With three deaths and 14 confirmed cases, Wheeler family devastated by COVID-19

With three deaths and 14 confirmed cases, Wheeler family devastated by COVID-19

COVID Clinic

A trailer is set up as a nurse break room at a drive in clinic for coronavirus testing in Arapahoe Friday, April 24.

RIVERTON (WNE) — Julia Antelope recovered from coronavirus, but it still won’t leave her alone.

Antelope’s aunt Gloria, uncle Larry, and cousin Dawn Wheeler were among the first in Fremont County to die after contracting the virus.

Fourteen members of her family have tested positive for the virus.

Gloria Wheeler caught coronavirus in early March, before social distancing mandates were in place. Antelope said the Wheelers often visited Fremont County’s first viral epicenter, the Showboat Retirement Center in Lander, to help their family member and facility resident Billy Wheeler through various legal matters.

The following week, the Wheeler couple ran errands with Larry Wheeler’s sister Alphia Antelope — Julia’s mother — on March 13. That was the day Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon declared emergency status due to the virus.

“They went and had breakfast and paid bills. They went to dinner, they went to the casino – and my mom said the whole time Gloria was coughing and coughing,” Julia Antelope told The Ranger.

In the following days, she said, “my mother started having severe nausea and vomiting.” But that was it.

Although suffering from Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, 75-year-old Alphia Antelope barely was symptomatic for COVID-19 coronavirus, and she never developed the tell-tale respiratory symptoms, her daughter said.

Alphia Antelope was hospitalized at SageWest Healthcare in Lander on March 19 but was released just one day later.

The hospital-administered COVID-19 test she received during those 24 hours came back positive on March 22.

Julia Antelope’s age-diverse home was placed on lockdown.

She, her mother Alphia, her husband Loren, brother Chauncey Friday, daughters Lauren and Morgan, and Morgan’s two children – “my grandbabies” – all were quarantined together in the home they share in Ethete.

The day her mother’s test returned positive, Julia Antelope came down with a dry cough and headache. These grew to earaches, body aches, extreme chills, fever, shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, plus loss of appetite, taste and smell. She had symptoms for about three weeks.

“I had a sore throat also, and then this: I could actually feel the virus in my throat,” she said. “And my daughter said the same thing. When we coughed, we could feel it just sitting there.

“I don’t even know how to explain it, but that’s how it felt.”

Glimpses of relief hid in common things: hot tea, a humidifier, cough syrup, and “most of all,” Antelope remembered, “rest helped.”

The whole household tested positive except for Antelope’s grandchildren – 6-year-old Lakota and 5-year-old Hunter Bell – who were not tested until the illness had passed. Hunter had mild fevers on and off throughout the quarantine.

During her brief stay in the hospital, Antelope remembered seeing her relatives in passing.

“When they rolled me from the emergency room to the room I was going to be in, I looked to my left, and they drove me by all four of them” — Larry, Gloria and Dawn Wheeler, and Dawn’s daughter Ashley Wheeler, who recovered later.

“It was so hard just going by them,” she said.

When Antelope recovered, the whole family got tested again, and this time the children were tested as well. All tested negative for the illness except for Antelope’s mother and her daughter, Morgan.

Now that she’s been cleared by two consecutive negative test results, Antelope, a licensed practicing nurse, will soon be able to return to her work at Wind River Cares.

She still struggles with fatigue, but said she knows how lucky she is.

“My mother’s brother Lawrence Wheeler, sister-in-law Gloria… and Dawn were not as fortunate.”

Antelope has diabetes, but says she is in “very good control” of it. “I also have a liver disease, but my lungs and heart are good.”

At 51, she is just three years younger than the late Dawn Wheeler, 54, who also had diabetes.

“Dawn was a very bad diabetic; she was noncompliant, also,” said Antelope.

78-year-old Lawrence (Larry) Wheeler and 73-year-old Gloria had health compromises as well. Larry had diabetes, and Gloria had what Antelope believed was hypertension.

“She took blood pressure medication,” she said.

