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Father of Nebraska's first coronavirus patient says they 'had absolutely no idea' she was sick

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The local woman brought to the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit on Friday night was transferred in an isolation pod.

The first person in Nebraska diagnosed with coronavirus disease has suffered from respiratory problems her entire life, including frequent coughing, sneezing and runny noses.

So when she and her English-born father returned from a family celebration in London on Feb. 27, they had no concerns that she had contracted a contagious virus causing worldwide concerns and quarantines.

Britain wasn’t on the list of high-risk countries. Four days before she was diagnosed, a family doctor told her that she had probably picked up a cold while in wet and chilly London. Sniffles and coughing were the norm for her.

“We had absolutely no idea,” the father said on Monday. “It definitely didn’t pop into my mind that she had coronavirus.”

The father, now in self-quarantine in the family home, contacted The World-Herald to respond to social media posts that have accused his family and their 36-year-old daughter of knowingly spreading the virus. The paper has agreed to not name him or his daughter, who has a disability, to protect their privacy and to ward off direct criticism.

“Mostly, I just want people to know it wasn’t a deliberate, reckless thing that she was doing,” he said. “If she was here right now coughing and sneezing, it wouldn’t bother at all. … It was just her normal irritations.”

In an interview and in an essay shared with the newspaper, the father, who has lived in Omaha since 1983, expressed anguish about his daughter, who remains in critical but stable condition at the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus.

He also related the loneliness of being confined to a bedroom and regret that a joyous, family trip to Britain — to celebrate the 100th birthday of his father — has instead resulted on a spotlight on his daughter.

“I’m sorry that the situation has become what it is throughout the community and really hope that the enormous efforts of the state and county health authorities keep this awful virus contained,” he wrote.

The father said he has no idea where she could have contracted the virus — no one in his father’s home in Britain has tested positive since they left London. He speculated that she could have contracted it on the flight back to the United States, or in airports in London or Minneapolis.

He said the health of his daughter, who has been sedated and unable to talk to him since shortly after being admitted to the biocontainment unit, is foremost in his mind.

“Critical but stable. Critical. Critical. Critical echoes,” he wrote. “Will I ever see her again? Will the vision of her through the rear window of the ambulance wrapped in bio gear be the last image?”

“That’s hard to get to sleep to,” the father wrote. “Easy to cry to.”

The father said the family adopted their daughter just before her second birthday. She was a “special needs” child, he said, whose biological parents couldn’t deal with her health problems, which included breathing through a tracheotomy tube in her throat.

At first, they were just foster parents.

“You just fall in love with them,” he said of his daughter, who was bashful at first but eventually adopted the habit of waiting at a front window for him to return home.

Before she turned 4, surgeons at the Nebraska Medical Center built a stable airway so she could breathe normally. But still, she suffered almost yearly bouts of pneumonia, her father said, as well as regular coughing and sniffles. She had a device to check her oxygen levels to ensure that they were normal, he said, and had an oxygen machine, if she needed it.

Just recently, she had moved out of the family home to live independently in an apartment. Her father said she was ready to make her own decisions, take care of her own finances.

She had also been practicing on Saturdays with a Special Olympics basketball team, which was scheduled to play a tournament in Fremont two days after their return from London.

On the flight home, her father said she was full of anticipation about playing.

But during one of the games, she was struck in the head by a basketball. She complained of a headache afterward, though she frequently suffered from migraines.

The father said he took her three times to emergency rooms for migraine shots over the weekend. On March 2, he took her to her regular doctor. Her vital signs were normal. The doctor said it was probably just a cold.

Then, on Thursday, after her headaches persisted, the father took her to the emergency room at Methodist Women’s Hospital, just off 190th Street and West Dodge Road. It was the first time she showed low oxygen levels, a sign of breathing difficulties.

“The testing began and it all hit the fan,” her father said. “My initial reaction was, ‘Oh my God. What next?’ ”

He said he last talked to his daughter shortly after she was admitted to the biocontainment unit. He told her that she was being talked about in the news. He also asked how she felt. “Crappy,” she responded.

He said he started showing symptoms on Thursday as well, but his temperature, then 100, has declined since.

He and his stepson were diagnosed with coronavirus disease on Sunday and were told to “tighten up” a quarantine that began when their daughter was diagnosed.

The father said he is alone in his bedroom all day, except for an occasional trip across the hallway to the bathroom, which he disinfects before he leaves.

“I watch some TV on my laptop,” he said. “But daytime TV is not really geared toward men, and cable news propaganda gets old.”

Neither his wife nor his mother-in-law, who both live in the house, has had symptoms, nor has his father or others living in London. The Omaha father said he believes he’s now recovering from his bout with the coronavirus illness.

As for his daughter, he worries not only about her serious medical condition, but also what people are saying about her — “the disgusting things being said on social media, spawned by the news reports that she had had symptoms for some time and gave the impression that she was out in the community, knowingly infected with the virus.”

“All I can do is sit, wait and hope that updates from the wonderful people at the biocontainment center will tell me she’s improving.”

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

Related to this story

As simple as it sounds to keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth, just try it. Try not rubbing your eye or itching your nose. Don’t wipe your mouth. Don’t scratch, lean, tug or otherwise answer a twitch, an itch, a yawn, a cough or other erstwhile call from nature.

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