San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Couple’s long separation saga underscores pandemic’s toll
When Chad Baker finally returned home to the cozy San Leandro bungalow he shares with his husband, Tom Baker, the couple briefly postponed their first embrace after 14 months apart. Gus and Bobo, their miniature schnauzers, had been traumatized by the long separation, so they got first dibs on covering Chad with kisses.
“They missed Chad terribly,” Tom Baker said. “They didn’t understand everything that happened.”
What happened was a monumental upheaval in the couple’s lives. With the advent of the pandemic, Chad’s career as an ER nurse at Kaiser Richmond was directly threatening to Tom, who has respiratory problems and an immune system disorder that could have made COVID19 fatal.
So, starting in February 2020, Chad, 49, lived alone in motels for months on end, including during the summer when he contracted the virus and was on oxygen for six weeks.
Meanwhile, Tom, 59, never left the house,
“When Chad walked in, as powerful as it was to see him, it was terrifying at the same time. I had not had human contact with anyone for 14 months.” Tom Baker of San Leandro
ordering delivery of all his food and supplies. “It was just like Howard Hughes, all the fear and terror knowing there was something right outside that door that almost guaranteed would kill me,” he said.
The couple never saw each other in person the whole time. They stayed connected via constant FaceTime calls, but it wasn’t the same as cuddling on the couch. Both endured loneliness and isolation.
Now thanks to being vaccinated, the Bakers are reunited. Their saga, which took a toll on them physically, financially and emotionally, encapsulates some of the many ways the pandemic upended people’s lives and forced them to adapt in ways they never expected.
The most catastrophic hit was to Chad’s health. He is now a COVID longhauler — someone afflicted with lasting ill effects from the virus.
In July he spiked a fever, felt weak and had shortness of breath. The hospital notified him he’d been exposed to COVID19. A subsequent positive diagnosis was not a surprise.
As a critical care nurse, Chad was able to provide his own care, including managing his supplemental oxygen. With hospitals overwhelmed, he hoped not to become an inpatient. Instead he holed up at a Pleasant Hill hotel.
“I was crazy sick,” he said. “Getting up and walking to the door for the DoorDash or Uber
Eats dropoff was pretty much all I could muster.”
He developed a cascade of complications. There was sudden onset insulindependent diabetes, a documented COVID side effect that still continues. There was brain fog, which also continues.
He contracted postviral sinusitis, an aggressive bacterial infection that didn’t respond to antibiotics or steroids, forcing him to administer IV antibiotics to himself every eight hours for several weeks. Eventually, it required surgery.
The onset of wildfires that shrouded the region in smoke made things worse. “I was already having so much shortness of breath,” he said. “I would sit on the couch with an air purifier on my lap.”
He went back to work for a couple of weeks in the fall, but his oxygen levels were too low to continue. Then he spent a couple of months on modified duty, including making outreach calls to COVID patients. Tom was a constant presence on FaceTime, helping advocate for Chad to his medical team.
“I just lived the fear,” Tom said. “It was high anxiety, feeling so helpless, knowing he was isolated in a hotel room.” He had already lost a partner to the AIDS epidemic in 1992.
“I don’t know how both of them survived this,” said Andrea Walker, a nurse colleague in the Kaiser Richmond ER. “They were apart for so long. It was really heartbreaking to see.”
The ordeal was also a huge financial drain.
Chad paid for his hotel rooms out of pocket for many weeks, battling with Kaiser for reimbursement, as The Chronicle reported at the time. Eventually the state offered a Hotels for Health Care Workers program that covered room costs. But the tradeoff was constant moving as prices changed.
Tom, a health care administrator, was recovering from a stroke and between jobs when the pandemic hit, so he has no income. Chad has been receiving workers’ compensation.
They consumed their savings and are now getting some support via a GoFundMe campaign.
Even after eight years together and seven years of marriage, the couple now must relearn cohabiting. “When Chad walked in, as powerful as it was to see him, it was terrifying at the same time,” Tom said. “I had not had human contact with anyone for 14 months.”
They’ve fallen back into the comforting rhythm of snuggling on the couch with their
Tom is learning to cook lowcarb dishes appropriate for a diabetic.
“I’ve never seen so many vegetables fit into one pot,” said Chad, who feels like he’s healing from being able to sleep in his bed and eat homecooked meals.
The dogs are ecstatic. “I woke up the other day and Gus was on top of my head like a yarmulke,” Chad said.
He’s eager to get back to work, although with his many debilitating conditions, it is not clear when that could happen. “I can’t tell you how much I miss being at the bedside and helping people to feel better,” he said.
Tom, who ironically ended up being the healthier one, is filled with gratitude.
“All of Chad’s commitment to keep me safe during the pandemic — what a love story,” he said.