A daughter’s harrowing journey to support her father in his fight with COVID-19

click to enlarge At the Spokane Veterans Home, 46 residents tested positive for COVID-19. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
At the Spokane Veterans Home, 46 residents tested positive for COVID-19.

In his bed at the Spokane Veterans Home, Leonardo "Butch" De Angelis can't escape the killer creeping toward him. The virus first strikes the caregivers at the nursing home. Then it hits the veterans down the hall. Then it sneaks into his own room, sickening his roommate.

At 75, Butch survived the Vietnam War — where he was doused with Agent Orange by his own government and suffered lifelong health issues as a result. Now, he might die alone in this strange room overlooking a parking lot, far away from home.

And he can only wait.

"If I get it, I'm a goner," he tells his daughter, Lacy Russell, over the phone.

Lacy is just as terrified. But she doesn't show it.

"You can't think like that," she says. "You're going to survive it."

When the virus gets to Butch in late April, it hits hard. Within days he can't eat. He can hardly breathe. His fever spikes. And his daughter can't be there with him.

"I just want to be there. I just want to hold his hand and tell him that I love him," she tells the Inlander in early May.

These are the heartbreaking scenarios none of the charts or data sets put out by health officials capture. Across the country, millions of sick people are kept away from those they want to see most. Veterans like Butch can be isolated in hospital rooms and hooked up to ventilators — never counted as a COVID-19 "hospitalization" — while family members like Lacy can only send support over the phone or through a crack in the window. And vulnerable adults can be counted as a "mild" COVID-19 case even as the virus causes severe long-term damage, and sometimes death.

Though she can't be in the room with him, Lacy calls her dad every day after he tests positive. With Butch and Lacy's permission, the Inlander listens in on these calls, witnessing firsthand the grief and devastation felt by a father and daughter separated by a deadly virus.

UPDATE

Leonardo "Butch" De Angelis was convicted of second-degree murder in 1991 and served 18 years and six months in an Arizona prison. This information was not revealed during the course of the Inlander's reporting on this story. Lacy says she and her dad do not feel this information is relevant to his battle with COVID-19.

On one end of the line, a father struggles to speak as the virus saps his strength and attacks his lungs and heart and his will to live. On the other end, a daughter listens helplessly, unable to sit by his bedside.

"This has been such a crazy, f—-ed up roller coaster from hell," Lacy says.

By the time the Inlander gets in touch with Lacy and Butch, it's been five days since he tested positive. He's been transferred to the Mann-Grandstaff Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Spokane. He still has a hard time keeping down food due to the medication he's on, and Lacy fears he's spiraling in the wrong direction.

In the first call the Inlander listens to on May 5, they talk about the peppermints and sugar-free hard candy she sent him.

"I'm sorry that I can't be there. But I can do what I can from out here," she says. "If you need anything, I can get you anything. Do you want or need anything?"

"Nope. I'm good," he says.

"No, you're good? After you got your candy?"

They laugh together. She asks about his temperature, his medication, and she can tell he doesn't have as much strength as he's letting on.

"Well, I love you, Dad," she says.

"I love you, too," he says.

Lacy wells up. She thinks about how she can't be there with him, how he's all alone in there.

"I miss you," she says.

"It will be over soon," says her dad.

OverSoon.mp3

Lacy, 39, yearns for a closer relationship with Butch like she once had, long ago, as a young girl growing up in Flagstaff, Arizona. They'd go on walks, they'd go fishing, and she'd swell up with pride when her dad would brag to friends that she caught a bigger fish than him.

Her parents divorce when she's 5, and she ends up in a new home, hundreds of miles away from her dad. The fishing trips end. As she builds a life in the Pacific Northwest, eventually landing in Spokane and opening a photography business, she lacks the kind of close connection with her father she's always wanted.

Down in Arizona, her dad's health deteriorates. Agent Orange won't quit its continuous onslaught on his health. He has tremors, diabetes, a heart attack. He has three surgeries in the span of a few years to remove tumors pressing against his spine. It becomes obvious he can't live alone anymore — he can't get his own groceries, and every other day he falls down and can't get up.

In 2019, Lacy brings him to Spokane where she can monitor him more closely. But he still needs more intensive physical therapy to get back on his feet, and she helps him move into the Spokane Veterans Home.

