Sophia and Mathias haven’t seen their father up close in two months. They haven’t seen the recovery he’s made, the steps he’s taken and the mat he pulled himself up from, the miles he’s come since the surgery that removed much of the tumor that had wrapped around his brain stem.
The last time they’d seen John Valenciano was Feb. 27, Mathias’ birthday. February is an event-filled month for the Valencianos, events altered completely by John’s illness and the virus that now separates the Green River family. Sophia’s birthday is the 21st. John and Kendall’s wedding anniversary is the 28th. John had his surgery on Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of one of the couple’s first dates.
When John was first admitted to the hospital at the University of Utah in January, the coronavirus was background noise, something that was out there but not here. Now that noise has grown to a roar and has blocked sick father from adoring children. The facility in which John is recovering is just south of Salt Lake City. It doesn’t allow visitors anymore, for fear that they’ll bring with them the virus. Travel restrictions add another roadblock.
There’s the persistent concern that the virus could somehow find its way into the facility, into John. So Kendall doesn’t leave. She stays in the room with him, on a small cot next to his bed. Save for a couple of brief trips home to Green River recently, she’s always there. If she left and brought the virus back in, “it would be my fault.” So she doesn’t leave.
Back in January, John first told Kendall about the tingling in his left leg and the pain in his head after a dinner with John’s parents. The couple went to sleep. John woke early and then called his wife. The tingling was now in his left arm and in his face. At an urgent care clinic, two tests were abnormal. At the hospital in Rock Springs, the doctors ordered an MRI and discovered the tumor.
John’s mother drove them to Salt Lake City for more advanced care. Kendall remembers John packing their bags, walking them down the stairs and loading up the car. When they got to the university hospital, the intensive care department was surprised. They didn’t have a lot of patients walk through their doors upright.
A surgeon did a biopsy of John’s tumor, but the diagnosis was all but assured. After the biopsy, John took a turn for the worse. He threw up, and the ICU staff stuck a tube down his throat to help him breathe. Tubes went in, were taken out, were snaked in again.
This was January. The coronavirus was a far-off disease. There were no known patients in the United States. “COVID-19” and “flattening the curve” hadn’t entered into the public lexicon. Kendall was focused exclusively on John.
The ICU had a rule, she said, that there couldn’t be young visitors. But John was not doing well; he couldn’t stay awake. One surgeon told the family that surgery likely wasn’t an option because the tumor was so intertwined with the brain stem. Given the grave circumstances, the hospital made an exception and let Mathias and Sophia visit.
“We covered up John with a sheet so they couldn’t see the tubes, we put a cap on his head so they couldn’t see the hole,” Kendall said. “That made it feel not so serious for them. They came in, and they got the best evaluation out of their dad that day that anybody had. They got him to wiggle his nose and give them a thumbs up and wiggle his toes.”
Shortly after, the surgeons changed their mind. They thought they could get at the mass and “get a good outcome for John.” After some pre-op rehab, they scheduled the surgery for the end of February. But that would’ve put it up against Sophia and Mathias’ birthdays, against Kendall and John’s anniversary.
“I told the doctors that week is not doable because if something happens, I don’t want that sitting over anyone’s heads,” she said.
So they settled on Feb. 14. Wyoming was still about a month away from confirming its first coronavirus case.
The surgery lasted five hours. The surgeon came out with good news: no complications, 95 percent of the tumor was gone, no extra bleeding. But John had a long road of recovery ahead of him, and the family started looking for rehab facilities. He could communicate — one blink for no, two for yes — but not much else. On Feb. 27, the children came and visited for the last time.
As the weeks have dragged on, Kendall has felt torn and trapped. Her husband couldn’t be alone — he couldn’t use the call button to summon a nurse, he couldn’t perform basic functions. She’s convinced his recovery is improved by her presence. But her two children are young, living with Kendall’s sister in a time of national crisis.
“That’s the hardest thing,” she said. “I want to be a good wife, but I have to be a mom for my kids as well.”
In early March, she managed to have someone else stay with John while she made the roughly three-hour trek home to surprise her daughter at a school assembly. She was able to stay in Green River for two weeks. She went back for Easter, too — she spent two days in the family’s house, so she didn’t violate Gov. Mark Gordon’s order that people traveling to and from Wyoming quarantine. She’s tried to keep John in touch with the kids via video calls.
“But you can tell every time we FaceTime the kids, how much he misses him,” she said. “This stupid virus, it’s hell.”
“After FaceTiming this week, our son, he just — ‘Mom, when are you coming home again, when are you bringing Daddy home, when are you coming home?”
The family is Mormon, and whenever Mathias prays, he asks that his father be made stronger and that the virus go away “so we can see Daddy.”
The couple still sings to their kids, as they did before they were separated. They recite little lullabies, made the family’s own with new lyrics. “Mom and Dad love you, now it’s time to rest your head, lay your head down and have good dreams.” Sophia sits with Mathias while Kendall sings over the phone, big sister holding little brother and stroking his cheek like Mom would.
“I love my husband dearly and want to be able to take care of him,” Kendall said. But she is both wife and mother, a caregiver to husband and children, competing roles that cannot function together in the era of COVID-19. “It’s taxing. When does my life get to back to normal? When do I get to go back to a normal life?”
But there’s hope for a reunion soon, whether it be because the virus’ threat has subsided or because John has fought his way home. His recovery is moving along quickly, Kendall said. He’s sat up by himself and stood with the help of balance beams. His feeding tube is out, and he’s progressing well on what he can eat.
Kendall said her husband has a drive and a determination to get out of the hospital and to get home. It’s unclear how much John will recover, if he’ll be able to go back to coaching soccer or heading in to work first thing in the morning. The future is still uncertain, but he’s marching into it all the same.
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