The year of the pandemic: First suburban COVID-19 patients recall their 'lonely' year
As it turns out, there are no perks to being first in a pandemic.
"That's the wrong lottery to win," Bob Dix said.
It's been a full year since Dix arrived at the Northwest Community Hospital emergency room in Arlington Heights with a 103-degree temperature that wouldn't break, confounding doctors who had ruled out the flu, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments.
A few days after that hospital admission, he would be diagnosed as the suburbs' first case of COVID-19. His wife, Regina, would be the second. The Palatine couple in their late 70s would also be the state's third and fourth cases of the highly contagious virus that has now infected nearly 1.2 million Illinois residents and killed more than 20,000 of them.
Their place in the pandemic's history is a not a distinction the Dixes recall with much fondness, though they recognize the outcome could have been much worse. That's especially the case given what health officials now know about the effects of the virus on older people.
"I actually was lucky because I never got as sick as other people who got it," Bob Dix said. "And my wife never had any symptoms."
While the Dixes may be among the state's longest surviving COVID-19 patients, their pandemic year has unfolded much as it has for everybody else.
"I remember walking into a grocery store a few weeks after I'd gotten out of the hospital and thinking I didn't need to wear a mask because theoretically I was now immune," Bob Dix remembers. "This woman came up to me and asked me to wear a mask, and if I didn't have one she'd give me an extra she had in her car. But I wasn't going to argue with her about it and tell her that I already had it because I didn't want anyone looking at me bad. I just went home and got a mask."
Just like most Americans, they have not seen most of their loved ones in more than a year. Most of their communication with family and friends is via teleconference. And they haven't put a lot of miles on their cars.
"It's just been really lonely," Bob Dix lamented. "There's just no other way to describe it than lonely, and we're hoping it's over soon. But not yet."
Avid travelers, the Dixes were on vacation visiting relatives in California in mid-February a year ago when they believe they were infected.
The couple is certain they picked up the virus while riding an aerial tram packed with about 30 people to view scenic Palm Springs.
A few days later, awaiting a flight home to Chicago, Bob began feeling sick.
"In the morning I was fine and then it was like hitting a brick wall," he said. "When we got to the airport, all of the sudden I was very faint. I almost passed out. I was lucky to get on the plane at all."
The next day he went to a clinic in Kildeer, where he was given antibiotics and sent home.
"You have to remember that the coronavirus was still only being discussed at that time as something happening in China, really," Regina Dix said. "Nobody was even thinking about it being here then."
Her husband said the first time he'd even heard the word "coronavirus" was when he received the diagnosis.
When his fever wouldn't break after five days, his wife convinced him to let her take him to the emergency room at Northwest Community.
He was admitted a year ago Tuesday on Feb. 23, 2020. For the next few days his condition didn't improve. News of coronavirus patients popping up in Washington and New York began making waves. Just a few weeks earlier, Illinois' first and second patients, a couple from Chicago, had been released from Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates after contracting COVID-19 during a visit in China.
Then came the Dixes' diagnosis, with its implications for hospital staff as well as for the couple.
"I just remember the doctors arguing with one another when I walked by, and I was confused," Regina Dix said. "But then they never came back."
Once Bob was diagnosed, he was swiftly moved to isolation.
"It suddenly got very real," recalled Dr. Alan Loren, chief medical officer and executive vice president at Northwest Community Hospital. "Even though there had been planning and preparing, everybody jumped into high gear and said this is it, no more dress rehearsal. Then health officials from the county and state descended on us like you couldn't believe."
Regina was diagnosed a few days later, but since she was never symptomatic she stayed at home.
Recovery and reflection
Bob was released from the hospital about four days after testing positive.
His wife was directed to park her car in an ambulance bay and wait for him to be wheeled out to her. When someone tried to shoo her away, Regina Dix told them that she was picking up her husband who had coronavirus.
"They ran away," she recalled.
Once home, the Dixes began receiving daily calls from Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike, who was checking on their recovery.
"Oh, that was so cool," Regina Dix said. "I didn't know at first who she was. And she called every day for, I think, more than two weeks, and she was just so nice and concerned about us. She was so personable and I really liked talking with her."
Ezike, who trained and practiced as a pediatrician and internist before taking over the state health agency, was learning on the fly about epidemiology and the coronavirus.
"There was concern almost immediately about the virus, that this was something that affects elderly people worse," Ezike remembers. "And this was exciting and something to be hopeful about because they were in the elderly category and this was showing us that it was not an automatic death sentence."
Ezike said those early conversations with Regina Dix were especially helpful and informative as the state's cases began to mount.
"She was so sweet and always took my calls without any problems," Ezike said. "It's very special to me to connect on a personal level and gets me back to my roots. And while there are so many articles you can read now, then there wasn't quite as much, so to be able to get some firsthand knowledge that allowed me to inform my perspective, those initial discussions were invaluable."
Meanwhile at Northwest Community, the hospital's caseload began to grow like those of almost every hospital in the Chicago area during the initial surge last spring. None of the cases were ever traced back to the Dixes, though, Loren said.
"I don't remember all that went into contact tracing back then, but there was nobody we found," he said. "They treated him appropriately and no health care workers became exposed because of that contact."
And the Dixes got on with their lives as well, or as best they could in the midst of a growing global pandemic. Bob went back to work as a CPA. Regina, who is a retired hospice nurse, occupied herself thinking about where they'd travel next once the health crisis was over.
"Oh yes, I really am tired of it," she said. "You go through all this stuff. I'm just finished. I want to go on vacation."
The Dixes have been able to maintain regular, scheduled virtual meetings with relatives each Sunday where a dozen or so family members are all online together.
Both agree their first stop post-pandemic is New Jersey to visit their son's family, who they haven't seen in person in more than a year.
"Then I don't know what'll be next," Regina Dix said. "Maybe Florida or Mexico, or maybe someplace we haven't been before."
Her husband agreed that their wanderlust is hard to tame and complained the jigsaw puzzles he'd pulled out of mothballs during the pandemic are getting stale.
"I do them just to keep busy because I'm really bored," he said. "I think everyone is, aren't they?"
Once the country has sustained relief from virus transmission and new outbreaks, the Dixes will be ready to travel again. Regina Dix received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine last week, but Bob hasn't.
"I don't feel the need to get the vaccine just yet, though eventually I probably will," he said. "I had my blood tested about two months ago, and my antibodies are still very high, they told me. Let someone else have the vaccine who needs it more."