For a time, it's like she's the young child growing up in Flagstaff again. She can be with her dad when she wants. She takes him out of the Veterans Home for holidays, for movies, for walks in the park, and by March he's feeling better and almost ready to get discharged and build a life in Spokane alongside her.

Then COVID hits.

The Veterans Home deals with a rash of respiratory infections in early February, quarantining residents and preventing Lacy from seeing Butch. At the time, testing for COVID-19 isn't available, and when it is, in March, it's slow. In late March, an employee at the home has mild COVID-19 symptoms and gets tested. The test results lag. Feeling no symptoms for a few days, the employee returns to work.

The virus explodes inside the home, especially on the first floor where Butch stays. The facility tries to control it, but there's no space, so veterans share rooms with only a curtain separating them, even if their roommate is sick. The Spokane Veterans Home quickly becomes the largest cluster of cases in Spokane. COVID-19 would infect 46 residents — more than half of the residents there — and 24 staff members. Ten veterans would die.

When her dad tests positive, Lacy fears the worst. Across the country, deaths in nursing homes add up. Butch has underlying conditions putting him in grave danger. She knows she had no choice, that she couldn't have predicted this pandemic, but she can't shake this guilty feeling — did she kill her dad by putting him there?

She calls him every day. She can only talk to him for a few minutes before she breaks down, so she keeps the calls short.

Yet, even as she tries to shield it, even though she's not in there in the hospital room, Butch can sense that his daughter is struggling. From his hospital bed, wearing an oxygen mask, he does his best not to worry her. When she asks how he's doing, he always says he's "doing pretty good," even in his darkest moments.

"Pretty good?" Lacy asks May 6.

"Yeah," he says. He tries to change the subject. "So how are things there?"

"They're fine," she says. "You don't feel like this virus is kicking your butt?"

Butch lets his guard down, if only a little. Yet his answer somehow manages to make his daughter laugh.

"Yeah," he says. "It's kickin.'"

Kickin_.mp3

In mid-May, stuck on his bed in the specialized COVID-19 unit at the Mann-Granstaff VA Medical Center, Butch watches the TV news to find out when one of the veterans down the hall dies.

"They had two more kick the bucket," he tells Lacy on May 12.

click to enlarge When he could no longer breathe, Butch De Angelis was put on a ventilator at Providence Sacred Heart hospital. - LACY RUSSELL PHOTO
Lacy Russell photo
When he could no longer breathe, Butch De Angelis was put on a ventilator at Providence Sacred Heart hospital.

They are the seventh and eighth deaths associated with the outbreak at the Spokane Veterans Home, the VA says. They wouldn't be the last.

Local politicians, including Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, want to start lifting the stay-home order Spokane had been living under since March. New case counts per day are in the single digits. Only four people are hospitalized in Spokane, according to data from the Spokane Regional Health District at the time.

Butch, in his hospital bed, is forgotten in those counts. So are the dozens of other veterans there with him. Unless they are rushed to a local hospital with acute symptoms from COVID-19, they're not counted as "a hospitalization." They were brought to the hospital for better monitoring and a more isolated setting, where they don't have to share rooms, but most of the veterans have what health officials consider "mild" symptoms.

Lacy is furious. She wants local leaders to show some concern about what's happening to her dad, to the veterans who served this country and are locked away in hospital rooms.

"It's so frustrating when you see people like, 'open the economy back up.' Like, our veterans are dying, and nobody's acknowledging it," she says. "Maybe it's because it's not personally affecting them so they don't understand."

Alone in the hospital, meanwhile, Butch is haunted. One Saturday morning in early May, he tells Lacy he "had people worrying about him last night" — this time, not because of his fever or oxygen levels.

"It's so frustrating when you see people like, 'open the economy back up.' Like, our veterans are dying, and nobody's acknowledging it."

tweet this

"What happened?" Lacy asks.

"I started running around in my sleep, and they woke me up, and I started doing all kinds of weird things last night," he says. "Yelling, screaming."

"Ohh," Lacy says sympathetically. "Like the PTSD stuff?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Yeah, I'm sorry, Dad."

"It's OK."

"This must be a stressful time for you, a stressful situation, being in the hospital, alone like that," Lacy says.

