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An Extended Conversation With COVID-19 Widower And Survivor, Brian Alexander

Photo provided by Brian Alexander

The following is a 21-minute conversation between KLCC's Brian Bull and Brian Alexander, a 4J District parts specialist and bus driver recorded May 9, 2020. Alexander lost his wife, MaryKay, to COVID-19 and learned a few days later that he also tested positive.  His wife was the first pandemic casualty recorded in Lane County, and the second person to test positive (Alexander was the third).

Alexander describes his late wife, the first signs that he and MaryKay weren't well, and how he uses music and social media to process the loss felt in the two months since her death.

Note: KLCC strives to be accurate and thorough with its transcripts, but there may be omissions or errors.

Bull: So Brian, first off, just again…to express it in person, I’m grateful you’re here to share your experience. And also my sympathies on your late wife, MaryKay, who seems just like an amazing person, based on all the tributes I’ve seen on your Facebook page.

Alexander: Thank you.

Bull: Could you please relate how you and your late wife, MaryKay, come to contract COVID-19?

Alexander: Well we’re pretty sure it happened…we went to a memorial service. Ironically it was a memorial service for her older brother; he passed away from brain cancer up in the Seattle area, specifically Mercer Island area. We stayed in Bellevue at a hotel. Because there’s no hotels in Mercer Island. At some point during that weekend that we were up there, we were exposed to COVID-19. Not exactly sure where, I’m pretty sure it was at a time when five us – myself, MaryKay, her sister, her sister’s husband, and her mother were all driving around town. Because those are the five people that I know of who’ve had positive tests.

Other people at the memorial service – as far as I know- did not contract COVID-19. Not that everyone was tested that was at the thing, but from the information that I got from my sister in law, whose husband had passed, nobody else really reported any symptoms. But the five of us all had positive tests. 

The effects of it ranged from my sister-in-law and brother-in-law were…got home to Anchorage, Alaska, and were exhausted. And they’re not the kind of people that get exhausted like that, they were in bed for two day. They did not have a cough, they did not have a fever, they were just tired.

Then I had my symptoms were…fever, that was the main thing.  Got back from the trip, and woke up about 4 in the morning and MaryKay checked my forehead, cause I said I didn’t feel good. She goes “I need to check your temperature”.  And I was running a 101.5 fever. So I called in sick.  Took some fever reducer pill, and it dropped right back down.  I felt tired, uhm, slept most of the day.  The next morning, I woke up, still had fever, called in sick again.

The third day when I woke up I still had a fever, but not as bad.  I should mention that I was coughing, but I’d been coughing since January because I’d picked up bronchitis at some point. It’s kind of inevitable for people that work in schools just because children are really, really, good carriers of disease. Not that they get particularly sick, but that’s what we’re seeing with this coronavirus outbreak, they don’t get sick at all mostly from this…but they’re really good at carrying it to other people. So I’d had bronchitis for a while.

Credit NIH
Novel coronavirus.

So that last day I decided to go in….it was a Friday…I decided to go into Urgent Care. They checked me out, did their triage at the time. We’re talking the 6th of March. At that point, you had to exhibit three of their four markers for COVID-19 before they’d even consider that you had it. And at that point my fever was declining. My cough was not very bad.  And they didn’t hear any wheezing.  I’m trying to think of what the other ones were.

Anyway, basically I got checked by a triage nurse, and they said “Oh, you don’t have coronavirus.” Went in, the doctor checked me out.  The doctor actually ordered a chest x-ray, looked at the chest x-ray, and said “Oh, your chest is clear. So you must just have bronchitis that’s gone bacterial”. So prescribed me a round of antibiotics. And I asked for a note for work in case they wanted me to be off work for a few days.   And I got a note that says, “You are ok to go back to work on Monday morning”.  I was like, “Oh, okay!” (laughs) So I did, I felt better, but still tired.  So I went in Monday.  By Tuesday MaryKay was exhibiting a fever. 

