On July 3, Roger Collins played golf with family in Texas.
Ten days later, and just hours after learning he tested positive for COVID-19, he called out to his wife, Billie, at their home in Iola.
“Help me,” he told her. “I can’t breathe.”
They struggled to get him dressed for a trip to the hospital emergency room. He couldn’t walk very far without getting winded.
“Hug me,” he said to Billie. “I don’t know when you’ll be able to do that again.”
It’s been a little more than three months since that hug.
Roger was taken by life flight to Olathe Medical Center on July 13. He’s been on a ventilator since then, while his family copes with the changes to their lives.
Today is his 100th day in the hospital.
Billie and the rest of their family are adjusting to the emotional and financial toll. Their daughters have taken over the family business, Central Publishing Company, which Roger led. Billie hasn’t returned home since the night Roger was hospitalized. She sits outside his room for hours, until she’s allowed to visit.
Their faith in God is helping through this difficult time.
“We believe that God can take care of everything and we’ve put it in His hands. We believe that will bring him home,” she said. “I believe the power of prayer is real, and we have thousands of people praying for us.”
BILLIE isn’t the kind of person who can sit still for long. She likes keeping busy.
She’s been staying with a son who lives in Lawrence. It’s a 38-minute drive to the long-term acute care hospital in Kansas City, Kan., where Roger was moved Aug. 28.
Every day at 9 a.m., she arrives to sit outside a window to his room. She ties blankets and makes face masks to sell.
When the pandemic’s effects first began to be felt in the U.S., around March, Billie and her daughters started to sew cloth face masks. They’ve since made more than 4,000 masks, and donated many of them to hospitals and nursing homes.
Now, the masks and blankets help her pass the time.
“What do you do except think and over-think?” she mused.
At 2 p.m., she’s allowed into Roger’s room. He is limited to one visitor, and they can’t swap in and out. Billie brings her phone and turns on the speakerphone so Roger can hear words of encouragement from family and friends.
Roger was in an induced coma and unconscious the early days of his hospitalization. Now, he’s awake but still unable to speak because of the ventilator.
He communicates with gestures.
A thumbs up.
A wiggle of his fingers.
A shake of the head to indicate yes or no.
“I love you,” he says to Billie using sign language.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Billie said.
“He’ll have a really great day and everyone will be really positive and think we’re turning the corner. The next day, everything will plummet.”
“HOW DID he get it?”
It’s a question Billie often fields.
The family thinks Roger was exposed to the coronavirus during a family trip to Texas over the Fourth of July holiday.
They stopped at a couple of convenience stores during the long drive, and thought they took appropriate precautions.
Once there, they spent most of their time outdoors, playing golf and enjoying their family’s swimming pool.
“It’s just family. You don’t think anything about it,” Billie said.
But after returning home to Iola, they learned a family member in Texas had tested positive.
Roger, who is 58 and doesn’t have pre-existing conditions other than high blood pressure, and a couple of other members of their immediate family tested positive.
Billie didn’t have symptoms and wasn’t tested, but had to be quarantined for a total of 28 days.
Roger’s test came back at 10 a.m. Monday, July 13. Hours later, he couldn’t breathe.
Billie remembers waiting with her daughters in the parking lot at Allen County Regional Hospital. Because of visitor restrictions, they couldn’t be with him in the emergency room.
She thought he would get a breathing treatment or maybe stay overnight.
Then the hospital called.
“It’s more serious than we thought,” someone told her.
At 10 p.m., he was being flown to Kansas City by air ambulance.
THOSE first hours and days were a blur.
The past three months have been difficult for all involved.
Roger’s illness has changed their lives.
At first, family members kept their struggles private. It was a stressful time, and they didn’t want to be around the negative energy once the coronavirus became a politically divisive issue.
The virus is nonpartisan. Overall, 85% of those infected experience mild illness, whereas 14% have severe symptoms and require hospitalization. Another 5%, such as Roger, require admission to an intensive care unit.
“Wear a mask or don’t wear a mask, but think about the person you might infect. Anyone can get it, at any age, any political party,” Billie said.
Family and friends started a Go Fund Me page to help with expenses, which has raised $2,915.
“I didn’t want to ask for help. We tried to do it all on our own,” Billie said, stressing that her priority is to keep their health insurance in good standing to ensure Roger continues to receive the care he needs.
“I believe if we have to start over, then God will put us where we need to be.”
She plans to stay by Roger’s side as often as possible.
“I’m not going anywhere until he comes home,” she vowed.
Cards can be sent to Roger Collins Rm. 124, C/O Select Specialties Hospital, 1731 North 90th Street, Kansas City, KS 66112.
Find the family’s Go Fund Me here.