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Mayfield Woman Urges People To Consider Vaccinations After 34 Year-Old Husband's COVID-19 Battle

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Candace Watkins
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Provided
Dustin and Candace Watkins.

For more than a month, Candace Watkins’ husband was on the other side of a glass barrier, life support tubes protruding from his body and a tracheostomy tube down his windpipe.

Just weeks before, the family from Graves County had been in the midst of a busy summer and got back from a week of camping outdoors.

But in mid-July, 34-year-old Dustin Watkins started to feel under the weather.

“He's not one to really lay in bed, and he laid in bed all day,” Candace Watkins said. “At the time, we weren't really thinking COVID or anything like that.”

Watkins said her husband has always been generally healthy. They both went into work the following Monday, but she said he felt exhausted and decided to get a rapid test for COVID-19.

It came back positive almost immediately.

They quickly isolated themselves. Watkins said her husband would move from the bed to the couch, often falling asleep. He developed a bad cough, and she became nervous.

“I would ask him, ‘Can you breathe?’ And he kept telling me, ‘Yes.’ And so I was thinking as long as he can breathe, like we're okay,” Watkins said.

Using an oximeter to measure the amount of oxygen in her husband’s blood, Watkins saw it was far below the normal level. He appeared to forget things, repeating the same questions to her as she took him to the emergency room.

She and Dustin’s sister got to see him in full protective gear at the ICU at Mercy Health-Lourdes Hospital in Paducah.

“They told us that nobody can come up on that floor, the ICU where they have the COVID patients and stuff like that typically, unless it's like, end-of-life scenario, and none of that was going through my head at the time,” Watkins said.

He was eventually life-flighted to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where Watkins soon began her vigil on the other side of the glass barrier from his hospital bed.

About three weeks after he arrived at Vanderbilt, the hospital announced all of its adult hospital beds and emergency department beds were full because of a surge of serious coronavirus cases across the region.

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Candace Watkins
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Provided
Candace Watkins at Vanderbilt University Medical Center on Dustin's birthday.

“A Literal Nightmare”

Every morning Candace Watkins would check reports to see how much oxygen was in her husband’s blood and read comments left by doctors and nurses overseeing him.

She would call the hospital from her room at the Pinson Hospitality House in Nashville, asking questions and clarifications about his condition. Then, around 1 p.m. each day, she would drive to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s critical care tower and take the elevator to the eighth floor, where her husband was among several COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit.

For only two hours each afternoon, she was allowed to watch her husband through a sliding glass barrier. She says the experience gave her strength.

“It literally means everything to me,” Watkins said. “How I'm dealing with everything and pushing forward, I don't know if it would be the same without that.”

He was sedated and still tested positive for COVID-19 through those weeks, so Watkins couldn’t enter his room. Through an iPad set up in his room, she would talk to him about her day, and tell him about the love and support she and others had for him.

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Candace Watkins
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Provided
Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

She kept journals during her visits, writing down details about his condition, asking hospital staff questions about procedures and looking up medical terms that had been foreign to her until recently.

In the early morning, Watkins would update friends, family and others through Facebook posts about Dustin. Some days were calm; other days his vitals were in turmoil. His arms were restrained so he wouldn’t accidentally dislodge his tubes and sedatives severely hampered his ability to communicate when he was awake.

“COVID is a literal nightmare,” Watkins wrote in a Facebook post on Aug. 6. “Can you imagine not being able to take a breath, feeling utter panic, being so disoriented you don't know where you are or what's happening to you, having to be restrained because if you pull the wrong tube out you could die, but again not being in a position that you are aware of that?”

Watkins said she chronicled her journey on Facebook to get others to pray for her husband.

Her Facebook posts detailed how the ECMO life support machine worked to support his failing lungs, how no sound would come out when he tried to speak to her with the tracheostomy tube and how a man near his room was able to see his family after over 40 days in the hospital.

Watkins said she found support from close friends, colleagues and her husband’s extended family.

“I know he is so loved and he is so cared for, but just we're so blessed in the sense that there's so many people that truly care and that truly want to help,” Watkins said. “I'm very thankful for that, because it really makes a difference.”

Dustin spent his birthday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center on Aug. 12 and Watkins read well-wishes to him from outside the room. Some nights she would video into her husband’s room and play music like Tyler Childers, one of his favorites. She said her weeks behind the glass wall and video screen were always uncertain.

“They constantly are telling me that anything can change at any time,” Watkins said. “He can heal. He can get better. But in that same sentence they say, ‘I can also be calling you at any moment for the worse.’”

A Slow Recovery

Watkins said she and her husband didn’t get vaccinated initially because they were concerned about the rapid development of the vaccines.

But she recently decided to get her first dose, urging others to take the pandemic seriously and talk to doctors about considering the vaccine.

“Unless you're so close to the situation, unless you're living through it, I just think it can be hard to understand how serious it is,” Watkins said. “For me to sit there and watch [him] and know there's literally nothing that I can do is just such an awful feeling. It's one of the worst feelings that I can imagine.”

Watkins said she isn’t sure how they and other family members got the virus. Both of Dustin’s parents contracted it. His mother, Connie, passed away from the coronavirus at Mercy-Health Lourdes Hospital earlier this month.

“When she went into the hospital, he was already in the hospital. He had no idea she went to the hospital,” Watkins said.

Watkins said she hasn’t been able to process her mother-in-law’s death because of how much time she spent by her husband’s side.

But she says she’s thankful to be alive and for the medical staff, family and employer that allowed her to look after her husband in Nashville.

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Candace and Dustin at their wedding last year, with Kaidyn, Caleb and Bentlee.

Recently, Dustin Watkins has made significant progress. His vitals have improved, he tested negative for the virus and was taken off of his ECMO machine. That meant Candace and Dustin’s sister could visit his room for the first time in almost a month.

“Initially he was resting when we walked in, so I rubbed on his hand gently to wake him. The second he realized we were here, he was so happy,” Watkins wrote in a recent Facebook update. “He immediately grabbed my hand to kiss it and wanted a hug.”

Yet Dustin’s recovery is still a long one, as his lungs are still being supported by a ventilator. Candace said in her Facebook post she missed the sound of his snoring, now that she’s finally next to him.

“I pray so hard that he continues on this road of healing. I have faith that God will bring us through this. I thank every single person that continues to pray for him,” Watkins wrote.

Financial support and donations to the Watkins family can be made at SupportDustinWatkins.com

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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