And I went in to work, and I think she had a fever the next day as well. So I’d made an appointment with her for the 4J wellness clinic. Which is a clinic…it’s basically a benefit of working for this school district, they have a clinic where you can get checked out.  She did a phone interview with a nurse at the wellness clinic, and when I got home, she says “I canceled the appointment, it was for Friday.”  And I said, “Why did you do that?  Because I had arranged for time off work, she goes “They’re not going to do anything for me, she prescribed me a cough pill for me over the phone.”  So I was like, “Alright.” 

So I went in to work Friday, came home her cough was worse, you could hear it in her lungs a bit. So I was getting a little worried about pneumonia, because she had it during the H1N1 outbreak.  That’s a bonding experience that you don’t want to have, is having the flu at the exact same time as spouse. (laughs)

And she got pneumonia so bad at that point that she was hospitalized. But I didn’t really think much of it ‘cause she wasn’t complaining about it, she was just having a hard time breathing. And she’d had bronchitis since September herself.  Off and on.  I mean, it was not bad, she just had a little cough, it didn’t stop her from doing most of her day to day activities. But uhm….

So Saturday morning we got up, and I wanted to take her to the urgent care. And she just wanted to rest in the morning. By about noon, she’d gotten up and gotten something to drink, and gone back into bed. And it was getting close to 4 o’clock, and I knew that the urgent care was going to close, so I was trying to get her to get up. And she was kind of looking at her phone, saying “Ehh, whatever.” So I started brow beating her about it.  And she’s like, “Okay…” and I’d gotten everything ready, she wanted to take a shower before she went because she wanted to be clean and nice, and all this stuff, which was typical of her, she wanted to make sure everything was right before anything got done.

Bull: Presentable.

Alexander:  Yeah, presentable, I mean in anything in life she wanted to be nice and pretty. And she liked things beautiful (laughs) including herself I guess. So I went to try and help her up, and her legs didn’t work. So she collapsed on the floor. And I basically tried to get her up, and I was talking to her, and moved her around so she could get up a little easier, and then all of a sudden she stopped breathing. So I started doing CPR, called 911. I had the phone right by me, because I knew I couldn’t get her up. It’s really hard to lift somebody who can’t help you at all.  Unless it’s a little kid that’s 50 lbs.

So I had the phone right there and called 911. Ran and opened the door so they wouldn’t have to break the door down. And started doing CPR with the person on 911. Which is an interesting thing, because I’m CPR trained. Because one of my secondary responsibilities at work is driving a school bus. So we’re all trained to do that. But when it’s your spouse, I’m really glad the 911 operator was there to tell me what I should do. So I was doing compressions and then the paramedics came in, and after about 16 minutes they were apparently able to get her heart going because they transported her to the hospital, where her heart stopped again. Then they were able to get it going again, and then the doctor came in and told me she was gone…and ah…

So I just…I chalked it up to pneumonia. Because I didn’t have coronavirus, according to the wisdom of the time. So I didn’t see how she could have it. They did a test, and a couple days later I got a phone call, that said she’d tested positive for coronavirus. And could I come in, so they could test me?

So…she was the second positive test in Lane County. And for a long time was the only death in Lane County.  And they tested me, and I came back positive so I was the third positive test in Lane County. 

When I got tested, I had no symptoms other than I still had that lingering cough. I asked them about whether this was going to detect live or dead virus? And they said, “Yes, it’ll test both, it’ll know whether you’ve had it before.”  So when my positive test came back, I go, “Well, was it live virus or dead virus?”  They say “Oh we can’t differentiate that.” I’m like “OH NO!” (laughs) because I  knew my illness before had to have been coronavirus, and my body fought it off.

At that point, the only way you could become declared safe to be around, was that you had to take two tests, and they both had to come back negative.  And they had to be at least 24 hours apart.

And I was thinking, “Gosh, nobody is able to get a test in Lane County. Y’know, there aren’t any tests. I was tested as an asymptomatic person just because I was with someone who died from it. How the heck am I going to get two more tests? So I called Lane County Health, and she goes, “Well the CDC just came out with new guidelines that said if your symptoms are completely gone for 72 hours then you’re good to.” I was like, “Well, that’s good.” I still quarantined for two weeks after she passed. Partially, I had things to do, there’s a lot of stuff to do around when someone passes in your life. 

