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My Dad and I had been separated for months, then he got the coronavirus

We were reunited by his hospital bed, as doctors and nurses worked to save him.
Bob Bohen waves at his daughter, Leonora, and his ex-wife, Barbara Bohen, through the glass door at his assisted living facility on May 14.
Bob Bohen waves at his daughter, Leonora, and his ex-wife, Barbara Bohen, through the glass door at his assisted living facility on May 14. [ LEONORA LAPETER ANTON | TImes ]
Published Sep. 24, 2020
Updated Dec. 14, 2020

The call came at 8:03 on a Thursday morning.

A nurse on my father’s memory care floor said he’d been at the breakfast table, coughing and breathing food into his lungs.

“I’m not sure what’s going on,” she said, “but if it’s okay with you, I want to send him to the ER.”

It was July 9. After four months of keeping the coronavirus at bay, two employees on my Dad’s floor at The Fountains of Boca Ciega Bay in St. Petersburg had tested positive the week before.

I immediately assumed the worst — that the virus had found its way to my 93-year-old father.

I spent most of the next three hours calling St. Anthony’s Hospital and eventually reached his nurse. He told me Dad had tested positive.

By noon, a doctor was on the phone, discussing oxygen levels and saying X-rays revealed “infiltrates” in Dad’s lungs. He had pneumonia. They would put him on the anti-viral medication Remdesivir and order plasma, from recovered patients, but there were shortages of both. I jotted down his words, keeping a record.

“Have you told him he has COVID?” I asked.

“Yes, I did tell him,” he replied. “I don’t know how much he understands. He’s a little confused. He knows his name, he knows he’s in the hospital.”

He asked what to do if Dad stopped breathing. What about CPR? Did I want him to go on a ventilator?

Dad and I had talked about it, but he’d been indecisive, a trait he passed on to me.

Hours later, the nurse called again.

They were trying to force oxygen into Dad’s lungs.

I tried to hold it together. We talked about chest compressions. “He’s a small guy,” the nurse said. “It would break his ribs.”

I knew he wouldn’t want that. “But he wanted more time,” I told him.

“Does this mean I can visit?” I asked. He said he’d contact the charge nurse but probably. Moments later, she called with instructions. I grabbed a mask and braced myself to see my father again for the first real visit in four months. And maybe the last.

***

In early March, before the pandemic transformed all our lives, I wrote about the moment I said goodbye to my father, Bob Bohen, at his assisted living facility. He was in the later stages of Parkinson’s disease, but he looked forward to me picking him up and taking him to dinner.

Bob Bohen came to visit his daughter, Leonora, several times a year in St. Petersburg before he moved here in 2016.
Bob Bohen came to visit his daughter, Leonora, several times a year in St. Petersburg before he moved here in 2016. [ LEONORA LAPETER ANTON | TImes ]

At the time, I thought I was being melodramatic for thinking we might never again walk to the dock outside his building.

Related: After today, I won’t be able to come back, Dad. I’m not sure how long it’ll be.

But then one month stretched to four, and though he adored many of the employees there, I could tell that he was getting more and more discouraged. Once a week, we tried to talk on Zoom, and four times, we had “glass” meetings where we saw each other through a thick door and held phones to talk.

On the phone, he always greeted me cheerfully, but he didn’t hesitate to tell me what was bothering him. His clothes were missing. He didn’t have any cash in his pocket. What if he wanted to buy someone a Coke or a banana split?

He wanted to know how much money he had left in the bank. Multiple times, he asked me to go over who in our family had died and who was still alive. That was lovely.

I had to remind him about the virus over and over. That’s why we couldn’t go to dinner. That’s why I wasn’t there.

I am his only child, and after he’d arrived in Florida four years ago, we went out to meals all the time, just as we had when I was a teenager in Westport, Conn., and he raised me as a single dad.

Soon, Dad was being isolated from other residents. He grew sadder. I told him baseball was starting up again soon and hockey. He’d been a Yankees fan, but now, he rooted for the Rays. He’d have something to look forward to on TV.

Sometimes, he had dreams, brought on by urinary tract infections. He told me someone had punched him in the nose. He needed to leave the place, because the guy was going to get him. Another time, he was in an auto shop and needed a ride home. “You’re not going to give me a ride home?” he said.

Several times, he asked me to move him. “Why can’t I come in your house with you?”

I thought about that, of course. We even talked to a contractor about modifying our two-bedroom bungalow. But what if he caught the virus from me or my husband or daughter?

What if one of us was asymptomatic?

And I’d have to hire a caretaker, someone to help me around the clock. Then I’d go back to thinking, well, maybe he was safer where he was.

In early June, the floor manager at Dad’s facility called to let me know that a staff member had tested positive. Luckily, a few weeks passed with no more cases.

But on Florida’s online COVID-19 dashboard, the number of people contracting the virus in the zip codes near the facility had gone from blue to red. There was community spread.

In early July, another staff member tested positive after reporting to the ER with symptoms.

