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‘I gave this to my dad’: COVID-19 survivors grapple with guilt of infecting family

A haunting feeling afflicts those who believe that in the fog of the coronavirus’ early spread, they unwittingly exposed the people they loved the most

Paul Stewart thought he’d caught a bad cold.

In the third week of March, he came down with a sore throat, mild fever, cough, chills and body aches. The coronavirus was just starting to spread across Illinois, shuttering schools and workplaces, including the clinic in DuPage County where he worked as a rehabilitation technician. It didn’t occur to him that he might have the virus, even after a co-worker tested positive. Paul’s symptoms came and went, and on some days he felt well enough to go on a 5-mile run.

Then his father started coughing.

Paul, 55 and twice divorced, lived with his parents in the house he grew up in. He assumed his father, Robert, 86, a tough former pro baseball player, Army veteran and cancer survivor, had picked up his cold. But the bug seemed to take over Robert’s body, wrecking his appetite and pummeling his lungs.

Before dawn on April 2, Paul woke to another of his father’s coughing fits. He helped Robert to the bathroom, where his dad passed out. Paul dialed 911.

Robert Stewart
Robert Stewart.Joshua Lott / for NBC News

A paramedic, dressed in full protective gear, told Robert he needed to go to the hospital. Robert quietly acquiesced. At the front door, still in bare feet, he paused and looked back at his son.

“I love you,” Robert said.

“I love you, Dad. Everything’s going to be OK,” Paul replied.

At Central DuPage Hospital, his father tested positive for the coronavirus.

The news made Paul realize that he may have had the virus too. As his father’s condition deteriorated, Paul began to wonder if he was to blame.

The weight of coronavirus guilt

That haunting feeling afflicts untold numbers of Americans who believe that in the fog of the coronavirus’ early spread across the country, they unwittingly infected the people they loved the most.

While it is often impossible to know exactly how the virus passed from one person to another, many survivors hold themselves responsible, questioning decisions they made in the days when they had little information, could not get tested and were not yet subject to strict social distancing and mask measures.

These experiences hint at the unanticipated scope of the suffering caused by the coronavirus.

“The mental health consequences of all this, beside the deaths and physical aspects, are profound,” said Dr. Michelle Riba, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School. “We’ve never been through this in our lifetimes, so we are learning as we go.”

People who develop mild symptoms, or none at all, are convenient pathways for the coronavirus’ spread, because they don’t know to take steps to avoid passing it on to people who are at risk of life-threatening complications, researchers say.

Paul believes that is what happened to him and his father.

“Could I have been more careful with what I thought was the common cold?” he said in a recent interview. “If you felt the way I did now, you would not expose people to that. But there just wasn’t enough information then. That’s what I’ve struggled with.”

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

He has not been tested for the coronavirus; he asked about getting a test but was told that his relatively mild symptoms wouldn’t be considered serious enough to meet the stringent requirements. His mother and his girlfriend, meanwhile, developed only minor symptoms.

In the hospital, Robert’s lungs began to fail. Doctors said there wasn’t much more they could do to stop the virus’ assault on his body. They began palliative care, easing his pain with sedatives.

Visitors were not allowed, but Robert and Paul spoke frequently by phone, including some FaceTime chats. Robert seemed at peace. Married for 60 years and deeply religious, he said he’d had a good life. Paul never heard his father speculate on how he got the disease or the possibility that his son had given it to him.

Paul told his father he believed he was the likely source.

“I’m sorry, Pops,” he said.

On April 9, after Robert had been in the hospital for a week, they had their final conversations. Paul thanked him for being a good parent. He assured his father that he would take care of his mother, and help pay the bills.

“Thank you, son. You are a wonderful son and I’ll see you in heaven someday,” Robert replied.

Later that afternoon, the hospital called Paul to say he could visit his father the following morning. As he was preparing to leave, his sister called with a palliative care nurse on the line. Robert had died.

“I just killed my dad,” Paul told his girlfriend after hearing the news. “I gave this to my dad.”

She told him he was not responsible because he didn’t know if he had the virus, and he never intended to harm his father. His sister and his mother also reassured him.

But he could not let it go. A few relatives questioned why Paul didn’t call an ambulance sooner. He overheard his mother defending him on the phone.

“It’s an odd feeling, like you’re not at peace,” he said. “You can’t get rest because you’re still dealing with the guilt.”

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