But I didn’t think it was fair that the people that I exposed had to be quarantined longer than I did. So I did the two weeks just like all my friends (laughs) who were exposed at the time.

Bull:  I’m sorry to hear about MaryKay, and it was obviously a very trying time for you. How long had you two been married?

Credit Photo provided by Brian Alexander
MaryKay Alexander.

Alexander: We were married for 22 years as of Jan 22nd.

Bull: How did you two meet?

Alexander: We met on a blind date. I was working at the auto parts store on West 11th that’s’ across from Fred Meyer. And she was working at Fred Meyer. One of her friends’ boyfriend worked with me. And she decided to play matchmaker. So she asked if I’d go on a date with her friend, and I said “Sure”, and we ended up going to the movies together and hit it off.

And had a couple other dates. One of them was she came to watch me play guitar at a blues jam. And unbeknownst to me, all her friends left and she stayed. I thought they all left so I started doing crazy stuff on stage with the  mic stand, and things like that, and as I’m walking off stage she’s there, and I’m “Oh god, she didn’t run away” so I knew she was probably one for me (laughs) because I didn’t scare her off.

Bull: Dare I ask what you were doing with the mic stand?

Alexander: Oh, if you don’t have a slide for playing slide guitar, you can use a mic stand to do “WEEEYOOOO” on the guitar. (laughs)

Bull: What was the most memorable trait of MaryKay that people will remember?

Alexander: Definitely her sense of giving.  She was born and reared in Hawaii. And lived there for the first 30 years of her life. She really embodied what they call the aloha spirit.  “Aloha” not only means hello and goodbye, but it also basically means love.  An overreaching term that’s kind of along the lines of agape.  It just means that you care about other people. Anybody.  And I think that’s why people loved her.  

We were the last people to leave any dinner party, because she’d be in helping to clean up the kitchen, the house, making sure everything was the way that the host wanted it.  On trash days, she would go out, and…you know how, when they dump the trash cans and the recycling, things fly around?  She’d go and clean that up just to make sure that our street didn’t have litter on it.  That she gave of herself so much is what endeared her to other people.

Bull: Because of pandemic protocols, Brian, you were unable to have a traditional memorial service and funeral. How were you able to say goodbye to MaryKay, and do you have closure yet?

Alexander: Well, we haven’t done anything yet.  We were both fairly involved in our spiritual communities.  So the day after she passed was a Sunday, and they did it as kind of a virtual service. I’ve done things -interviews like this - just because I want to get her story out there. Because she can’t have the memorial service that she deserves. (chokes) Sorry.

Bull: It’s alright.

Alexander: What I’ve decided to do is I’m going to set up a Facebook page. And I’m going to have all the, obituaries that we print, will have a link to that Facebook page. And that way, I can just go to the Facebook page and say, “Hey, we’re going to finally have it, on October, da de da,” whenever date that it’s safe for the large group of people that loved her and miss her to get together and memorialize her.

Bull: One thing I’ve noticed Brian by following you on social media, is that you’ve used music to cope with the grief and the uncertainty. What does music do for you?

Alexander:  It’s almost a meditative state I think, I can step away and put out a pure emotion without just falling apart most of the time. I actually was hooked up with a Facebook group called the Socially Distant Festival.  It was fun, it was kind of nerve-wracking, because that was really early in my mourning process. So I was trying to figure out if I could even sing and play guitar at the same time without starting to cry.   I’ve only written a few songs in my life, most of the time I’m playing other people’s music. But I wrote a song for our wedding, that I performed at our wedding.  So I performed that song. 


I’m so glad to have finally found you

You made my fondest dreams come true…

Alexander (continued): And I got 1600 views on the video, probably 500 people leaving little messages about, “So sorry for your loss”, and it was really beautiful, actually. Because this was at a point where I was completely isolated.  Love is love, (laughs) virtual or not.

Bull:  It speaks very well to the power of social media too (yes) As much as we talk about how people unload on each other through tweets, Facebook posts etc.   At times like this it can be a real support and community building.

