 61, had tipped the other way.
Jeff still saw Tina as the cheeky, strong-willed woman he met in Provo in 1980. They were strangers in separate cars, both students at Brigham Young University, when she nearly side-swiped him and then flipped him off like it was his fault.
When they later pulled into the parking lot for the same movie theater in Provo, he thought it was so funny that he asked if he could sit next to her at “Caddyshack.” She shrugged and said, “I don’t care what you do.” He was enamored.
Now, 39 years into their marriage, she had come to him saying: “I don’t feel right. I think we need to go to the doctor.”
When they got to the ER, Jeff was confronted with a list of things he couldn’t do. He couldn’t go back with his wife. He couldn’t step past the red line on the linoleum floor while he filled out the paperwork. And he couldn’t stay there in the waiting room when he was done.
So he waved goodbye to Tina, his best friend who watched WWE wrestling with him and everything on the Food Network. The last thing he saw was a flash of her black hair as he shouted, “I love you, sweetheart. Please get better.”
“Please,” he repeated to himself as the sliding glass doors closed behind him at the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.
It was the first of four hospitals where he’d be leaving Tina behind in coming months. The next three would be hundreds of miles away, in Utah.
— — —
Jeff climbed into his car alone to head back to their little brown townhouse in Idaho Falls, a short six-minute drive from the ER. It brought him some comfort that they lived so close.
As he drove away he told himself that Tina was tough. She didn’t have any pre-existing medical conditions. Their family took COVID-19 seriously, but he didn’t think her case would be that serious.
The hospital staff told him he’d have to quarantine at home for 22 days before he could see Tina again. Until then, Jeff and the kids texted Tina to check in on her.
“How are you today, honey?” Jeff asked. She typed back: “I don’t feel real good” or “Hanging in there.”
Then, the texts started coming back a little garbled. “I’m OKJ,” she told her daughter. “Lover y.” “Goodde.”
The replies slowed. Then, they stopped.
The hospital staff called Jeff within days. His wife had gotten worse and they were transferring her to the intensive care unit. She would be put on a ventilator. The nurse turned on FaceTime so the family could talk as Tina was being wheeled out.
She tried to joke, to make them feel better. “Well, they’re moving me down to the ICU, right next to the morgue,” she said with a wheezy laugh.
It was the first time Jeff cried.
He logged onto Facebook to write an update for his family. His hands shook as he hit the keys. Jeff scanned through his photos, finding two of Tina that he loved, to attach to his post.
One showed the couple smiling at a restaurant in Montana with a mountain of fries in front of them. Jeff is stoic with his neatly combed mustache, the same — only grayer — as he’s worn it since he proposed to Tina at Bridal Veil Falls in Utah County in 1982, joking that he had a rock stuck in his shoe and coming back up with a diamond ring. Tina is grinning with Jeff’s arm around her and her hand on his, with the same ring on her finger.
The other picture is just of Tina, wearing a glamorous faux-fur jacket at a Christmas party with twinkling lights reflecting in her eyes.
The post was short. Jeff begged, “Please if you would include Tina in your prayers.”
— — —
Jeff was sleeping on a recliner in Tina’s room in the ICU, on his second visit, when a knock awakened him. Tina had been in the hospital for three weeks, and unconscious for two. As the ventilator expanded her lungs up and down with mechanical preciseness, the steady noise had caused him to nod off.
He said a quick prayer and then got up to follow the white jacket that had disappeared back into the hallway.
“She’s likely not going to make it,” the doctor told Jeff.
It was Sunday, April 4, and doctor’s grim sentence clashed with smiling little chicks and cheery bunnies on the hospital walls.
Jeff had bought Tina a green Easter basket in the hopes that she would be better by then. But the Andes chocolate mints she loved went untouched. He’d written a card inside that said, “Dear honey, I’m so glad you are home. We missed you.”
The doctor said it was cruel to keep Tina in the ICU. She had pneumonia, a complication of the coronavirus, and patients like her had a slim chance of surviving.
She was suffering. She was in pain. She could have brain damage. She might never be able to breathe again on her own. Her life, if she ever woke up, would probably be unrecognizable, compared to what it was before.
Jeff could show her compassion, the doctor suggested, by taking her off the ventilator.
The couple are devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jeff had taped a little portrait of Jesus above Tina’s hospital bed.
And now he broke down. “Today is Easter. It’s supposed to be about miracles. Do whatever it takes,” he shouted as nurses walked past, trying not to look at the crumpled, angry mess of him.
“I want her back. I just want her back.”
The doctor responded: “But I’m not God.”
— — —
Jeff refused to listen. He came to the hospital at every chance, staying by Tina’s side until the nurses told him visiting hours were over.
He’d tell her about his day, how the customers treated him at the wellness store where he worked, how he’d driven by the doughnut shop where she worked before the pandemic shut it down, leaving Tina without the Bavarian cream bars she loved.
