AT 78, BOB WILBURN was still fit as a fiddle. He exercised daily, climbing the stairs at his college alma mater, Abilene Christian University, and walking the two-mile perimeter of the campus. Except for high blood pressure, which was controlled with medication, Bob had every expectation of living a much longer life.
COVID-19 defied those expectations, though.
On Nov. 13, Bob began to experience gastrointestinal issues that soon gave way to fatigue, fever, and dizziness. Five days passed before the results of a COVID-19 test, performed on Nov. 17, were received. The lab’s call confirming that Bob had tested positive, came at the same time an ambulance arrived to transport him to the hospital.
Bob died at Hendricks Medical Center South on Dec. 10. His family made certain there was no mystery surrounding his death. In the first paragraph of the obituary, they reported that Bob had courageously fought COVID-19, but lost the battle. They wanted the world to know.
A LONGTIME CANADIAN RESIDENT, Bob is most likely to be remembered by friends here for his generous smile; thin, athletic frame, and kind character—none of which had changed in the years since he and wife Jo, moved to Abilene to be closer both to family and to Abilene Christian University.
They may also remember his strong Christian faith, unwavering devotion to his high school football team, the Canadian Wildcats, and as a dedicated volunteer work with Meals on Wheels, which became part of Bob’s daily routine in Abilene.
Despite the aggressive spread of the coronavirus, which had already killed over 160 residents of Abilene and the surrounding county, Bob was determined to live life. Yes, he wore a facemask and washed his hands obsessively—as he always had—but Bob also continued to visit with friends, dine out at local restaurants, and deliver Meals on Wheels five days a week.
“He is like every other man in his 70s,” said Bob’s daughter Jenny. “He will not be told what to do, does not heed warnings, and continued to be in the public, even though [we] told him. He just didn’t think he was going to get it.”
Even when the ambulance arrived at his home that day, Bob was convinced it was a minor detour in his life. “Dad wore Tommy Bahama shorts and flip-flops to the hospital,” said his other daughter, Julie. “He didn’t think he would be there that long.”
“Most people didn’t even know my dad was in the hospital,” Jenny said. “To be honest, he thought he would just run the course, and get out. Maybe get a little oxygen at night.”
JENNY HAS WORKED as a physician’s assistant for the last 20 years, following her graduation from UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. Today, she is a partner in an outpatient clinic, Abilene White Rock Surgery Center LLC, and specializes in anesthesiology and pain management.
Many of the nurses at the surgery center spend their weekends working in the COVID Unit at Hendricks Medical Center, where there are only 25 ICU beds. Any overflow goes into the recovery unit for surgery.
“It is exhausting—mentally and emotionally,” she said. “Our staff is so tired and emotionally spent. It has taken a toll.”
“No primary caregiver treats [COVID] down here,” she said. “If you get sick, you’re supposed to go to a walk-in or drive-up clinic.”
If you do test positive, Jenny explained, you are told to go quarantine. “The primary caregiver does not want to see you,” she said. “If you defeat it on your own, good. If not, you end up in the emergency room.”
Bob was taken to the ER at Hendricks South, and spent most of the day waiting to be transferred to a room. “Hendricks South was the only hospital accepting possible COVID patients at the time,” Jenny said. “They were stacked up.”
Bob was admitted with COVID, complicated by pneumonia. His doctors warned that his condition could change rapidly. “They said there would be ups and downs,” Jenny said, “and that was the case.”
Though Bob’s condition improved at first, it soon began to deteriorate. The reports from medical staff varied from hour to hour.
“They would say he is stable right now,” Jenny said, “but would call us four hours later, and say, ‘We will have to make decisions.’”
“We did that for two weeks,” she said. “One day, the doctor called and said, ‘It’s bad. We need to know if he has to go on a ventilator, will he do it?’ We all said, ‘Nope.’ My dad had already told my mom that. He had made that decision.”
From that point on, Bob’s treatment varied from BiPAP, which pushes pressurized air into the lungs, and high-flow oxygen therapy, which assists with breathing in cases of acute respiratory failure. “It is a sad, slow death,” Jenny said. “You suffocate to death. And for several days, you’re just losing ground, and I think you know it.”
“The hardest part was we couldn’t see him,” she said. “We got him a laptop up there, and he talked to us via email.”
Bob’s greatest concern while hospitalized was his ability to follow the Canadian Wildcats run through the football playoffs. “That was his only concern,” Jenny said. “He told everybody about Canadian’s football team. Those boys don’t know him, but he knew everything about every one of them.”
The last game Bob was able to listen to was the Wildcats’ State Quarterfinal victory over the Childress Bobcats. He had been watching the games on his laptop, but by then, was unable to hear the play-by-play over the sound of the breathing machine.
Instead, Jo had to connect to the game broadcast on her cell phone, and hold it up to her home phone so Bob could listen. “He died the day before [they] played Gunter,” Jenny said, referring to the riveting state semifinal battle between what many believed were the two best 3A Division II teams in the state. “He would have loved that game.”
“IT IS A VERY SAD way to lose somebody,” Jenny said a few days following her father’s death. “His saturation levels got lower and lower, and he just slowly drifted away.”
When they took Bob off the BiPAP machine, he lasted only about three minutes.
“I think everybody thinks they’re above it,” Jenny said. “Around here, everybody is going to get it. The question is just if they’re going to beat it.”
Asked what she thought would make people follow COVID safety protocols more closely, she said, “I think they have to lose somebody close to them, to hear somebody gasping for air. That’s what it will take.”
“We are up to 165 deaths in Taylor County,” she said. “It’s crazy. People say it is no different than the flu. It is not the flu. The flu didn’t make us lose 165 people in Taylor County. The day after my dad died, there were six more deaths.”
Jenny is convinced that it is a matter of kindness. “I wear my mask, not to protect myself,” she said, “but to protect your grandmother. We’ve lost the kindness for each other… just helping our fellow man.”
“It is unkind the way we talk to each other, and not wearing a mask is just icing on the cake.”
“This virus is relentless,” Jenny said. “If you had told me seven or eight months ago that we would be burying my dad with COVID, I would have said no. Until somebody walks down this road, they will not heed the warnings.”
IN PHOTO ON FACING PAGE: Bob and Jo Wilburn with grandchildren Konner, Sara, Kade and Alex.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Our humble thanks to the individuals and families who so generously shared their deeply personal stories of life and death in the time of COVID with us. We hope that in doing so, you have saved other lives by raising our readers’ awareness and attentiveness to the dangers of this “monster,” as Paula Kay Williams Hargrove said of the disease that claimed her husband, Ty. This series is dedicated to the more than 1.97 million lives worldwide that were were taken too soon by COVID, to the many who loved them and mourn them today, and to the scientists and health care professionals who have been our frontline of defense against the pandemic. — LEB