Pandemic Chronicles: ‘They are not just numbers’

Statistics are abstract; families’ pain is real and eternal

IMAGE/FRANK X. MULLEN: Bruce McAllister is shown is an inset photo above the three memorial stones recently placed at the VA hospital in Reno in tribute to the the front-line workers who died of COVID-19.

On March 28, Alana Dixon McAllister took the longest, most traumatic walk of her life.

Sick and weakened from COVID-19, she crept through the intensive care ward at Northern Nevada Medical Center in Sparks to view the body of her husband, Bruce, 47, who had died of the disease. She could not be with him when he passed. There would be no funeral. This would be the last time she would see the face of the man she loved. She had to pass by many ICU beds to get to his.

“It was eerie,” she said. “There were people in the beds, all on ventilators. They were all by themselves. You hear the crinkles of the plastic sheets that separate the beds, the beeps of the machines and the in-and-out hissing of the air — the breathing of the ventilators. If you see it in person it’s traumatizing; you will never forget it. If those people denying the pandemic or refusing to wear face masks could walk through an ICU like that, if they had that direct experience, I think they would see the reality and the real danger behind this virus.”

Bruce McAllister was among three front line workers at the Veterans Affairs Sierra Nevada Health Care System who died at the start of the pandemic that is still raging. On July 10, three carved stones in front of the VA hospital are scheduled to be dedicated to their memories. The memorials bear the names of McAllister, who worked in an office on the campus; nurse Vianna Thompson, 52; and medical technician Alex Gousev, 58. All were veterans who spent their careers helping other vets. They died within two weeks of each other.

IMAGE/VA HEALTH CARE SYSTEM: The Ioannis A. Lougaris VA Medical Center in Reno will hold a private memorial dedication ceremony on July 10 at 9 a.m. for hospital staff and the families of the three employees who died of complications of the COVID-19 virus. The event will be streamed live on the hospital’s Facebook page.

They were among the first to be added up in a grim arithmetic that continues minute by minute. Totals flash on the screens of our electronic devices day and night: 3.1 million cases, more than 134,000 dead nationally; 24,301 cases, 553 dead in Nevada; 3,295 cases in Washoe County, with 82 deaths as of July 8. The figures climb; the mind numbs. In March, Bruce McAllister was the 15th COVID-19 death recorded in Nevada and the first in Washoe County. Alana McCallister hears those two numbers a lot. She confirms the figures, but tells people there is so much more to know:

“His name was Bruce; he’s not just a number, he was a real person that people loved and who loved other people,” she said. “All those numbers you hear every day are people who loved and were loved. They left families behind who will miss them forever. These are not just numbers added to a list. Each one was part of a community, one of your neighbors. Each one was a living human being who other people knew and cared about for a long time.”

Vianna Thompson was a nurse who planned to teach at a nursing school someday.  She worked full time at the VA hospital in the emergency room, and part time at Northern Nevada Medical Center, where she logged shifts in the intensive care ward. She and her husband, Bob, had three sons. Bob Thompson couldn’t be reached for comment this week, but in interviews with other media in April, he said Vianna worked mostly at night, putting in five or six 12-hour shifts a week. He described his wife as being “sweet, big-hearted, caring, and unselfish.” In the weeks before she died, she cared for COVID-19 patients at Northern Nevada Medical Center, reportedly including  a patient who worked at the VA medical center, likely Bruce McAllister.

When she got sick herself, she was treated at the VA hospital. She died April 7. Her husband said goodbye via Facetime. A nurse held her hand. Her body was covered with a black box and wheeled through the hallways of the facility behind a coworker who carried an American flag, which could not be draped on the makeshift coffin due to the fear of contamination from the virus. Employees and patients lined up as the procession went by. They saluted and many wept as what is known as an “honor flight” progressed slowly through the hallways to the hospital morgue.