"Yeah."

PTSD.mp3

He's feeling better physically, two weeks since his positive test. If the virus was going to kill him, he tells Lacy, it would have by now. His dry, endearing sense of humor comes out. As the nurses try to cheer him up, he jokes that he's "cursed" with an irresistible charm and he should bottle that charm up and sell it.

But he's starting to go stir-crazy. He can't talk to the other veterans in the COVID-19 unit at the hospital. The entertainment and distractions are limited. They have checkers, but no board, and nobody to play against.

The hospital keeps testing him, and he keeps coming back positive. Each time, it means another week isolated.

He asks again and again if he can see his dog, Shiloh, a 100-pound Catahoula husky mix, but Lacy says she can't get anywhere near his window at the VA hospital. She's only half-joking when she says it seems like he wants to see the dog more than her.

"I know you're probably really bored in there," Lacy says.

"Yeah, that's only half of it," he says.

"What's the other half?"

"Bored, bored, bored," he says.

While he's stuck in the hospital, other veterans return to their rooms at the Spokane Veterans Home. Caregivers greet them with "Welcome Back" banners. He desperately wants to be back there.

But the virus isn't finished with him. It isn't finished with Spokane.

As cities in May deal with the aftermath of an influx of COVID-19 patients in their emergency rooms, doctors across the country scramble to learn more about it.

It becomes apparent that it's much more than just a respiratory illness. Rather, it smothers the entire body. And as Butch would soon find out, just like Agent Orange, it can leave damage that can prove lethal long after it's gone.

Paramedics find themselves picking up more stroke patients. Kids — thought to be mostly safe from the virus's deadliest symptoms — come down with a rare illness causing their hands and feet to swell, and their eyes to go red. Patients dubbed "long-haulers" report lingering symptoms that they have difficulty explaining, lasting for months.

click to enlarge Lacy visits her dad, Butch, through the window at the Spokane Veterans Home in June. - WILSON CRISCIONE PHOTO
Wilson Criscione photo
Lacy visits her dad, Butch, through the window at the Spokane Veterans Home in June.

One day, Butch tells Lacy he can't use one of his legs.

"You're not able to walk anymore?" Lacy asks.

"Not with my left leg."

He says they're going to do an X-ray and find out why, but it later comes back negative. Lacy is confused.

"You were walking yesterday," she says.

"Well, I'm not doing it now," he says.

"Do they think it's related to COVID or do they think it's something else?"

"They don't know," he says.

Leg.mp3

On May 19, a Spokane Veterans Home resident dies a week after returning from the hospital virus-free. It's the 10th resident who tested positive from the Veterans Home to die and exactly what Lacy fears for her dad. She grows particularly concerned when she reads how the coronavirus can affect the heart, since Butch had a heart attack 15 years ago.

The death toll in the U.S. continues to grow. Lacy and Butch both feel helpless, frustrated, overwhelmed. They blame the government.

"All we can do is hope, you know, that this thing here will blow over and get outta here," Butch tells Lacy. "It's taken too many lives."

"It's already taken over 100,000," Lacy says. "That's crazy — just in the United States."

"Yeah."

"Because our government dealt with it like idiots," Lacy says.

"Well," he says. "Did you expect anything different?"

"No, I don't," she says. "I don't expect our idiot government who drafted a bunch of people into Vietnam and then doused them all in Agent Orange to know anything."

"Nope," he says.

"All we can do is hope, you know, that this thing here will blow over and get outta here. It's taken too many lives."

tweet this

Outside his room, on May 22, Spokane gets the OK to move onto the next phase of the state's "Safe Start" reopening plan. Within days, local cases shoot up. But finally, on May 25, Butch calls Lacy with some good news: He tested negative for COVID-19.

Within days, he's back in his room at the Spokane Veterans Home, where at least he has Lacy's photos on the wall and he can look outside at the turkeys in the bushes.

With the Spokane Veterans Home still quarantined, Lacy visits his window. She brings his dog, Shiloh, who stands on his hind legs and shoves his snout through the window crack, where Butch's hand is waiting to be licked.

It's been months since Lacy could hold her dad's hand, and even now, she still can't. She can barely make out the shape of her dad in a white T-shirt through the reflection of herself in a mask. He doesn't have the strength to sit up close to the window to talk.