The elderly couple ailed through early March in the home they shared with daughter Dawn, granddaughter Ashley, and grandson Marvin Felter.

Like Ashley Wheeler, Felter also recovered.

Gloria Wheeler was hospitalized on March 18, Larry on March 26.

They were intubated within days, then taken to Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, along with daughter Dawn.

“They were not improving. Their oxygen level was as much as they could get; they were showing no improvement at all,” said Antelope of Gloria and Larry Wheeler.

On April 13, the Wheelers’ doctor called upon the family to make a grave decision: take the pair off life support and wait – or perform tracheotomies on them and transfer them to a long-term, skilled nursing facility.

The second option had a catch: Neither patient could be transferred to a long-term facility until he or she tested negative for the virus.

That stipulation required even more time spent on ventilators, even more permanent damage from a lack of oxygen that even the best medical technology could not overcome.

“They were on ventilators for way too long, my aunt and uncle,” Antelope said.

Even so, it was hard for the family to come to an agreement. They discussed options for a week over a series of phone calls, then finally agreed to say goodbye.

“We all waited at my cousin’s house so we could be together, even though we were socially distant,” said Antelope.

“It’s so hard to do something like this, because you can’t hug each other.”

That was Monday, April 20.

Daughters, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, loved ones, all said goodbye through a remote video connection.

“They showed Grandpa Larry first, and everybody got to say goodbye to him, which was the hardest part. And they showed Gloria, and everybody said goodbye to Gloria.”

Gloria and Larry Wheeler’s life support was removed at 3 p.m., and both were placed on morphine drips. About two hours later, Gloria passed away.

Thirty-eight minutes after that, her husband Larry Wheeler died.

Julia Antelope will never forget learning the news.

“I called again at about 5:30 – and (was told) they were both gone.”

Antelope remembered she, her mom, and her daughter all were sitting on her car when it happened.

“I told them. Then I got off the car. I had to tell everybody that they were gone.”

Meanwhile, Dawn Wheeler faltered. The elderly couple’s daughter had been taken off her ventilator one week earlier, but hadn’t regained her speech.

“She was having the hardest time with talking… She would shake her head ‘yeah’ or ‘no.’ She wasn’t really talking,” Antelope said.

The family had just begun to mourn Gloria and Larry when Dawn Wheeler’s daughter, Ashley, started wailing.

“All of a sudden, she starts hollering in the truck. Everybody was like ‘go see if she’s OK,’” Antelope remembered.

Ashley had gathered more tragedy, having learned that Dawn Wheeler had just crashed: her vitals, her oxygen, her blood pressure.

Wyoming Medical Center staff stabilized Dawn, but it only lasted about five hours. By 11:30 she, too, had died.

From inside a truck in Ethete, Ashley felt the void, Antelope said.

“They were mother and daughter, but they were also best friends.”

“We’re just pretty much all in shock still,” she added. “My cousin Dawn, she was like my sister.”

In their shared home, the Wheelers had lived just down the road from the Antelope/Friday clan. Antelope’s mother Alphia usually was with her brother and her sister-in-law. As a family they lived, traveled, ate and coped.

Antelope remembered how Larry’s love of nearly any outdoor activity, and of his numerous descendants, melded with Gloria’s care-taking, church-going solidity.

“Dawn was so loving,” Antelope said of her cousin, recalling how Dawn Wheeler would paint and give her artwork, and her hugs, away to others.

Still in mourning for those she’s lost, Julia Antelope worries that her mother could catch the virus again.

“I’m still dealing with it every day. Trying to keep it out of this house, trying to keep her safe and just keep my family together. And I miss my other kids.”

Antelope has four daughters and a son. Though she lives with two of her daughters, she hasn’t seen her son since before the quarantine.

“I’ve seen my other two daughters from a distance,” she said.

For now the family stay in touch with each other, and as a nurse, Antelope monitors her recovering household. Though their sickness has abated, the full impact of having lost the Wheelers still hasn’t settled in.

“It’s hard. It’ll take a while,” said Antelope.

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