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Promise me … don't stop fighting for us

'Welcome home, dad': COVID hits close to home for my family

Emotional roller coaster, ultimately, has happy ending for man who has meant so much to so many
By Mark Haskell | Apr 22, 2021
Courtesy of: Haskell family Warren and Linda Haskell at a wedding in 2013.

Saturday, March 20. 4:01 a.m.

My phone is rarely, if ever, not on vibrate. This morning was no different. Luckily, at least in this particular case, my wife could hear our neighbor sneezing indoors from across the street.

“Mark your phone is ringing.”

I sat straight up. A phone call this early in the morning is rarely good news, and this was no exception.

I looked at the call screen. “Dad Cell.”

“Hello?”

“Hey boy.”

"Hey Dad, how are you feeling?”

“Not too good. Listen … I guess they’re going to put me on the ventilator.”

My dad, Warren, and I are exceptionally close. He always wanted a son and as the youngest of my parents three children, I was his last shot.

I remember when I was 5 years old and my father, who owns a local water treatment business, bought a work van and had it custom painted with his business name emblazoned all over it. When I went over to the passenger side door, just under the window I saw “Mark” painted in gold, cursive lettering.

I was his co-pilot from that moment on.

He taught me how to ski. On snow and on water. We take annual fishing and Christmas shopping trips. Throughout high school and college we would work together throughout the summer and to this day I still help him on certain jobs if he needs it.

As a family, we all still take annual vacations together. Since I was in diapers and it was only my parents, myself and my two sisters, to now with us all having families of our own (nearly 20 of us in total) where we all rent a beach house and spend a week together.

I am 39 years old. To many, this sounds nuts. Maybe it is.

And my dad, who is just as good a grandfather to my own children as he was a father to us, tags along with my own family on vacations as well.

Last year we went to Disney World for the first time. We brought my dad. Trips to an indoor water park a few states away? We bring dad.

He is universally beloved. Just an off-the-charts approval rating. I am probably biased, but I have never met, seen or even heard stories of a person who does not like him.

He always would tell us growing up: “You know I could have been a rock star.” While I have never seen any real evidence to back that up, if my family were a band, my dad, who is affectionately known to most these days as “Pa,” unequivocally would be our lead singer.

When I got married, he was the only logical choice to be my best man. He has consistently been there for me throughout my life.

And now, in the early morning hours on an otherwise nondescript Saturday morning, my 68-year-old father made this phone call — what could be the last phone call he ever makes — to me.

He had begun to feel ill just over a week before and, always the stoic type, shrugged it off as a cold. Over the next few days, his symptoms worsened and my mother, Linda, convinced him to get a COVID-19 test. The fact that he relented is really indicative of how ill he truly felt.

His test came back positive on Monday, March 15 and my mother’s test came back the same the following day.

On Wednesday, March 17 they were scheduled to get their first vaccine. Instead, my father admitted himself to Penobscot Bay Medical Center after he had been having trouble breathing.

On Friday, March 19 we learned there was a good chance he may need to be put on a ventilator and there was an equally good chance that if he went on one, he may not come off.

We were too worried about him to even absorb the fact that several of the rest of us had ourselves tested positive in the following days since his diagnosis. Eventually, eight people in my family got it either directly or indirectly through him, including all three of my children.

The rest of us made it through largely unscathed. Simply cold symptoms. A dry cough here, a sore throat there, sneezing and congestion.

But my dad … he was in real trouble.

We remained hopeful. Then, the phone buzzed on my bed stand that early Saturday morning.

Even though it was only about three minutes long, I remember the phone call vividly.

He told me a few personal things he needed me to know and to take care of for him. He told me that he loved me, and he told me to take care of the family.

“I’ll probably be OK …” he said as his sentence trailed off. Even though neither of us could possibly be less certain of that, in the moment, we rolled with it.

One of the last things he said was: “Tell Beckett [my oldest son] I’m really sorry for giving him the virus.”

Those who know me best will tell you I am quick to be emotional and wear my heart on my sleeve. However, being on the phone with my father, who does none of those things, I bottled it up as best I could.

I said “Dad … we’re square. Don’t worry about any of that. But you have to do something for me.”

Now, fighting back tears to the point I had to let out a big cough in a halfhearted attempt to mask it, I said: “When you get on that thing … promise me … DON’T stop fighting for us.”

He promised me. We said our goodbyes.

What I can only imagine was minutes later he was put on a ventilator. Around 7 a.m. my mother got the call that he was being lifeflighted to Maine Medical Center in Portland.

Two weekends before this, my dad and I had taken my two youngest children to the bunny slope at the Camden Snow Bowl to teach them to ski. Now, we looked above as a helicopter flew over our house as he was rushed to Portland. In that moment, it felt like it was the last time I would ever see him.

It was devastating.

For the next 12 days, we did little but wait. Nearly all of us were quarantined. Out of work. Out of school. Or for those of us in my family in the medical field, already vaccinated but sent home by their employers.

Nothing to do but think about the elephant in the room nearly 70 miles away that we could not even go and visit due to COVID-19 protocols, which made the waiting worse.

We all settled into a routine of getting updates from nurses and doctors. We would get one usually around 9 a.m. and then another in the late afternoon.

Collectively, as a family, when we were not getting updates, we were analyzing everything backwards and forwards about what the most recent update could mean. We were guardedly optimistic. Hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

All the while also trying to take care of ourselves, our children and our mother — not only because of COVID but due to us all being in an overall emotionally-frayed state — at the same time.

Minutes passed like hours. Hours, like days. We even organized Zoom meetings and all talked to him while he slept. Or as my 5-year-old daughter put it, “It’s like we’re trying to get into his dreams!”

