After struggling with COVID-19 for three weeks this fall, Jeffery Michael Keene, 39, was admitted to the hospital. Doctors tried stabilizing him without intubating him, but they had to place him on a ventilator on Oct. 16. Wife, Nicole Keene, worried. She was a respiratory therapist and knew that being on a ventilator was “not to be taken lightly.”
But then Keene went into labor at 34 weeks and her son, Michael Wesson, was born unresponsive. Doctors sent Wesson to the same hospital as his father. Two days later, Michael died without ever knowing Wesson was born.
“I still feel like he’ll come home because it feels so surreal. I haven’t even moved his shoes from the front door. Maybe this is a bad dream and I’ll just wake up,” Keene, 41, of Lexington, Kentucky, told TODAY. “We had so many goals and dreams and it’s just all gone just because he came into contact with someone — probably for a short amount of time — who gave him COVID.”
A ‘scratchy throat’ then persistent fevers
As soon as Michael’s throat started hurting, he called out of work at a local car dealership and he, Keene and daughter Adalynn, 21 months, went for COVID-19 tests.
“He just had a scratchy throat,” Keene said. “They told me (my test) was negative and they said his was positive and we were like, ‘That’s weird,’ especially because my daughter Adalynn was negative, too.”
Almost immediately, Michael’s symptoms intensified.
“He just gradually got worse. Every single day, almost hour to hour. It was unbelievable how fast he got sick,” she said. “His fever just went sky high and he had body aches and fatigue and he just could not get his fever under control.”
After several days of fevers, Keene took Michael to the emergency room. But he was turned away and told to manage his symptoms at home, she said. She took him a second time and doctors ran some tests and discovered he had a “small patch” of pneumonia. They advised him to return if he “significantly declined” in 24 hours.
“His oxygen levels were dropping,” Keene explained. “I was listening to his lungs so I could monitor his breathing and his pneumonia. I was having him lay on his belly, his sides, just to help him move the pneumonia, cough it out.”
Keene took him back to the hospital and he was admitted. Doctors tried giving him supplemental oxygen but it wasn’t enough and he was intubated.
“It’s so scary to be on the ventilator even without COVID,” Keene said. “There are a lot of risk factors.”
Doctors were able to ween him off the ventilator on Oct. 26.
“We felt like he was getting better,” she said. “And then that night is when I had the baby.”
Wesson wasn’t breathing and had no heartbeat when he was born. His Apgar score was zero. For 15 grueling minutes, doctors performed CPR.
“They said I had a placental hemorrhage, which is incredibly rare, typically they only see it happen in car accidents, trauma or drug use,” she said. “Nobody can understand why it happened.”
When doctors delivered her placenta, they realized that Wesson had bled into his mother and he needed a blood transfusion immediately. They took him to a neonatal intensive care unit in the same hospital where Michael was. But his doctors recommended that Keene not tell her husband about the baby. They worried it would agitate him.
“I certainly never thought Michael was going to die so I didn’t think it was really that big of a deal,” Keene said. “I can wait for a few days if they’re saying it could harm him.”
Still, she worried about her son.
“I didn’t even think he would make it until the next day for me to see him,” she said. “I was terrified.”
'The worst of the worst'
Michael was an Army veteran, spending 12 years in the military, and doing four tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. He had a traumatic brain injury and also post traumatic stress disorder. The couple had been married for three years after meeting online and “he was the glue that held” the family together. Every day, he came home to have lunch with Keene and Adalynn and had plans to teach both his children how to fix their own cars, a passion of his.
“He was a very strong and healthy person,” she said. “He always had a huge smile and a big hug to give you or a quote. His favorite was ‘always keep putting one foot in front of the other.’”
Every day he was in the hospital, Keene video chatted with him — even if he couldn’t respond.
“I was so scared and had so many different emotions. I almost don’t even know how to describe it, almost like an out-of-body experience,” Keene said. “I was literally beside myself watching this unfold and it was the worst of the worst.”
On Oct. 28, Michael died.
“All of my worst fears happened within a two-day period. It was terrifying,” she said “I don’t really know how I even got through that. I am not sure that I really did.”
Wesson left the NICU after six weeks. Michael was buried near his family in South Carolina. On Christmas day, Keene visited his grave with her children.
“That was pretty rough,” she said. “It’s pretty much a constant state of being overwhelmed and stressed out.”
Wesson seems to be thriving and doctors believe because of his age and how plastic his brain is, he might not have any lingering problems.
“He’s still on oxygen,” she said. “Unbelievably, he’s doing remarkably well. Despite how he came into this world and everything he was up against he has not shown signs of the brain damage. We haven’t seen anything yet — it’s a miracle.”
Keene said it’s important to share her story so people truly understand the toll COVID-19 takes.
“Somebody out there gave Michael COVID … that person probably doesn’t even know that they gave it to Michael,” she said. “Now Michael is gone and the impact of him being gone is devastating to our family. These children will be forever affected. I’ll be forever affected.”
Keene is unsure if she can return to work with Wesson's medical needs. There's a GoFundMe to help offset their expenses.
CORRECTION (December 30, 2020 9:47 a.m.): An earlier version stated that Michael's blood pressure was up and down. Baby Wesson's blood pressure was up and down.