Columnist: Covid-19 has changed my family forever


It was March 11 when the city of Detroit recorded its first case of “The Rona,” the latest coronavirus.

My teammates and I were at the Royal Oak Hop Cat when a barrage of emails flooded our in-boxes: University of Detroit Mercy was pausing classes and moving them online.

We jumped for joy at the thought of a much-needed mini-break.

I thought to myself, “Ok, 18 days? Yeah, I can handle that.”

I can go 18 days without seeing my teammates, without going to the gym to lift weights or work on my game.

Eighteen days without walking around campus and finding people to interview for The Varsity News.

Eighteen days until everything would return to normal and I could finish my sophomore year with a bang.

A bang is exactly what I and my family got.

My siblings and I were home from school and my mom home from her job. Yet we watched my stepdad, Dr. Raphael Okonkwor, go to work every day.

Chiropractic is his passion, and he would not close his clinic.

His patients needed him.

He did not believe the virus was even real.

On March 17 he came home feeling ill and went to bed.

He was weak and stayed in the bed almost ten days until his temperature spiked to 104.5 degrees, accompanied by extreme body aches.

My mom, now terrified, as he presented with all the symptoms of Covid-19, went into panic mode.

She instructed us all to social distance within our own house.

My 9-year-old brother, my 12-year-old sister and I stayed in our respective rooms. My mom slept on the couch in the family room.

We could only come down to the kitchen for meals that we would eat alone in our rooms.

We could not even hug each other.

It was horrible.

One day, he couldn’t breathe so we called 911.

We cried as we watched our father, our protector, wheeled out to the ambulance, knowing we could not follow.

The pandemic was new.

We did not even have access to masks or gloves.

My mom did what she could to keep us safe, cleaning with bleach until her skin burned.

Three hours later the hospital sent him home, positive for Covid-19.

“Go home, quarantine and take Tylenol until it passes,” he was advised.

Another 24 hours of agony followed, along with another call to 911. And it yielded the exact same result.

After two more days of what seemed like a horror story, my mom took matters into her own hands.

Somehow, she got my stepdad and his 300-pound frame down the stairs and into the car to drive him 40 minutes to the University of Michigan Hospital Emergency.

They admitted him immediately to ICU.

His fever continued to rage, and the pain grew unbearable.

Nurses padded his body with blankets of ice and pumped him with morphine to ease the pain.

After a harrowing 24 hours the doctors put him on a ventilator, and we waited for the call.

My mom watched CNN 24 hours a day trying to learn as much as she could about the virus.

She was paralyzed by the fear that her husband might die.

Hundreds of Black men were dying daily.

Even after 14 days in the hospital (and two negative Covid-19 tests), the pain persisted.

“This is a different kind of pain,” my stepdad told his doctors. 

He urged them to order a CT scan, but they called his symptoms psychological, refused his request and sent him home.

Another three days went by and the pain was still piercing his side.

His fever fluctuated. His legs hurt and were hot to the touch.

My mother drove him back to U of M Emergency where a CT Scan would reveal large bilateral pulmonary embolisms and smaller blood clots in his legs.

Another 24 hours and he would have been dead.  

The next day they tried to release him again and my mother raised hell.

I heard her practically yelling in the phone.

“Are you sending my husband home to die? He’s a doctor just like you. Is this how you treat a fellow physician?”

After that conversation, my mom called anyone and everyone with ties to the hospital.

Finally, she contacted a doctor friend at Johns Hopkins University Hospital who called the attending physician at U of M to verify that my dad was a physician himself.

Then, and only then, did he begin to receive tests and treatment he should have received from the beginning.

I can’t help but wonder how many Black men died because of negligence in a medical system that disproportionately misdiagnoses and minimizes care for minorities.

If my stepdad was not a doctor, he might be dead – like my high school coach, Nate Slappy, and his father, who both lost their battles with the virus.

We are forever changed by our experience with Covid-19.

My stepdad is still not back to normal.

The virus continues to ravage and alter our world, and I fear we will never be the same.