Hard decisions: A husband and wife test positive for COVID-19. Only one recovers. What comes next?

By Mary Clarkin

Life became a series of painful choices for the McCary family starting in early November, when Bill McCary, Sr. tested positive for COVID-19 at Ascension Via Christi-St. Francis.

Courtesy photo. Bill and Norma McCary held hands in their hospital room before Mrs. McCary’s death. Above, the McCarys posed for a family portrait.

He was sent home but fell. He was back at St. Francis on Nov. 3.

His wife, Norma McCary, tested positive for the virus soon after. She required an ambulance trip to the emergency room. A nurse told one of the McCary children that their mother’s lungs were full of pneumonia.

Bill and Norma McCary were put in the same room, in a pediatric ward that had been converted for COVID-19 patients.

Prior to November, Norma McCary, 80, had been in better health than her husband, although her memory was starting to fail. Now family members were told that she could be intubated, but the condition of her lungs meant she might not be able to come off the breathing machinery.

“We made the decision not to prolong it and allow nature to take its course,” her son, Bill McCary, Jr., said. “It was a very hard decision to make.”

She died Nov. 17. 

“When you lose someone with whom you have spent your entire life, it leaves holes in your heart,” her husband wrote on his Facebook page. 

Norma McCary was born in Wichita. Her husband graduated from high school here and took Biblical studies at Friends University. He pastored a church in Texas before the couple moved back to Sedgwick County in 2015. They had six children — five of whom survive — 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Bill McCary, Sr. was able to leave the hospital on the day his wife died for a stay in a rehabilitation facility. He was released in early December but more setbacks — including a urinary tract infection, pneumonia and shingles — landed him back in the hospital before Christmas. That was followed by another rehabilitation stint and a regimen designed to improve his mobility.  

McCary’s children are scattered in Halstead, Hillsboro, Park City, Oklahoma and Colorado. Ultimately, the decision of where Bill McCary, Sr. would go after rehabilitation rested with him, but his children were involved, too.

“I’m really afraid for him to go home,” Bill McCary Jr. said of his father’s return to an apartment in Haysville.

But COVID-related restrictions on visitation at nursing homes made a long-term care facility an unappealing option. “If it’s going to be that way, I don’t want to be there” was his father’s reaction to life in a locked-down setting. 

As his time in the second rehabilitation center neared an end in mid-January, the McCarys arrived at a plan with the help of social workers. The elder McCary will return to his Haysville apartment.

Part of the challenge of living on his own will be performing tasks — such as preparing meals and doing laundry — that had been done by Norma. “For 61 years, he’s had my mother,” Bill McCary Jr. said.

A therapist will make weekday visits and the family will choose a home health service agency to provide assistance. The elder McCary made progress walking with a walker in rehab and will get help managing diabetes, his son said.

“That’s what the plan is now,” Bill McCary, Jr. said.

He said his father is at peace with whatever the future brings.

“He knows where he’s going and he’s ready to go, but I’m not so sure that he’s that ready to go if you understand what I’m saying. I think he’d like to be here for a little while longer, as us kids would like to have him around longer.”

Sources for help

Comcare, an entity of Sedgwick County, received a COVID-19 grant through the government in order to help those who don’t have health insurance coverage to obtain 10 free one-on-one counseling sessions. To access this program, go online at sedgwickcounty.org\comcare\same-day-assessment\ or call (316) 660-7540.

Good Grief of Kansas Inc. a non-profit whose services include free group meetings for the bereaved in various locations in Sedgwick County, has a website at goodgriefofkansas.org or can be reached at (316) 612-0700.

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