After about a week, the hospital staff told Jeff they needed to transfer his wife to a facility that could better care for her long term, while freeing up space for critical COVID-19 patients. Western Peaks in Bountiful, Utah, specialized in respiratory rehabilitation. It was 200 miles from where they lived in Idaho.
Two days before she was set to be moved, though, her oxygen level dropped dramatically. Tina’s ventilator was operating at 100%, but Jeff watched as her saturation dropped from the 80s, to the 70s, down through the 60s. 68. 65. 64. 61. Her skin looked impossibly blue, alien, almost like glass. He worried she would break.
She recovered enough to move, unconscious, to Western Peaks — where that happened again, after about two weeks there.
Jeff followed the blinking lights of an ambulance to St. Mark’s Hospital in Millcreek. When he got inside, he remembers a doctor telling him, “Your wife is very, very sick.”
As Jeff waited to see her, he sat in a daze, hearing each time the alarm was pressed for other COVID-19 patients in the hospital and questioning whether he was doing the right thing.
Was the previous doctor right? Should he have let his wife go? Was he just prolonging her pain? If she did wake up, as he believed she would, would it be to a life she wanted?
His head swirled with every regret, too. He thought about their recent trip to Montana, the picture he had posted. Tina had wanted to stay an extra night. Jeff said no. “I really wished I had said, ‘Yes, let’s stay,’” Jeff recounted.
So he decided to say “yes,” now instead, to everything to keep her alive for every extra night he could get. She stabilized, and they moved her back to Western Peaks.
— — —
Each member of the family tried to assume blame for what had happened to Tina.
The husband who has asthma and wondered why it wasn’t him instead of her.
The son, Joseph, who was worried he somehow attracted misfortune, moving back to the family’s house in Idaho after the mass shooting that killed 58 people in 2017 in Las Vegas, Nev.
The daughter, Madison, who brought home the virus and blamed herself for, she feared, killing her mother. Jeff was concerned about Madison too, worried about how she would react if Tina didn’t recover.
By the start of May, Tina was still not awake. The doctors sometimes eased her sedatives, called a “sedation vacation,” to see whether she was recovering and could respond.
But when they stopped her paralytic medications, which kept her still while she was on the ventilator, her eyes stayed shut and she did not wake up.
Once, she had scooted down in her bed once after Jeff said he was going home. He thought she might know what was happening and was trying to come with him.
“Honey, you can’t go,” he told her.
As time passed and he saw her fragility, Jeff had decided that if Tina stopped breathing, he wouldn’t have doctors do CPR. He thought they might break a rib, with how weak she was. It was the only line he could draw, though.
He stopped short of signing a do not resuscitate, or D.N.R., form. He believed every other option should be on the table.
He spent every Saturday and Sunday at the Bountiful hospital, sleeping in his car in between and then heading back to Idaho for work on Monday, a 400-mile round trip in the same golden SUV that he first took Tina to the hospital in.
He had to put new tires on it from all the driving back and forth.
— — —
Madison was there on Fridays.
The 25-year-old had kept a list on her phone called “Things to Tell Mom,” and as she sat in the hospital room, she’d read to Tina the items she’d jotted down.
She told her mom about a new Bruno Mars song; the two loved to shout out his lyrics whenever they were in the car together. Madison also said she saw Klondike bars at the grocery store that were Reese’s flavor. She had never heard of those before, and her mom was the biggest Reese’s fan she knew.
There were sad notes, too. The owner of the doughnut shop where Tina and Madison had worked together had died.
Mother’s Day passed next without a response. Madison cried thinking about what life would be like without her mom. For the holiday, Jeff had recorded 30-second well wishes from family members and others. “We love you,” said some of Tina’s friends from where she grew up on the Paiute reservation in Nevada. “You’ve got this,” added her sister-in-law.
Jeff played them for Tina while trying to comb her long hair, but large clumps fell out in his fingers.
He posted again on Facebook that night when he got home. “She is such a loving mother to our kids and a great friend and wife to me.”
This time he used a photo of Tina sitting in sunshine. Now, she hadn’t seen any real sun for two months. Her ankles were so thin that Jeff could reach his fingers around them.
He still prayed every morning for Tina to get better. And he’d FaceTime with her every night, even though she couldn’t see or hear him.
The family celebrated Madison’s and Joseph’s birthdays, too, on camera, blowing out the candles over the screen.
— — —
Jeff’s phone rang on May 20. He didn’t want to answer. He recognized the number as the hospital’s.
Bracing himself, he swiped the bar and said, “Hello?”
“Mr. Lewis?” the nurse said. “Your wife has woken up.”
— — —
The doctor had been making his rounds when he saw Tina’s eyelids flutter.
The muscles in her fingers, arms and legs were not responding to her brain after more than two months unconscious on a ventilator. But she could move her eyes.
“Do you know where you are?” the doctor asked. “Move your eyes up and down if the answer is ‘yes.’”
Her golden brown irises bobbed in response.