We were forced to celebrate the most minimal of improvements (such as the slightest decrease in required oxygen) like he had just completed the Boston Marathon.

But, he was slowly … very slowly … improving. Still, there is no set amount of time for how long someone will be on a ventilator. In some cases, patients could be on them for as long as seven weeks.

Fortunately, in our case, we did not have to wait that long.

Twelve days after flying over our heads via helicopter, on April Fools Day, no less, my father came off the ventilator.

He always has been larger than life, but for the first time seeing him in that Zoom meeting, he looked pale. Tired. Frail. Vulnerable. We had seen the first two characteristics before, but as far as the latter two go, this was a first.

Still, he was back. And his slow road to recovery could move forward.

Over the next week, his color came back. So did his trademark laugh and smile. There was a brief moment where his oxygen levels were improving, but not sustainable, and the possibility of him being put back on the ventilator was real.

The next day, he made a significant improvement. He never quit. He never stopped fighting for us.

A few days after that, he was allowed to have visitors (one at a time) as he was moved from the COVID ICU to the standard ICU. We each took a day and took our turn visiting him, filling him in on the things he had missed.

A week or so later, he was moved to a standard room and began waiting for a rehabilitation facility to have an open bed.

The doctors and nurses there were impressed by his progress. He went from requiring over 40 liters of oxygen a day to only two in a little under three weeks.

Monday, April 19. 12:27 p.m. This time, my call screen said: “Mom cell.” Only when I answered, it was not mom.

“Hello?

“Hey bud! How’re you doing?”

We had all gotten word there was an excellent chance my dad would be released from the hospital on Monday, April 19. That morning my mom had gotten the call to pick him up. Not to go to rehab. But to go home.

After being in the hospital for 34 days, my dad, oxygen in tow, walked out of the doors of Maine Medical Center in Portland. And, on a sunny, nearly 60-degree day, breathed in fresh air for the first time in nearly five weeks, got in the passenger seat of the car driven by his wife of 49 years and began to trek north on 295.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

He replied: “It’s great to be alive.”

Our family is so grateful that my father defied the odds and was able to return home. But we are now one of the statistics. A cautionary tale that fortunately had a happy ending, but many are not as lucky.

I cannot express my gratitude enough to everyone. From the nurses and doctors at Penobscot Bay Medical Center to the staff in the COVID-ICU (Sku2) and ICU (Sku1) at Maine Medical Center. Their exceptional care of my father is why he is still here today.

To all our friends and family who reached out, thank you. Whether they were texts, phone calls, private messages or dropping off food for our family while we were quarantined, you all were the light in what was, quite frankly, the darkest, lowest point of my family’s life.

And now, with the temperatures rising, the sun shining and normalcy just around the corner, it is now that we need to be as careful as we have ever been.

Trust science. Get your vaccinations. Quarantine if you are supposed to and wear a mask so you at least significantly lessen the possibility of getting someone else sick.

And if anyone is on the fence as to whether or not the vaccinations work, the only people in my family who did not get sick were the three that had already received them.

I struggled with whether or not to write this column, but my hope is that one person reads about our experience and it changes their minds to get a vaccine. If that happens, that will be good enough for me.

Welcome home, dad.

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Comments (12)
Posted by: Doug Curtis Jr. | Apr 27, 2021 10:05

Mark, well done.  I am so grateful to you for sharing your family story and glad everyone is doing well. It is a scary time.  God bless you all.



Posted by: Barbara Birenbaum | Apr 23, 2021 21:05

Mark, My thoughts and feelings echo those of Mary Perry. It has been quite a while since I have read something that moved me so deeply. I  totally enjoyed meeting and talking with your dad last September when he did that work for me, and it was wonderful seeing you again when you came to help him with part of the job. It was obvious then how close the two of you have always been and how strong a bond you and your family share. Thank you for sharing this experience with us.



Posted by: SHARON COOLEN | Apr 23, 2021 18:06

Thank you for sharing your very moving story. I’m glad to hear your dad is recovering.



Posted by: Kevin P Robertson | Apr 22, 2021 20:41

Do well well written, thanks for sharing Mark.  Get back to full health quickly,  Warren.



Posted by: SYD LEACH | Apr 22, 2021 20:18

met warren when he first came to the area,I met a women in Owls Head, he did one of the frist water treatments in the area there,,good job warren..... keep up the good work...

 



Posted by: Mary Perry | Apr 22, 2021 15:28

Mark, this is so beautifully written and is so moving.  I have been impressed by your writing before, but never this powerfully.  I am so very happy for you and your dad and your entire family.  You are blessed to have such a family.

 

 



Posted by: Dagney C. Ernest | Apr 22, 2021 13:39

So glad you did decide to write your family's story ... and that you're all together again! xxx



Posted by: LEONA ST. CLAIR | Apr 22, 2021 13:07

So glad to hear the good news for your family. Thank you for sharing your story so others will see how important it is to follow all the guidelines for safety and to get a vaccination as soon as possible !

 



Posted by: James Bowers | Apr 22, 2021 13:05

Thanks for writing this Mark. Linda, and then Russ, had updated me last week and this really clarified it all. Such a strong family you have.



Posted by: Savannah Wotton | Apr 22, 2021 12:23

Incredible story - thank you for sharing.



Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Apr 22, 2021 11:12

No dry eyes in this house when reading this. Thanks, Mark, for sharing this important message with us, This isn't about personal political preferences, for many it is the difference between life and death.



Posted by: Francis Mazzeo, Jr. | Apr 22, 2021 10:19

Nice that Warren is home and that you shared your story. As a general rule most of us don't see the seriousness in a situation unless we experience it ourselves. Thanks for explaining the pain and suffering from the virus and maybe a few more will get vaccinated. Good luck Warren.



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