Then, days later, a social worker finds Butch in his room, pale and shaking, low on oxygen. They run some tests and a nurse tells Lacy that Butch has congestive heart failure. Lacy's terrified.

She calls her dad and tells him what she's been told.

"Oh, well," he says dismissively.

"It's not 'oh, well!' They said they were going to try you on new medication and see if that helps. And if not, you might have another surgery," she says.

"No," he says stubbornly. "No more."

"No more surgeries?" Lacy says, her voice softening.

"No more surgeries."

Lacy can't hold it in. He can't give up.

"Dad! Please do not leave me!"

"I'm not leaving you! I'm a tough old bird."

Lacy cries.

"Dad, it's congestive heart failure and you've already had a heart attack!"

And then, Butch changes his mind. Maybe he knows she's right. Maybe he just wants to make her feel better.

"OK, I'll — I'll get the operation."

"You'll get the operation?"

"Uh-huh," he says.

"OK."

"I'll get the operation," he says, "if it comes to that."

Operation.mp3

On June 6, it's been nearly two weeks since Butch has been virus-free, but he's still sick. He's frustrated that he doesn't have the power to get up and walk to the other side of the room and grab his coloring book.

That's what the nurse call button is for, Lacy tells him.

"I like to do things myself," he says.

"I know you do," she says. "But that's dangerous. Especially when your legs aren't working."

"Well..."

"Your stubbornness has gotten you this far in life, I guess," Lacy says.

"Yep," he says.

He pauses.

Lacy sighs.

Then, he says, "I'll beat this thing."

That morning, they talk for nearly 15 minutes, one of the longer conversations they've had in a while. He imagines what life will be like when this is over, when he can sell his house in Arizona and find a place in Spokane and be around his daughter and his dog. Lacy thinks he's back to being himself — the ornery, stubborn father she loves.

By 11 pm that night, everything changes. He's rushed to Providence Sacred Heart hospital with the same symptoms as when COVID first hit him, only worse. His fever spikes, his oxygen drops and he's throwing up.

They say it's bilateral pneumonia.

A couple days pass, and he's discharged back to the Veterans Home. But he crashes again. On Wednesday morning, June 10, an ambulance takes him to the emergency room a few blocks away.

The doctors do everything they can to keep him alive. He's given norepinephrine, or adrenaline, to keep his heart beating. He's given eight liters of oxygen, double what he had a month earlier with COVID-19. It takes two hours just to stabilize him. He nearly dies.

That's when the doctors tell Lacy that Butch has a living will that says they only get one shot to bring him back to life. After that, if he can't breathe on his own, they won't put him on a respirator. If his heart stops, they won't try to save him.

Lacy calls her dad over and over again that afternoon. He finally answers at 3 pm. Her voice cracks as she asks again how he's feeling. Is he eating? On an IV? Is he in pain?

"Nope, no hurt," Butch manages to say.

Lacy is desperate to help. She tells him to keep his phone close so he can answer when she calls and to ask the nurse for some Jell-O. He agrees. She tells him she loves him.

Just like always, he says it right back.

She says it again.

The third time, her voice gets shakier.

"I love you very much," she says. "You're a good dad."

He doesn't know what to say. There's a grunt, and the phone shuffles around.

Lacy needs to make sure he heard her.

"Dad?"

"Yeah?"

"You're a really good dad."

"Well, thank you."

"And I love you very much."

This time, he really hears her.

"Well," he says, "I'm glad somebody loves me."

GoodDad.mp3

click to enlarge Butch will likely be on oxygen for the rest of his life, but at least he'll be able to fish with his daughter Lacy. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Butch will likely be on oxygen for the rest of his life, but at least he'll be able to fish with his daughter Lacy.

T he next day the doctors tell Lacy her dad has acute interstitial pneumonia.

Don't Google it, they say.

She doesn't. If she had, she'd find that the mortality rate is over 60 percent.

He's still free of the coronavirus. Doctors can't explain exactly what role COVID-19 may have played, but they know that at the very least it attacked his heart and lungs, leaving his body defenseless against a bacterial infection sprouting in his lungs. When they do X-rays, it looks like ground-up glass covering his insides.

