When Mary Ann Wehrle’s husband, Charles “Skip” Wehrle, got sick with COVID-19, she said his symptoms developed in the course of 45 minutes.
“He was barbecuing, and he couldn’t even finish barbecuing,” she said. “He came in and he had the chills and he didn’t feel well. It got worse and worse. When we took him to the ER, his temperature was 104.8.”
She brought him to Englewood Community Hospital on April 15, and it was a matter of weeks before she lost him.
Wehrle and her husband had been married 49 years and have two sons and a daughter. She describes her husband as a fun person, very outgoing and sociable.
“Someone coined a phrase we put on his prayer card — heaven got a little louder May 9,” she said.
They volunteered together with Meals on Wheels on Thursday mornings, delivering hot food to the elderly. The whole kitchen crew had to be quarantined after Skip tested positive, but no one else got sick.
He was a disabled veteran, who’d been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, which gave him a variety of health issues.
“He was exactly what they talk about, an elderly person with underlying issues,” Wehrle said.
On April 24, Skip was put on a ventilator. They spoke over the phone beforehand, the last conversation where he was fully awake and alert.
“He wasn’t sure he wanted to do it,” Wehrle said. “He was asking my opinion. We decided together let’s try it.”
The same day, he was given plasma treatment as a participant in the experimental therapy led by the Mayo Clinic. The treatment seemed to work; a week later, he tested negative. But by then, further complications had arisen.
“The pneumonia was beating him up by then,” Wehrle said.
Doctors asked her whether she wanted them to try a tracheotomy, but she knew it wasn’t what he wanted. They tried to wean him off the ventilator, but each time, he went into distress. They finally took it out on May 5, because he’d developed a secondary infection.
He made it until May 9.
“They called me and I got to be with him for eight minutes,” she said.
Due to the intense protocols around the virus, she hadn’t been near him for most of his illness. She would drive to the hospital and sit in the parking lot just to be near him.
When he died, the struggle didn’t end there. Wehrle said due to a mix-up with his records, she couldn’t bury him for 13 days.
The Sarasota Medical Examiner, Dr. Russell Vega, said his office initially had an incorrect date of birth, so there was a delay in getting the records from the hospital, but they handled things as quickly as they could once they had the correct date of birth.
But to Wehrle, the wait felt endless.
“We just waited and waited and waited,” she said. “He was not embalmed because he was going to go straight to the cemetery... I gave him his favorite University of Michigan blanket to put over him instead of just a hospital gown. And then we just waited.”
There was no funeral, no visitation. Finally, 13 days after he died, he was put to rest at the Sarasota National Cemetery. She and her daughter had to stay by their car, simply watching as his casket was lowered into the ground.
Later on, they’ll have a memorial, and the honor guard from the local American Legion will be there. But for now, Skip’s death was marked only by the 173 greeting cards Wehrle received from their friends.
She wishes people would take the virus more seriously and take the precautions recommended by the CDC. She said recently she went out to Cracker Barrel with her daughter, one of the first times she’s been anywhere since the start of the pandemic. They both wore masks, but an elderly man sneezed right in her face and made no attempt to cover it.
“His middle-aged daughter just shrugged,” Wehrle said. “I don’t care if you’re 95 and you don’t know you just sneezed — you did just sneeze on my face. If you don’t know enough to cover it, stay home.”