The last time Tom Adair saw his father alive was Christmas. The 43-year-old attorney and aspiring politician had flown back home to Rochester, New York, to spend the holiday with his father, Don Adair, a 76 year-old astrophysics hobbyist and former American Red Cross board member. He’d been struggling with dementia at an independent senior living center.
Adair said his father was the smartest person he’d ever known, someone who had a strong work ethic and a big heart. A musician who taught himself guitar at a young age, he nurtured and encouraged Adair’s interest in public policy, public service, and politics when Adair was young and taught him to think critically about issues. It led Adair to Capitol Hill in college and to run for office as the representative for Texas House District 67 in Austin.
In March, Adair led the four-way Democratic primary but failed to secure 50 percent of the vote. He was facing real estate agent turned politician Lorenzo Sanchez in a runoff election in late May, but it was moved to July after COVID-19 forced everything to halt.
Adair’s father was on lockdown at the senior living center when he suffered two falls in one night. Transported to the hospital in late March, he spent two weeks there, and was supposed to be discharged in early April. Then he developed a cough.
Two days later, his father was dead.
“My maternal grandmother passed away two years ago,” Adair says, “and when I saw her at Christmas, I figured it would be the last time I saw her alive. But not last Christmas, not with my dad.”
The explosion of COVID-19 cases running rampant at senior living centers around the country has been well documented over the past couple of weeks.
The Washington Post reported April 17 that hundreds of nursing homes with COVID-19 cases have been violating federal infection control rules for years, putting the most vulnerable population at risk. Six weeks after the outbreak raised public awareness, COVID-19 has infected more than 35,000 people at nursing homes and senior living facilities and killed nearly 7,000 of them, according to April 17 The New York Times report. About a week earlier, 17 bodies were found piled in a morgue at a New Jersey senior living facility, where it’s been reported that 70 have died and more than 400 have been infected with the virus. One body was pulled out of a shed outside of the facility.
Former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey, who founded the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, an education campaign aimed at stopping hospital-acquired infections, told the Times that nursing homes and senior living facilities are overcrowded and understaffed. “They’re death pits,” she said. “…One Covid-positive patient in a nursing home produces carnage.”
But Adair’s father didn’t contract the virus at the senior living center in New York. He had tested negative for coronavirus when he first arrived at the hospital in late March. He just didn’t know it was running rampant down the hall from his room. He didn’t develop cold-like symptoms until two weeks later. It was a Friday in early April. By Saturday night, he had tested positive for COVID-19.
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“On Saturday night, I read that the test came back positive,” Adair’s sister Abby Reinhard posted on Facebook shortly after her father’s death. “I can’t describe the fear I felt in that moment, and I thought, ‘This cannot be happening to my family.’”
“Nobody was able to see him,” Adair says.
On Sunday morning, Reinhard received a call from the hospital in New York. “‘Aspiration… deterioration… suffering… not much time,’” she recalled on Facebook. “Your lungs got ravaged so fast. I couldn’t fully take in what the nurse was saying — it didn’t feel real.
“Then I heard myself say, ‘How are you going to make sure this doesn’t happen to other families? Why did you all wait so long to wear masks, and why wasn’t there more testing? This never should have happened!’ I caught myself and remembered that she was an innocent messenger working on the frontline of the pandemic, and I told her I was grateful for her.”
Adair was attending a church service online when Abby called and told him that he was going to have to find a strength he didn’t know he had. They were getting on the phone with their father who was succumbing to the virus. Their two other sisters from Raleigh and Copenhagen were joining them on the conference call to say goodbye.
“Not many people even get a chance to say their goodbyes over the phone,” Adair says.
Abby had needed to speak with her father. The nurse offered to put the room phone by her father’s ear. “So I could hear you breathe, and you could hear me talk,” she wrote in her Facebook post that chronicled the final hours with their father. “‘I love you… Thank you…. I’m sorry… I forgive you,’ I said as I heard you struggle to breathe and eject the ooze from your lungs. Hearing the retching sound of your cough, I knew you were suffering — and there I was, powerless on the other end of the phone. But I was so thankful for the nurses. ‘Yes, Don, get that out,’ they said. ‘You can do it, Don. That’s good.’”
She then realized that she could add her siblings on the call. They spent several hours on the phone with him, reliving memories with what little time they had left. They’d stop every time their father stopped breathing for a short time and tell him, “Breathe, Dad. We need to hear you breathe.”
“I have never loved and appreciated breath the way I love and appreciate breath right now,” Abby wrote.
The call came in shortly before midnight. Their father had died from “respiratory failure in the setting of aspiration and COVID-19.”
Only local people in Rochester were allowed to attend their father’s funeral. The service was held at the cemetery two days after his death. It was a short burial, about 10 minutes, Adair says.
Adair wasn’t able to attend. Instead his brother-in-law videotaped it.
“Everything is up in the air, and it is definitely hard (dealing with his father’s death),” Adair says. “Not being able to be there, and not even being able to be there for his final minutes and final hours in person. I was struck a couple of times by if I had just hugged him one more time.
“It reminds you how precious every breath is and how precious life is.”