LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Army Sgt. Michael Keene did four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He laid communication cables and helped escort high-ranking officials in a war zone for almost four years.
But after 18 days in an intensive care unit, he died of the novel coronavirus. The 39-year-old veteran left behind a wife and two young children, including a newborn son he never got to meet.
Michael Keene’s battle with COVID-19 took everyone by surprise. Its escalation from a scratchy throat to intubation in a young man with no preexisting conditions was even harder for his wife, Nicole, to cope with.
It started out casually.
Michael, who lived in Lexington, woke up Sunday morning, Oct. 4, with a sore throat. He felt bad enough by the end of the day that he called out from his service tech job at Audi of Lexington. His boss told him to get a coronavirus test.
His 19-month-old daughter, Adalynn, had an ear infection. Best be safe around her.
So Michael and his wife drove to Richmond to get rapid tests on Oct. 6. Within an hour, they knew: She was negative. He was positive.
“We were pregnant,” said Nicole, wiping away a tear from her face and smiling small. “So, we had a little extra few pounds. But he had no problems. He did not have diabetes. He did not have hypertension … nothing at all. He (was) very healthy, very strong.”
So, they weren’t worried at first.
They went back home to quarantine.
Then came a fever —104.5. And the fatigue.
Nicole, a respiratory therapist, gave him Tylenol, Motrin, ice packs, cold showers.
He finally went to the Lexington VA Medical Center with a temperature of 101, where staff told him to return if it reached 108.
“That’s when I lost my mind,” Nicole said.
Isolation, hope and a turn for the worst
He went back home — back to the cycle of over-the-counter medication and chilly showers.
The next night, his fever was back at 104. This time, on day four of his illness, Nicole took him to the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital. Nicole ticked the boxes in her head. UK has ECMO life support. UK is a Level I trauma center.
“If anything goes wrong,” she remembered thinking, “this is the hospital that has everything. So this is where he has to be.”
For seven hours, UK medical staff observed Michael. They did an X-ray and blood work. They found pneumonia. They sent him home briefly, telling him to come back if he wasn’t better within 24 hours.
He wasn’t. He stretched out on his belly at home, trying to coax oxygen to his lungs.
On Oct. 10, he was back at UK and in the ICU, this time to stay. Over the next week, he’d go on a ventilator.
Nicole, unable to be in the room with him, worried his post-traumatic stress disorder was flaring as he lay in bed, unable to journal his way to calm, often unable to speak when she set up video calls to his room. He was surrounded by tubes.
“You can’t just leave someone isolated in a room for three weeks with PTSD,” Nicole told staff. Healing was part emotional.
Michael’s battle had one moment of hope. On Oct. 26, medical staff were able to pull his breathing tube.
His doctor called Nicole while she sat in a waiting room for an ultrasound for their son. He’d done well with a spontaneous breathing trial program, and this was a good step toward independence again.
“I was bawling my eyes out in the waiting room,” Nicole said. “I was very excited. (I) felt that, ‘Oh my God, we finally got over the worst part.’ I was so relieved because that was the scariest part, was him being on the ventilator.”
She went home after the ultrasound. Sitting on the couch after dinner, she noticed her baby wasn’t kicking. He hadn’t been active that day — something was wrong.
Baptist triage told her to come in so they could check her. Around 9:30 p.m., she was there with a monitor on her belly. Staff said they couldn’t find a heartbeat. A nurse yelled down the hallway for help. I need an IV!
Then, her doctor was looking in her eyes and saying he had to deliver the baby immediately.
The rest was a blur: signing papers an anesthesiologist gave her, a spotlight on her head, the spinal epidural needle pushing into her back, her stomach cut open. She remembers not hearing her baby cry before she crashed from a ketamine dose meant to help her relax. She woke in a panic, no clue what was happening.
Baby Michael Wesson Keene — “Wesson” for the guns his dad liked, “Michael” after his daddy — was born unresponsive at 10:10 p.m., her mom told her. Resuscitated for 15 minutes, he finally came to life and was put on a breathing machine. A transport team was already on the way to take him to UK Chandler, where his dad was.
Nicole met her son in the hallway as she was wheeled to a recovery room, able to touch only his right hand as he sprawled in an incubator, naked except for a diaper. He slept, surrounded by tubes, and was silent. Not due until Dec. 4, he weighed 6 pounds and 1 ounce.
She was transferred to UK the next day, too. Still, Michael wasn’t able to meet the baby. His breathing tube was out, but he was confused. He didn’t know where he was.
“I never got to tell him that his son was born,” Nicole said.
The doctors thought if she told him, he might become too agitated.