Alex Gousev also was a veteran, but of the army of the former Soviet Union, not the U.S. military. He immigrated to the U.S., coming first to California and eventually to Reno. He joined the Reno VA in 2007, according to the hospital, where he worked in the Pathology and Laboratory Services, and most recently joined the Community Care Service. Gousev, who died April 9, is survived by his wife, Mary; a son, Alexander, 19; and his mother, Lydia. He was a deacon and founder of Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia Church in Sparks. Church officials and family members could not reached for comment this week, but the church’s website has posted tributes and pictures memorializing Gousev.

“It was always great to see you on duty — smart, funny and a most interesting person… This hurts — you are missed. Thank you for making our days a little bit brighter throughout the years… You always had a kind word and a smile, always spoke of your family…  Alexander Gousev was a true friend to all he met. I’ve known Alex for more than ten years and EVERY conversation was meaningful and uplifting. My heart aches for his family and the loss to the Reno VA and the veterans we serve.”

– comments about Alex Gousev, VA Sierra Nevada Health care System Facebook Page

Families who have had first-hand experience with COVID-19 understand the danger of the virus, but for some people the pandemic is as remote as an eclipse that can only be seen from Antarctica. Virus-deniers claim the fear of infection is overblown. They compare the more than 132,000 U.S. deaths over the last four months to fatalities from a bad flu season, annual traffic accidents, war casualties or the host of other slings and arrows that have claimed human lives since time began.

Alana McAllister said it may be the nearly invisible nature of the suffering and death that insulates people from the immediacy of the danger. Hospitalized patients can’t receive visitors. People die alone in the ICU. They can’t have funerals. “It’s not visible enough for people to see the true ramifications of what it has done,” she said. “People on Facebook ask, ‘who do you know who has had it?’ And the majority will say they don’t know anyone who has had it. That’s where the disconnection is. When someone close to them gets it, then they will understand  how severe the situation is.”

PHOTO/MCALLISTER FAMILY: Alana, Bryce and Bruce McAllister in Hawaii six years ago.

She said she has heard people minimize the danger and demand that all restrictions be lifted. “When I hear that stuff I just walk away from people,” McAllister said. “It’s crazy. It’s not about whether you know someone who had it or not. Don’t wait until someone close to you gets it. It’s real. Do what you can to help now. At least wear a mask to protect other people.”

She said she suffered with the virus for six weeks and at times thought she was having a heart attack. She often was too dizzy to walk or even think clearly. She suspects their son, Bryce, 10, had COVID-19 as well, but he never showed symptoms and was not tested.

“Bryce is doing good,” McAllister said. “He still builds with his Legos. He misses his dad. He has his moments when the sadness sweeps over him. He understands now that life is short… He sees people not wearing masks in public and that, he doesn’t understand. He asks, ‘why do they think they can just walk around and not protect themselves and not protect other people?’” She tells Bryce that “some people are just hardheaded. They have to learn the hard way before they understand what’s happening.”

“When I had the Coronavirus, I didn’t infect anyone. Wanna know why? Cuz I stayed my ass at home AWAY from people. That’s how you stop spreading it. Yet y’all out there dangling in danger and living on the edge. Just crazy.”

– Alana McAllister, Facebook post, July 1.

She said she appreciates sympathy, but would like people to honor her husband and all the others who have died and suffered with the virus by just wearing a mask in public. She asked people to wear one not just because the Nevada governor mandated it, but because it is the responsible and decent thing to do. A mask, she said, has nothing to do with a person’s own theories of the pandemic or their political ideologies.

It’s not a microchip forcibly injected into people by the government, she said. It’s a simple piece of cloth that can reduce suffering and save lives. Not wearing one may injure or even result in the death of people and the person responsible will not even know the harm they have caused.

 “You put on shoes when you walk outside. You wouldn’t walk across town barefoot. You wouldn’t go to a restaurant without a shirt. It’s not unreasonable to wear a mask to protect others during pandemic. It’s not about you; it’s about caring about other people.”

— Alana Dixon McAllister

PHOTOS OF MEMORIALS/FRANK X. MULLEN: Bruce McAllister’s memorial stone at the VA hospital in Reno. (Editor’s note: The COVID-19 statistics in this story were updated on July 8, 2020.)

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