Matt and Mercedes McCloughan Wetzel considered themselves healthy. The Blanco County couple and their three children lived an active lifestyle and took a Spring Break ski trip to Colorado in March.
COVID-19, however, shattered their reality
“I was feeling ten feet tall and bulletproof,” Matt said about his life before the disease struck him, Mercedes, and her mother, Merci McCloughan.
Even now, more than a month since they began feeling the initial effects of COVID-19, the disease lingers in their lives.
Dr. Jules Madrigal, a Marble Falls physician and the Burnet County local health authority, encouraged Matt and Mercedes to share their story in an effort to enlighten and prompt the community to heed health officials’ recommendations on slowing the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
“People need to wear their masks, wash their hands, use hand sanitizer, no touching their faces, none of that,” said Mercedes, 46. “The one thing we didn’t do (at the very beginning) was wear masks.”
“If there’s one lesson I bring it’s wash your hands and be prepared, have a plan for food,” added Matt, 54.
Their battle with COVID-19 started in mid-March. On March 13, the family, along with Mercedes’ mother, made the 13-hour drive to Amont, Colorado, for a ski trip. But with the Colorado ski industry shutting down out of concern over COVID-19, the family spent eight days doing other things, such as going for snowmobile rides.
Sometime during their time in Colorado, the adults began running fevers. When they headed back to Texas on March 21, Matt and Mercedes were coughing, and Merci, 78, was experiencing tremors in her feet and hands.
The family doesn’t know how they contracted the virus. Was it on their way to Colorado during a stop for gas or snacks right before shutdowns started happening? Was it at the place they stayed in Colorado?
Maybe one of them caught it before they left Texas while running errands or at work.
“We don’t know if we gave it to (my mother) or she gave it to us,” Mercedes said.
And that’s one thing the couple stressed: You can’t necessarily tell who has it or how you’ll come into contact with it. Experts say the virus can be spread by asymptomatic carriers.
On their way back home, when they reached Brady, Matt and Mercedes grew concerned over Merci’s condition and called Baylor Scott & White Medical Center-Marble Falls to get her an appointment. After dropping off Matt and their three children at home, Mercedes drove her mom to the Marble Falls hospital.
A staff member went to the vehicle to retrieve Merci but told Mercedes she couldn’t come inside. By then, the facility was closed to the public.
“I’m nervous,” said Mercedes about how she felt after the medical staff led her mother away. “I waited three hours in the parking lot.”
The next evening, the family received a call that Merci tested positive for COVID-19. She began treatments under Madrigal.
At the time, only Merci was tested, but since they were together, the entire family immediately went into quarantine.
All three adults experienced fever and fatigue as well as trouble catching their breath, some of the symptoms of COVID-19. It stretched out over several days.
“I had chest pain that was so severe that I didn’t know what to do,” Mercedes said. “I was a healthy person, I worked out three days a week, and my mom worked out for six weeks before we left for Colorado. You survive it, but at what cost?”
As the adults battled the disease, the three kids began transitioning to at-home learning as public schools closed campuses in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. None of the children — Nate, Michael, and MK — ever exhibited symptoms of COVID-19.
Mercedes had previously stocked the family’s pantry, refrigerator, and freezer with enough food to last about two weeks. Still, once their neighbors heard of their situation, they began bringing food by the house.
“They were wonderful,” Mercedes said.
Along with taking precautionary measures to prevent yourself from contracting the disease, Matt said people need to plan ahead just in case they do get it. That means keeping enough food on hand and other supplies to make it through a two-week quarantine.
Another concern was who would watch the kids if they and Mercedes’ mother became incapacitated or required hospitalization. They leaned on Merci as another caregiver since she lived on the same property.
“If both of us went down, what are we going to do with our three kids?” Matt said. “As the father of a family of five with my mom in Fredericksburg, I’m deathly afraid of what can happen to her.”
He urged families to consider who would they turn to in case both parents or primary caregivers get sick and can’t fully take care of their children or others who rely on them.
By March 29, Merci felt strong enough to watch TV, while Matt and Mercedes still felt dizzy and out of breath.
For the next several weeks, they all stayed at the family home with the adults getting stronger daily. On April 7, Merci’s CT scan revealed she had pneumonia, and Mercedes’ test revealed pleurisy, the result of a viral infection or pneumonia.
Even into mid-April, Matt and Mercedes still experienced COVID-19-related symptoms.
Matt, who works for the Federal Aviation Administration, took a COVID-19 test on April 17 to see if he can return to work.
The next day, the family felt well enough to travel to Fredericksburg to visit his mother, whom they hadn’t seen for at least a month. On the way there, Matt told his family that they would just drop off food and check on his mom.
As he thinks back to that trip, he’s glad he made that decision because his COVID-19 test came back positive on April 20. Mercedes had also been tested for COVID-19 around the same time. Three days after finding out Matt’s results, Mercedes’ test come back negative.
“None of it makes sense,” she said on how the disease and virus behave.
Mercedes, who owns an Allstate Insurance agency in Marble Falls, had planned to reopen it.
“Then, he called me to say he’s positive now, and we’re under quarantine again, relying on other people for groceries for six people.”
Matt said he is grateful to the federal government for the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that gives him a paycheck since he has used up all of his sick leave. Before he can report back to work, Matt must be symptom-free for 76 hours.
Mercedes bought shields for her Allstate employees’ desks and initiated additional safety protocols with the hope the agency can reopen May 4.
“I want to get back to work as quickly as I can and take care of my clients,” she said.
Matt has traveled around the world and endured a number of illnesses, but he’s never experienced the kind of pain brought on by COVID-19.
“I’ve been exposed to everything in the world, and this one is the scariest,” he said. “You can’t catch your breath for half an hour, you realize how vulnerable you are. There is no pill to take.”
For more on how COVID-19 is affecting the Highland Lakes, visit the DailyTrib.com coronavirus resources webpage.