Nicole doesn’t remember every detail of Oct. 28, the day Michael died. She knows they had a video call at noon. The nurse said he’d asked for Jello. It was a good sign — he hadn’t fed himself in weeks.
It was hard to hear him through the monitor, but she understood the small sentence he repeated 10 times: “I love you.”
Mere hours later, she got a call in her hospital room. Michael’s oxygen mask had come off and he’d been intubated again. They’d been doing CPR for 45 minutes. She fell onto her knees and convinced the staff to wheel her to her husband’s room. She wore a protective gown, mask and gloves.
There, while staff continued unsuccessful CPR, she held Michael’s hand, their first physical contact in weeks.
Remembering a soldier and family man
Family and friends remember the man who joined the Army after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The one who talked to a recruiter weeks before he told his mother at a football game that he was enlisting. The man who served his country for 12 years, retiring in 2013.
Sgt. Bernie Clark, 47, an Army pal of Michael’s and the best man at his wedding, said what happened on 9/11 solidified the “big call” to serve in the military. The two were roommates for years and united in a love of cars.
He remembers Michael’s obsession with cars and how sometimes he would invest more money than a car was worth before getting bored and selling it for half the price.
Chris Dowling, 36, remembers Michael giving away the candy he got in care packages to the Iraqi children who hung out at the gates of Camp Victory during their joint deployment. How Michael wanted those kids to see a smiling face and not a scary soldier.
Lynn, Michael’s mother, remembers how he called from the Middle East just to listen to the exhaust of his blue GMC Sonoma. How he sent car parts to her house: lift kits and tires and rims. How his emails were mostly, “Did you get the car part for me in the mail?”
They also remember the man the one who met Nicole on Bumble, a dating app, in San Antonio, Texas, four years ago. The father with two children. The man who believed in family and country.
Nicole didn’t get to be Michael’s “Army wife,” but she saw its impact on him.
Now they are everyday reminders of the man she lost.
Every piece of clothing he wore was either American made or from a veteran-owned store. He flew a big American flag outside their house. He drank his coffee from a coffee cup that said “Don’t Tread on Me” and another green one decorated with a fading American flag.
He wore a KIA, or killed in action, bracelet of a close friend in the special forces, killed in Mosul in 2005.
And to cope with his PTSD and the brain injury he got when he was thrown from a truck during an explosion, he journaled meticulously in a brown leather book that’s cover was inscribed with the U.S. Constitution.
Nicole sees his familiar handwriting now, the last words he wrote.
For Michael, it was lists — the guns he wanted to build, the house projects he wanted to finish, the places he wanted to go but never got to. Niagara Falls. Yellowstone. Giant Redwoods. Big Bend National Park.
In small letters, he also wrote name ideas for his son, still in the womb, and their meanings.
Raymond, counselor/protector. Walter, powerful or bright Army/warrior. Marcus means harvest. Remington. Wesson. Thorsson means thunder.
Midway through the diary, stuck to the pages with three strips of Scotch tape, are his wedding vows to Nicole.
I vow to you myself, all of me. All of my faults and qualities. All of my hopes, dreams, fears and frustrations. From this day to my last, all of my imperfect self is yours. We will walk in the light and in the dark but we will walk together.
You are my heart, my soul, my miracle.
What Nicole does in the future depends on what challenges her son, still hospitalized, faces. There are signs of brain damage, but how much isn’t clear.
He keeps fighting, though.
Nicole got to hold him the first time Saturday, nearly two weeks after he was born. She felt his “soft and fuzzy” brown hair. He still weighs just 6 pounds.
A GoFundMe campaign for her family has raised more than $40,000 to help with expenses,
Nicole can’t have a conversation with 19-month-old Adalynn about her father’s death yet. She knows Daddy’s gone. She walks around the house calling for him, looking in every room. Nicole stuck pictures of Michael and Adalynn around the house at the toddler’s eye level so she could peel them off and give her daddy kisses.
Nicole prays, little conversations with God in the shower, mostly in her head. She tells herself there’s a reason she’s going through this. That God has a plan.
“We never, ever thought for a minute that he would have ended up in the hospital or on a ventilator or passing,” Nicole said. “It’s unbelievable. Statistically, he had everything in his favor to survive. And it just doesn’t make any sense.”
Sgt. Michael Keene fancied moving to South Carolina, and now he’ll get to. He’ll be laid to rest Nov. 16 at Fort Jackson National Cemetery in Columbia, near where he completed his mechanic training.
There, a 21-gun salute, a folded flag and taps will usher him home.
Follow Sarah Ladd on Twitter at @ladd_sarah.