Erlanger Murphy Medical Center is located on US Highway 64 outside of Murphy, NC.

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For days they had heard the news of a dangerous new coronavirus spreading throughout the world.

“We decided we were going to stay right up here in this house and try to protect ourselves,” said Mary Wyatt of her and her husband Frank Wyatt. “We were up here for two weeks.”

Their rural home near Murphy, on the other side of Wildcat Mountain, had been their retreat for many years.

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Mary Wyatt said she doesn’t think Frank knew what was coming. Late last month on a Monday, Mary called their doctor at Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital about her husband’s condition.

“He was running a fever and he was so sick,” she said. “The doctor said to bring him to the emergency room immediately.”

They ran every test imaginable on him, including one that checked for the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

Four days later, he was dead. He was 86 years old.

Mary Wyatt said the couple met and courted in high school. They later eloped and for much of the next 66 years, traveled where his job took them, first with the U.S. Air Force and then, after his military retirement, to a job with the state of Florida, from which he also retired. He was a hospital administrator.

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“I wonder sometimes how I’m going to get through this,” Mary Wyatt said from her mountain home. “I have panic attacks and I want to beat the wall because I don’t understand why he was taken away from me so suddenly. I just don’t understand any of it.”

Mary Wyatt said she’s also tested positive for COVID-19, one of more than 5,100 North Carolinians confirmed by laboratory tests to have contracted the virus.

State health officials say the true number who actually have contracted the coronavirus is far higher. Some who carry the virus show no symptoms, and many more may have symptoms too mild to consult a doctor or qualify for a test.

The Wyatts were not among those, though.

“He was so awfully sick when I took him to the hospital — and it happened so suddenly,” she said. “It was like a bullet being shot at you.”

After he was admitted, Mary Wyatt said, she was not allowed to be in the hospital to see him.

“When they put him on the ventilator, the doctor held the phone up to his ear, so that I could speak to him and tell him I loved him, and that was all,” she said. The nurses and doctors “would give Frank messages, that I loved him and the children loved him.”

Two or three days later, on March 31, Frank Wyatt died at Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital, the first confirmed COVID-19 death in Cherokee County and the ninth in the state at the time.

“He had pneumonia in both of his lungs,” she said. “He went down very, very fast.”

At some point, his doctor asked how Mary Wyatt was feeling and didn’t like her response, then told her to come to the emergency room.

“They found I had pneumonia,” Wyatt said. “He knew that I had it. And I knew it. Because I had all of the symptoms — and they only got worse.”

Mary Wyatt said COVID-19 is “the worst thing that’s ever happened to me of any illness. It’s like something out of a weird science magazine.”

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She doesn’t have a fever anymore, and her voice sounded clear and strong throughout a 30-minute phone conversation on Wednesday.

“The doctor is really pleased with my progress,” she said. “I’m not running a fever now, which is good. But I’m extremely weak.”

To those who believe social distancing should ease to help the economy, Mary Wyatt has a message.

“Stay in, protect yourself,” she said. “It can hit you any minute, and you won’t know it and then someone in your life is going to be gone, possibly you. And this illness from it — it’s unbelievable. There is nothing like it. And they are telling me that it is going to take me weeks and weeks to get well.”

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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