It leaves Butch unable to breathe, even with his oxygen turned up as high as it'll go. The doctors know his only chance to survive is to put him on a ventilator.

Butch tells them to defer to his daughter. She has power of attorney.

"Do everything you can to save my dad," Lacy tells them.

He's put on a ventilator in the ICU around 4 am on June 15. It's hardly a promise that he'll pull through — studies say more than a third of patients requiring mechanical ventilation die.

Lacy visits him, since he's allowed one visitor per day. He's surrounded by blinking lights, machines humming, a tube shoved down his throat and IV's hooked up to his body. She tells him his only job is to rest, and breathe, and get better. This time, he can't talk back.

Wearing a blue latex glove, Lacy reaches down for her dad's hand. She latches on to his index finger and holds on. His fingers curl around hers. It's the first time she's able to hold his hand in months.

After 14 hours, he's taken off the ventilator.

Somehow, he beat the odds.

As Butch recovers in the hospital once again, his mind wanders back again to Vietnam.

One of his doctors was in the military. When Lacy visits one day, Butch tells the doctor how he was drafted into Vietnam in 1966, a combat engineer for the Army. He describes Agent Orange. They sprayed it everywhere, he says. It blanketed the landscape, the animals, the plants. There was no regard for the troops on the ground, whether they were Vietnamese or U.S. troops.

Lacy will never forget what he said next, staring off into space, envisioning the chemical cloud falling from above.

"We were just bodies to them," he says.

He couldn't escape it, and it left permanent damage that he's lived with his entire life.

So, too, will COVID-19.

On Monday, June 29, Butch is discharged from the hospital, back to the Spokane Veterans Home. The doctors are amazed with his recovery. He really is a tough old bird, they say. But he probably won't be able to breathe on his own again for the rest of his life, meaning he'll be hooked up to supplemental oxygen wherever he goes.

As he's discharged from the hospital, Spokane sets a new daily record in new COVID-19 cases with 79 on June 29, a record broken again on the next day. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is heckled off the stage in the Tri-Cities as he urges people to wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus. As North Idaho gets its own surge of cases, cars sit for hours waiting for a test at Kootenai Health.

In Spokane and in many parts of the country, younger adults account for the spike in infection. But it's older, vulnerable populations that will suffer the most. The more the virus spreads in the community, the more time people like Butch spend locked away in their rooms, unable to see family, hoping the virus won't sneak in.

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities are linked to 11 percent of all U.S. cases, a New York Times analysis finds, and 43 percent of all U.S. deaths. In Washington and Idaho, 60 percent of coronavirus deaths are linked to nursing homes.

Those numbers still don't fully take into account cases like Butch's. Had Butch died when he was hooked up to the ventilator in mid-June — weeks after the virus left his system — he may not have counted as a COVID-19 death. State and local health officials couldn't provide any clarification to the Inlander on how he would have been counted — though Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz says that generally those situations fall into the "gray zone," due to the evolving information about COVID-19.

But feeling discounted is nothing new for Butch. He takes it in stride and just tries to focus on one day at a time. It's an outlook on life that he says he got in Vietnam, where he was constantly aware of the fact that each day could be his last.

"I think in a positive way," Butch tells the Inlander. "If you think positive, you're going to be OK. If you don't think positive, then you're gonna suffer for it."

Though he's still stuck in the Spokane Veterans Home, unable to see visitors, he says he has one thing to look forward to when he gets out: Spending time with his daughter.

"Maybe we'll go fishing," Lacy suggests.

"Yeah, we'll go fishing," he says. "I got my fishing poles." ♦


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An Inlander staff writer since 2016, Wilson Criscione writes stories related to education, social services and, more recently, the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the people of the Inland Northwest. He can be reached at wilsonc@inlander.com.


HOW THIS STORY WAS REPORTED
The dialogue in this story comes from more than two dozen recorded phone calls between Butch and Lacy along with daily interviews conducted from early May until the end of June. The father and daughter agreed to give the Inlander rare access to these deeply personal conversations because of their desire to show the reality of COVID-19.

About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.

Screen on the Green @ University of Idaho

Thu., Aug. 13, Sat., Aug. 22 and Thu., Aug. 27
  • or