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After 76 days in the hospital, an Aurora Vietnam vet returned home after battling COVID-19, but his 34-year-old son didn't.
The Beacon-News - 1/3/2021
Jan. 2—Editor's note: This story is part of the Faces of 2020 series looking back at those in the news in the Aurora area in 2020.
A father and son were in hospital beds across the aisle from each other inside an ICU room at Rush Copley Medical Center in Aurora as they battled the coronavirus. Neither was conscious enough to know the other was there.
After the father, Matt Thomas, 75, was taken off a breathing tube weeks later, he continued to ask his other children how his son, Chris Thomas, was doing. At the doctor's orders, the children continued to dodge the question and said Chris was fine, despite the fact that he had died at the age of 34 from COVID-19 weeks earlier.
"The doctors said I was putting up a good fight and had a 40% chance of making it, so they thought I'd go into a shell if I knew the reality," Matt said.
The Thomas family is among countless ones in the Fox Valley bearing the scars of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Aurora alone, more than 15,400 people have contracted the virus since March, and more than 200 have died. They have lived in nursing homes and private houses, neared age 100 and died as young as 25, city and Kane County Coroner's Office data shows.
The impact of the pandemic on daily life has been felt in every corner of the region. For many of the families who have lost mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings or children, the pain will last beyond the pandemic's end.
Matt Thomas, a Vietnam War veteran, spent 76 days at three different hospitals fighting COVID-19 until he was finally discharged, but his son never returned home from Rush Copley. Chris was living with his dad and mom, Lori Thomas, on the far East Side of Aurora when all three were infected.
Chris went to the emergency room in April and tested positive for the flu and a sinus infection, and was taken home where he felt sick for weeks, his sister Amy said. After finding Chris on the bathroom floor on May 7, and seeing he couldn't function, Matt called an ambulance to get him to the hospital, not knowing at the time his son had COVID-19.
"Chris gave Lori her Mother's Day gift early, like he had a sixth sense that he wasn't coming back," Matt said.
A few days later, both Matt and Lori also had the coronavirus, and Matt was taken to the hospital on May 16.
Lori battled the virus at home by herself. After Matt was in the hospital for weeks, she had to make the decision to bring in a priest to give him his last rites.
Meanwhile, their son Chris was fighting his own battle against coronavirus.
The family kept trying to convince Chris to have a breathing tube installed, but he refused until a few days before he passed away. By that point, his lungs had already crystalized, Matt said.
The last time Amy talked to her brother Chris, he texted her and said "this is going to kill me." An ICU doctor let Amy and Lori come into the hospital and watch from the doorway as a nurse held Chris' hand as they took him off life support on June 13.
The family waited until July 12, almost a month after Chris died, before Lori finally broke down and told Matt the news that their son had died. She had called him in the hospital to tell him that she had to put their dog down, and Matt, frustrated, asked why every time he asked the kids how Chris was doing they dodged the question.
Broken down with grief, Lori told him the news.
"I got the double whammy," Matt said. "I went into shock and I didn't know how to cope with it."
He said he can't imagine the stress his wife was going through, watching her son die and her husband clinging to life fighting the disease.
"My wife had to do all that alone and took the brunt of my grief," Matt said. "When I found out my son was dead and gone, there was nothing I could do but keep going with my life at that point. I miss him every day."
Amy, who works on the front lines as an emergency room tech and EMT, doesn't believe the family has been able to grieve properly because they haven't held a service for Chris due to the pandemic. She hopes they can gather on the one-year anniversary of Chris' death and host a celebration of his life.
Matt spent 33 days at Rush Copley in intensive care during his battle with COVID-19. He developed sepsis and pneumonia while in the hospital. In mid-June, he was transferred to Kindred Healthcare in Sycamore for respiratory rehabilitation, where he had to learn how to eat again after a tracheotomy. Then, he spent a month at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton.
His neighbors, who helped Lori while he was in the hospital by doing things like cutting the grass and dropping off meals, organized a parade in his honor as he was taken home July 29. A motorcycle honor guard, VFW members, DuPage County Sheriff's Department officers and Aurora police and paramedics all drove in the parade.
Matt said he was touched by the honor.
"I told my American Legion commander that I wish they could have done this when we got home from 'Nam, but 49 years later, I got my parade," Matt said. "It wasn't the way I wanted it, but I got it."
But even after he was home, COVID-19 was still front in center in his life. He said the virus has long-term side effects that both he and Lori are still fighting months later.
"This is not something to take nonchalantly," Matt said of the coronavirus. "My wife had the mild version and she was in so much pain she couldn't go up or down the stairs for months."
While Matt and Lori deal with the lingering effects of the disease, they are also trying to deal with the emotions of the loss of their son. They are not alone. Chris' children, a 4-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl, are also still trying to understand the loss of their father.
"He'll draw pictures of his dad in the sky and say 'it's Daddy in heaven,'" Amy said of the 4-year-old. "We'll always roll the windows down and he'll look up and say, 'Hi Daddy.'"
Chris' death at 34 is a warning, Matt said, that COVID-19 doesn't just kill older people.
"It's hard with the holidays because people want to be together and I'll admit it in the beginning, I was that person too," Amy said. "I thought it was just like the flu until I started seeing it. Now, these last few months have been a blur. It was a clump of time that all melted together that I can't even remember."
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