“Do you know what happened to you?” This time, they moved left to right. She wasn’t sure.
Jeff got there as soon as he could and was the one to explain. Tina couldn’t talk, with the ventilator still attached to her throat. But she started to cry as soon as her husband walked in the room. He cried, too.
His eyes never quite dried that day. The doctor told him that it would take months, still, for Tina to recover. Like a child, she’d have to relearn how to eat, how to talk, how to walk.
Of course, he was happy. But there were still questions about the choices he made and how she would heal. He knew it wasn’t over.
It was a month before she could talk. With her first sentence, she told Jeff and Madison that she wanted to hold Bulma, their fat yellow family cat. It was the first time they’d heard her voice since saying goodbye on FaceTime in the Idaho ER in March.
“Pet the cat,” Tina said. “Bulma.”
Six weeks in, she took her first steps. In a video Jeff has saved on his phone, Tina’s arms are quivering as she grabs onto a walker. But she manages three paces forward and three paces back, her blue hospital socks skimming the floor.
The family celebrated every little milestone. At the start of July, the hospital was able to remove Tina’s ventilator, putting her instead on a less invasive oxygen mask.
She had her first meal, too, a baked potato and a chocolate cupcake with strawberry icing.
Jeff posted about Tina’s journey for his third time on Facebook, championing the “amazing day” where she got to eat. And he posted a picture of her in the hospital, for the first time. Before then, he hadn’t wanted to show how rough she looked. He wanted to wait until he was sure she was OK.
— — —
Tina caught pneumonia a second time. It wasn’t like going back to square one. It was a free fall, crashing through any progress and hope.
She went back on the ventilator, back on sedation, back to being unconscious.
Jeff was convinced he had messed up by putting her through this, worried he caused the reversal by celebrating too early. He didn’t know if he’d be so lucky a second time. “I am not so naive to think other families haven’t prayed, as well,” he said.
The risk of relapse had remained as Tina initially recovered. COVID-19 acts almost like a drug, impacting every organ, muscle and cell. When Tina had gone to the ER, Jeff remembers, the physician there asked him if she was on any illicit drugs. The wide impact on the body can make a coronavirus patient look like a heroin addict.
The wait was shorter this time — it was two weeks, instead of two months, before Tina woke up again.
Now, she felt defeated. “I just thought, I’m not going to try anymore,” she remembers.
Her respiratory therapist would come into her room, and she’d wave him off, too tired, flipping instead to the TV to watch “10 Things I Hate About You.”
“How long do I have to stay here?” she asked Jeff.
“It might be a while still, babe,” he said.
“I can’t do that. I won’t do that,” she responded, sobbing.
Tina was in and out. She says she sometimes couldn’t make out what was really happening and not. She thought someone was painting on an easel in her hospital room. She pictured herself wearing a giant blue ball gown.
But Jeff begged her to try to stay with him, to try to get better. Eventually Tina attempted to move again, walking as far as her oxygen cord would allow her. For him.
Jeff posted a short note on August 4, saying she was being transferred to her fourth and final hospital, South Davis Community Hospital, also in Bountiful — and that he was proud of her.
And on Sept. 22, Jeff wrote on Facebook for the last time.
“After almost 7 months, my dear wife is home where she belongs. Thank you all.”
The picture this time was of the physicians and nurses and friends and family who flooded the doors to congratulate Tina. Among them was the first doctor who told Jeff to let her go; he had driven down from Idaho. They shook hands.
— — —
There are clear tubes stretched across the shaggy carpet of their home, with one end leading to an oxygen tank and the other always pointing out where Tina is, usually in the red recliner with Bulma at her feet.
When she stands up, she has to turn the volume up because the simple action winds her.
The doctors told her she will need this for weeks, maybe months, possibly forever. No one is really sure yet how long term the damage from the virus will be.
Her prescriptions fill the countertop.
Some pills she has to take three times a day, others four, others six. There are medications for diabetes, which she developed as a result of COVID-19. There are orange ones and white ones and small ones and long ones, like a Dr. Seuss story for the pandemic.
She’s still got a hole in her throat, too, a reminder of where her breathing tube was. It will heal on its own, with time, but nurses come to check on it and replace the bandage.
They’re at her house three times a week, along with more therapists to help her grow stronger. And she visits the doctor four times a month. This is Tina’s life now, a series of numbers and checkups.
Jeff believes there was no right decision. He did whatever it took to load his wife in his car once again and bring her home. But he and Tina both acknowledge the fight isn’t over.
“It’s very real,” he said. “Please, please get the vaccine. We’ve still got months ahead of us.”
Tina added, for people who think the virus is a hoax: “If they had to go one week through what I went through, they would never say that. It is very real. It is hard.”
She paused for a second to catch her breath. “Every night when I go to sleep, I’m so tired. But I don’t want to go to bed because I have to get up and start this whole thing over again.”
Jeff stays at her side, in a sleeping bag on the floor, where he can hear if anything happens and continue to hold her now warm hand.