Alexander: Yeah it can, it can be very polarizing. It’s very good at being polarizing.  It’s much more worse than that than regular media, like this. But it also has the opportunity to bring people together and show that it doesn’t matter what your beliefs or feeling are, everyone’s a human with human emotions and can relate to loss…and especially in this time. That was another thing, was, it’s not just because everybody was at home, so they could watch videos like that. They also…it’s an interesting time to be mourning my wife. Because more people can understand what I’m going through. Because everyone is mourning the loss of the lives that we had, before coronavirus. Everybody has been affected by this.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anyone that’s passed away, everyone’s lives is uprooted in one way or another.

BB: Today we have states and some county governments easing restrictions, and at the same time we have protests against state home measures, with some participants calling COVID-19 a hoax or an overblown fear. What do you have to say to those people?

Alexander:  Well, I can see both sides of it ‘cause I see in Lane County there’s been only two people that’ve passed. One of them happens to be my wife, so that touches me deeply.  But I guess the point to me is about this disease it’s different from all the other diseases, where people are going, “Oh gosh, y’know, we have flu every year and it kills all these people and stuff…”

The thing is with coronavirus, is you can catch it from someone that is not exhibiting any symptoms.  Where ever we were exposed, in our time in the Seattle area, the person who exposed us didn’t have any idea that they were sick or at least sick with something that could be devastating.

Oh yeah, the other thing with coronavirus, is, yes it is…it’s very low percentage as far as who’s going to need to be hospitalized, who’s gonna die.  But you can’t say for a certainty who is going to be is affected and who’s not. MaryKay was 60 years old, granted she had a few health challenges, but nothing huge.  I mean, it wasn’t like she was bedridden with COPD or something like that, she was a functioning member of society that had had a bronchial issue for quite awhile. So there’s some genetic component to this disease, where it attacks certain people, or I should say their bodies react to it in a way that overwhelms their entire system. And you don’t know who that person’s gonna be. It doesn’t necessarily going to be people over 60, with compromised systems, or underlying medical conditions.

I know of someone who died about the same time as MaryKay was a mid-30s man in southern California.  He was a friend of a friend of mine. He was exposed at Disney World and passed away in the hospital. And his only underlying medical condition was he’d had had asthma as a kid that he’d gotten over.

So most likely you’re gonna get sick like me or not get sick at all from the coronavirus. But it may be you or someone you love that has that reaction. So being careful is just something I think everyone should do. If you love the people around you, then you should be careful.

Bull: And to you, obviously it’s a very real thing. It’s not a hoax, it’s affected you directly.

Alexander:  Yeah, I don’t know…the people who are saying it’s a hoax, I’m wondering if they’re actually trying to that the response has been more of  a hoax, than the disease. Because I can’t believe any anyone doesn’t believe that this isn’t a real disease. I can attest to you, this is a real disease.  I watched her go from walking around to five hours later, cardiac arrest and her lungs full of fluid.

The cardiac arrest part kinda confused me at one point. But I’ve read a couple of studies now that say there are certain cells in the heart that match up with the cells in the lungs that the coronavirus attacks. So that’s why her heart stopped. And why I couldn’t get it started, and why the paramedics and the ER weren’t able to get her going again. ‘cause there were people who said something about, “Oh, she had heart problems”.  She did not have heart problems. She had heart problems in the end, from the virus.  

Bull: As a survivor of COVID-19, how do you see life now as opposed to before it?

Alexander:  Well, it’s interesting as a survivor and…as a survivor and a widow of COVID-19, I see it a lot different I think than other people because apparently I have immunities. I must have enough of them because I was asked by the Red Cross to donate plasma with antibodies, so they can help other people. Which I did. I drove all the way to Salem to do that, because I felt like it was something that…I didn’t want another family to go through the same thing that I went through.

Credit Photo provided by Brian Alexander
Brian Alexander, on his way to provide convalescent plasma to the American Red Cross in Salem.

But you know…I wear a mask when I’m in public. Not for me, but for other people, and for their well-being, and their mental…I don’t want to scare people. So I’ll wear a mask, even though I know I’m not going to give it to them, they’re not going to give it to me. I still wear a mask because I care what other people think and feel.

BB:  Brian, I really appreciate your time and thank you again, and my condolences for your late wife.

Alexander:  Thank you very much.

Copyright 2020, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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