I was trying to decide what to do, but the virus closed in like a SWAT team, taking out people one by one. A resident on the third floor went to the hospital with a fever, then someone on my father’s floor. Then Dad went to the ER.

In all, 26 residents and 24 staff would test positive. Nine people would die.

***

Outside Dad’s room in the ER, the nurse handed me gloves, a gown and a mask with an eye shield, which I put over my own mask. The nurse warned me to stay back, that it was still not enough protection. Then he opened the door.

A piece of rounded plastic started at Dad’s hairline and snaked down the middle of his face, covering the lower half. All I could see were his hazel eyes. I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t stop myself.

“Hi, Dad, how are you?”

“Good.” Then, “I got the disease.”

Like, there it was.

I nodded. “I’m so sorry, Dad.”

“It’s okay.”

We talked a little. I asked if he was cold and pulled a blanket over his exposed old man feet. Then I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to be in there long. And that it might be the last time I would ever see him. I needed him to know some things.

He wasn’t perfect. He had a temper, and he could be impatient, and growing up, the house was such a mess that he sometimes bought new sheets rather than clean the old.

But after he started raising me alone, when I was in the seventh grade, he got two part-time jobs and spent long days in New York City as a high-rise elevator inspector, so he could be home most days after school. He listened to me cry about boys, friendships, the future.

He made me laugh, mostly at myself. He sometimes sang a few verses of old songs like New York, New York in a deep baritone, to make me smile. He taught me about being there for family.

Now, I looked into his eyes, so much like my own.

“Dad, I want to tell you that you have always been the best father ever. Thank you for always being there, it meant so much to me.”

“Thank you for being the best daughter ever,” he said.

“I love you so much.”

“And I love you, too.”

I told him there were other people who loved him, that hopefully he would get better. “I’m here for you Dad, always, OK?”

He nodded and told me to go.

As I ripped off the gloves and the gown, meant to protect us from this awful virus, I grieved. And I thought about how many other people were going through a version of this ritual.

***

I woke up in the middle of the night, searching on my phone for the hospital results of Dad’s latest bloodwork and anything else I could learn.

He had a low fever, high blood pressure and his blood gases were all over the map. I couldn’t keep track of how many things were too elevated or too low.

Six hours later, I called the nurse. She surprised me. She said Dad was off the BiPap machine, doing much better.

“Oh,” I said. “His numbers…”

Everything was within normal limits, she said. They were concerned about his heart, which had gotten as low as 31 beats per minute. They’d called a cardiologist. But he was quite strong, she said.

I tried to call Dad’s room, but the phone system was overwhelmed, and I kept getting kicked back.

“He’s doing very well,” his nurse said when I finally reached her about mid-afternoon, “other than he’s confused. And he wants to go to dinner.”

I smiled. She handed him her cell phone.

“How are you feeling, Dad?”

He told me he needed some time off, clearly thinking about the days when he still went to work.

“Everybody I talk to says you’re doing really well. So keep your spirits up, okay?”

The next day, Saturday, July 11, his nurse told me the doctor thought he was well enough to move out of the ICU, into his own hospital room.

“I’ve seen much younger who aren’t faring as well as him,” she said.

The next morning, I started to carve out hope.

“Dad, you’re doing better!” I told him. “Did you know that?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yea, you are beating COVID, Dad. You should be proud of that.”

He was, then he asked: “When will I see you? Tonight?”

“As soon as they let me in, I’ll come see you, okay, Dad? For now, just relax. Stay happy.”

***

Two hours later, the hospital called. Dad’s heart had stopped about 15 minutes before. He’d died at 4:20 p.m.

“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, her voice breaking. “I thought I’d be able to keep it together.”

When I saw Dad’s nurse later, outside his room, the tears welled in her huge, blue eyes.

“He was just so happy, so cheerful,” she said.

Earlier in the day, he’d been singing The Star-Spangled Banner. She’d put on Frank Sinatra for him.

His heart had stopped while he was talking, while she was at his bedside.

His mouth was still open when I walked into the room, now quiet.

My mind skipped through moments in our relationship, like a rock skidding across a smooth lake.

I thought about when I was 6 and I ran to him with a bee sting on my arm, and he hugged me tight and put on a Band-Aid, and how he comforted me, at 14, after my first breakup, and we watched The Towering Inferno while I cried, and the time I was 16 and he let me have a dozen girls over for a sleepover. And I thought about how much he loved being a Dad. I touched his arm. It was still warm.

Dad had been fighting Parkinson’s for a decade, and the years had taken their toll. But I didn’t want it to end this way. He wasn’t the only one who wanted more time.

I felt guilty that I hadn’t brought him home, that I’d told him he was beating COVID-19. But I thought about how he died — cheerful and peaceful, with a loving nurse at his side. And that even when he was struggling to breathe, he wanted to sing one more time.

Contact Leonora LaPeter Anton llapeter@tampabay.com. Follow @WriterLeonora.

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