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Retired Hillsborough fire chief fought coronavirus for weeks

Isolated at the hospital, Bill Nesmith could only communicate with loved ones by phone.
Bill Nesmith seen with his girlfriend Joan Gee at their home in Largo.
Bill Nesmith seen with his girlfriend Joan Gee at their home in Largo. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Apr. 15, 2020

LARGO — It was just over a month ago, but it feels like the distant past. There were only 10 reported cases of the coronavirus in Florida. Concern was growing, but the world was still moving.

A beloved annual bowling tournament took Bill Nesmith and partner Joan Gee to Puerto Rico. Nesmith’s love of the game had grown over the nine years since he retired as chief of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

Nesmith, 71, and Gee, 66, touched down on the island on March 8. Nesmith bowled okay. Mostly he just had fun. Nobody there, as Gee remembered it, was talking about the coronavirus at first.

When the president appeared on TV on March 11 to announce that travel into the U.S. would be restricted, they decided to cut the vacation short. The night before their flight home, they walked into a casino. There were new hand sanitizer stations near the entrance.

They sat at a blackjack table. Two seats down, a young man in a hooded sweatshirt kept coughing and coughing and wiping his nose. Chips and cards slid from bare hands to the felt to hands again. Gee, growing more nervous over an hour, finally pointed the man out to a manager.

“He was extremely ill," she said. “The guy was not happy about it, but they made him leave. He expressed quite loudly that he was not sick, that it was just his allergies.”

Later that same night, the governor of Puerto Rico announced the U.S. territory’s first three positive tests, two Italian tourists and one local. Gee and Nesmith flew home.

Gee did not have a cough or a fever, so she didn’t think the severe gastrointestinal issues that followed could be the coronavirus. She went to an urgent care center for her stomach. “All indications were that I didn’t have it," she said, "because I didn’t have the typical symptoms.” Since she’d traveled recently, they tested her anyway.

Nesmith’s cough started a few days later. Just over a week after flying home, doctors at the Morton Plant Hospital emergency room in Clearwater told him he’d already developed pneumonia. They tested him for the coronavirus and sent him home with the antibiotic Zithromax, better known as a Z-Pack.

Two days later, he was struggling to breathe. Gee, the self-described worrier in the couple, drove her partner of two-and-a-half years back to the hospital. “I was really concerned.”

Doctors put Nesmith on continuous oxygen and into complete isolation. His only physical contact would be with doctors and nurses covered in plastic and latex. He spoke to his children and grandkids by phone. As a trained paramedic during his fire department days, he was not scared of information. He searched for news about what might happen to him.

But as feverish nights went by, he mostly laid in bed doing nothing, sapped of all strength. The thought of death crept into his mind. He took some comfort in the fact that he already had a living will. He prayed often.

“I’d talk to him every day on the phone, but we didn’t talk long because he was coughing so bad,” Gee said. “I didn’t want him to have to keep coughing and trying to talk.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight out of every 10 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been adults aged 65 or older. High blood pressure, which Nesmith battles, is among the health conditions that put people at higher risk.

On his sixth day at the hospital, doctors told Nesmith his pneumonia was clearing. His vitals were strong enough. He could leave.

“I was ecstatic,” Nesmith said. “I couldn’t believe I was going to get to go home.” Like the majority of people who develop COVID-19, Nesmith survived the miserable, scary experience.

The positive result of his coronavirus test came only a day before he went home. Gee’s positive test came 12 days after being tested, though she never experienced a cough or a fever. She had already isolated herself at home before she knew for sure.

Nesmith, who spent 41 years in the fire department, got a special salute. A friend, the chief of the Pinellas Suncoast Fire Department, called and asked if he was going anywhere. Of course not, Nesmith said.

“No sooner had I got off the phone, here comes two or three firetrucks and the firefighters are lined up next to their trucks out in front of our house,” Nesmith said. “That really touched me.”

He has lost nearly 40 pounds since falling ill.

Gee had to push Nesmith to drink fluids and eat up until this week. He had no appetite. The only symptom they both experienced was losing their sense of taste. Gee realized Monday that it was back for the first time in weeks when she could suddenly taste barbecue sauce.

Nesmith said it wasn’t until days ago that he felt good enough to do anything. The health department cleared them to leave the house again, but they’re both still wearing masks. The first thing Nesmith did was walk a few blocks to see Indian Rocks Beach. He can’t go bowling, but he thinks about it.

They’ll never know for sure if they contracted the coronavirus at the casino, though they said health officials have told them it seems likely. They were around bowlers from all over the country during that trip, though the Florida couple they’d traveled closely with did not get sick.

Both encouraged people to take the virus seriously, and to remember that not everyone who has it has symptoms.

“If I didn’t (have symptoms)," Gee said, “how many other people are walking around that have it and don’t know?”

As of 5 p.m. on April 14, the Florida Department of Health reported 20,984 infections in the state. Of the 2,811 reported cases that occurred in people ages 65 to 74, 134 of them, or 4.7 percent, have died. That percentage is likely higher than the disease’s true death rate, due to infections that were not tested or counted.

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