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Widow Of Johnson County Man Describes 'Viral Storm' Of COVID-19

Courtesy of Joanna Wilson
The death of Dennis Wilson, shown here with his wife Joanna, was the first in Johnson County, Kansas, due to the spreading coronavirus. Joanna told KCUR he experienced flu-like symptoms for more than a week before he was able to get tested for COVID-19.

As word spread about the ordeal surrounding the first coronavirus death in Johnson County, Kansas, first through Joanna Wilson's Facebook updates and then through media reports, the metro area got its first glimpse of the health care system struggling to keep up — and the pain of necessary quarantine.

"We don't have a clue where he picked this up," Joanna Wilson told KCUR. The couple hadn't traveled recently. "We've gone to church, he goes to Home Depot, we run in Walmart," she said.

Sharing her story, Joanna said, is the kind of thing that will help her get through this painful time.

Dennis Wilson was in his 70s. By the time he was tested for COVID-19, he had been dealing with flu-like symptoms for more than a week.

"Just the upper respiratory thing like we all get," Joanna said. "He had a little sore throat and that was basically it to start with."

Over the next few days, she said, he developed a cough and got the chills. Fatigue became a problem and he lost his appetite.

Twice, urgent care providers sent him home to rest and drink plenty of fluids. And he had spent a night in hospital care, "scared to death," his wife Joanna said, because he couldn't catch his breath.

On March 12 he and Joanna went to urgent care for the first time, but he was sent home to rest and told to drink plenty of fluids.

"These are pretty common symptoms of just everyday viruses and what everybody calls the common cold," Joanna said.

The next day things were bad enough they went to a different urgent care, this time at the University of Kansas Medical Center, she said, and requested tests for influenza A and B. They came back negative. Again Dennis was told to go home, rest and drink plenty of fluids.

In the two days after, Joanna said Dennis continued to have chills, very low fever, and body aches, all of which he treated with Tylenol. By March 15 his appetite and energy picked up, Joanna said, but that evening things turned for the worse.

Things started rolling fast

"As the time went on, a little later and later, he was really getting more short of breath," Joanna said. By midnight they were in the AdventHealth Lenexa emergency room, "and things started rolling fast."

Over the course of a few hours, Joanna said, pneunomia had filled Dennis' lungs and he struggled to get enough oxygen to breath. His chest was X-rayed.

"My husband's lungs were entirely involved," she said. "It was like a viral storm."

But Dennis still could not be tested for COVID-19. Despite his age and prolonged symptoms, and despite the fact he could barely breathe, Dennis wasn't running a fever at the time so he didn't meet the criteria, she said. "That's one of the rules, that's a government thing."

"I just said to the little nurse, 'Honey, bring me a cup of coffee and I can make sure my husband has a fever,'" Joanna said, "I'll be willing to fudge if that's what it takes, and I know that sounds terrible to say."

One doctor offered to push harder for a COVID-19 test, she said, "but they did not do it at that time."

Credit Shawnee Mission Health / Facebook
The Shawnee Mission Health hospital in Overland Park became AdventHealth Shawnee Mission in 2019.

The couple was told he'd be moved to AdventHealth Shawnee Mission, in Overland Park, which happened about 4 a.m. on March 16. It wasn't until Joanna showed up at that hospital when she learned she wouldn't be allowed to visit him.

Despite the efforts of doctors and nurses, Dennis died Saturday morning.

"I didn’t even get to see him before they took him up to the floor," she wrote on Facebook. She was told to quarantine instead — to assume she had the disease until her husband's test results came back, she said. "I was frantic at home."

By 7 that evening, a doctor called her about Dennis' results, which were positive for COVID-19.

"I knew he'd have to be scared to death — the man couldn't get his breath and it was rapidly getting worse," Joanna said, "and I was home."

Hundreds of readers were following, sharing and reacting to Joanna's Facebook posts about Dennis. One of her posts got the attention of nurses at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission, who found a way to facilitate several visits while Dennis was in the intensive care unit.

"I got a call on Tuesday morning: 'Joanna, how would you like to come see your husband? If you come to the hospital ... call my cell number from the parking lot, and I will bring you a mask and lead you to your husband,'" Joanna told KCUR. "In mercy to me, she and her team got busy and said, 'We can make this happen safely for her.' And that's what they did."

On March 21, Joanna wrote in a Facebook post about a troubling update from the hospital. Dennis' heart, lungs and kidneys were struggling, and a doctor asked if she could get the family together in the hospital's parking lot to discuss the situation. Dennis died before they could get there.

Silver linings

The silver linings in the lead-up to Dennis' death, and since, have come from people who didn't even know the Wilsons — like the thousands of people who reacted to Joanna's Facebook posts about Dennis.

Solace also came from the gathering of her children in the hospital parking lot after Dennis' death, "their vehicles in a circle like a wagon train and standing outside of their vehicles with their masks on and chatting with each other," she wrote on Facebook. "Then, for close to an hour longer, the kids and I stayed talking in the cold air as we discussed what to do next."

Through the whole ordeal, none of them were able to visit or see their father, Joanna said.

Credit courtesy of Joanna Wilson
Joanna and Dennis Wilson, center, with their children and grandchildren

Now, and for the next couple of weeks at least, she and her kids are stuck in quarantine.

"They need me, I need them, but we can't be together," Joanna said. "I'm home absolutely alone, with a little white dog," named Simon.

Dennis and Joanna have three children and six grandchildren. Before retiring in 2013, he was a public school administrator in Kansas and Missouri, and he taught high school biology before that. He also developed over last 25 years a fondness for magic.

"When Dennis was in the ER Sunday evening and they asked for his insurance cards, I opened his wallet and had to flip through 10 or so playing cards to find them," Joanna wrote in a Facebook post, one of the  many she typed in the days before he died. "A little levity in the midst of a serious situation."

Joanna Wilson spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date. Listen to their entire conversation here.

Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR's Up To Date. Contact him at luke@kcur.org or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at <a href="mailto:luke@kcur.org" target="_blank" link-data="{&quot;cms.site.owner&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;0000016e-ccea-ddc2-a56e-edfe57dc0000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;ae3387cc-b875-31b7-b82d-63fd8d758c20&quot;},&quot;cms.content.publishDate&quot;:1678386246938,&quot;cms.content.publishUser&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;00000170-820a-de8d-af78-a70f6b270000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc&quot;},&quot;cms.content.updateDate&quot;:1678386246938,&quot;cms.content.updateUser&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;00000170-820a-de8d-af78-a70f6b270000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc&quot;},&quot;cms.directory.paths&quot;:[],&quot;anchorable.showAnchor&quot;:false,&quot;link&quot;:{&quot;attributes&quot;:[],&quot;cms.directory.paths&quot;:[],&quot;linkText&quot;:&quot;luke@kcur.org&quot;,&quot;target&quot;:&quot;NEW&quot;,&quot;attachSourceUrl&quot;:false,&quot;url&quot;:&quot;mailto:luke@kcur.org&quot;,&quot;_id&quot;:&quot;00000186-c79d-db71-a7b6-dfbd97080001&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;ff658216-e70f-39d0-b660-bdfe57a5599a&quot;},&quot;_id&quot;:&quot;00000186-c79d-db71-a7b6-dfbd97080000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;809caec9-30e2-3666-8b71-b32ddbffc288&quot;}">luke@kcur.org</a>.