ABC7 News Executive Producer loses brother, then contracts coronavirus -- COVID-19 Diaries

ByHeather Tuggle Pitman KGO logo
Tuesday, September 8, 2020
COVID-19 Diaries: Losing a Brother, Getting COVID
ABC7 News Executive Producer Heather Tuggle Pitman recounts her experiences contracting coronavirus while dealing with her brother's unexpected death in rural East Texas.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- I tend to err on the side of optimism and always see the glass half full. But since June 18, my cup has been empty.

That's the day my big brother Tom died, suddenly and quietly, in the early morning hours. My 81-year-old mother, who suffers from memory issues and is often confused, found him in his room. The cause of death was ruled to be a heart attack. We later found the contents of a bottle of aspirin scattered on the floor. It breaks our hearts that he knew what was happening and did everything he could to stop it.

COVID-19 DIARIES: Personal stories of Bay Area residents during novel coronavirus pandemic

More than two months have passed and we still have not properly mourned Tom.

The shock of losing him was immediately displaced by concern for ourselves and our mother. What normally would have been a split-second decision to travel to rural East Texas where Tom cared for my mother became a beleaguered question of how to navigate this kind of emergency when COVID-19 had locked down the nation, turned travel life-threatening and made gatherings reckless.

My sister lives in New Orleans and I live in Oakland. My father died years ago, so we were all the family my brother had. My sister, my husband, my toddler and I decided to get tested for coronavirus and as soon as we got our negative results, we went to Texas.

My husband, daughter and I were so careful on the plane: we wore double masks, we washed our hands every 30 minutes, we packed our own food, we wiped every surface and we wore gloves. When we got to Texas, we didn't hug anyone. We memorialized my brother together, but alone. We didn't comfort each other. We thought we were protecting one another.

But the virus came for us, anyway.

The week after we held a small backyard memorial for Tom, I tested positive for COVID-19. Within days, my mother and daughter did, too. My husband, who returned to California after the memorial, eventually tested positive, as well. The guilt of exposing my mother, who had already lost too much, only added to the grief of losing my brother.

COVID-19 DIARIES: Bay Area father and son die 2 days apart from COVID-19

Vallejo-native Fernando Jr. describes what it was like losing his grandfather and father to COVID-19 and shares a word of warning to Bay Area residents.

Tom was a scientist and, quite literally, a genius. He was gentle, funny and selfless. He was on an island in the rural ranchland where he lived. As a man who valued knowledge and research, he took seriously the warnings about the severity of coronavirus in a part of the country where he was surrounded by deniers-most thought the fear of COVID-19 was overblown, many others thought it was an outright hoax. Tom quietly and respectfully listened to them while diligently protecting himself and my mother, doing all of the shopping and wiping off each item he brought into the house with disinfectant.

We have since recovered from COVID-19 but I have found my symptoms linger. My hair is falling out. My joints ache. I want to sleep all the time. But that's not all that's stuck with me.

Even if my hair grows back, I will always wonder if my choice to travel during this time exposed my mother to a virus that will ultimately shorten her life. I will always wonder if she would have been exposed had I stayed in Oakland. Did my selfish insistence on trying to do things the "old way", la 2019, end up robbing my mother of her physical health? Is the recent escalation of her confusion the result of stress, depression and the progression of Alzheimer's or is it because I exposed her to a deadly virus with long-term effects that are still unknown?

When health officials advise against gatherings during the pandemic, they certainly mean avoiding Lake Merritt, happy hour and birthday parties. But gut-wrenching truth is that they also mean avoiding funerals and all of the other ways we've always "been there" for each other.

As if 2020 were not terrible enough, I've come to realize the only way to truly care for each other is to stay away from each other.

COVID-19 DIARIES: Bay Area residents share what life is like 4 months into pandemic

If there is any hope in my family's story, it is that my sister never tested positive. After my diagnosis, she returned to Texas to help care for our family. Although we were all in the same 1,000-square-foot home sharing the same kitchen, bathroom and living spaces, we practiced diligent social distancing and mask-wearing indoors and it worked.

For anyone who denies the seriousness of COVID-19, I ask you to spend some time with our COVID-19 Diaries series and absorb the trauma expressed by your Bay Area neighbors, knowing that for each of one us there are thousands more with the same kind of experience.

COVID-19 Diaries is an ABC7 Originals limited series that shares the personal stories of Bay Area people as we work together to cope with coronavirus and re-define what it means to live in the San Francisco Bay Area.