Dorothy Strickland had not taken the coronavirus emergency lightly. She was social distancing. She was washing her hands obsessively. She was using hand sanitizer. She hadn’t traveled, she hadn’t been on a cruise. The most that counted as travel recently was a trip to Publix from the home in Flagler Beach she’s owned with her husband Carey for 20 years. Not too long ago her friend Suzie Johnston remembers sitting with her seaside, expressly at a distance.
“She was paranoid just like everybody else and practicing social distancing,” Johnston says, remembering their last day together two weeks ago. “She was not taking it lightly. She had already decided she wasn’t going back to the grocery store. Everything was going to be Instacart from then on. She was taking precautions. But the virus is the invisible monster.”
Late this afternoon, Dorothy Strickland, who had just turned 70–a vital, sun-drenched 70: “I’m 39, she was my really good friend being 70, so she could hang with a 39-year-old,” says Johnston–died of Covid-19 in the intensive care unit at Halifax hospital in Daytona Beach. She is Flagler County’s first person to die of the disease, one of the 20 who have been confirmed to have it so far in the county, one of the 215,000 who have been infected across the country, and one of almost 5,000 to die of it so far.
“She’s the Best Person I have ever met and the hardest person I will ever say goodbye to,” her husband wrote on Facebook earlier today, when he was still hoping for a miracle. He had not been allowed to be with her all week. He was allowed to convey a Do Not Resuscitate order. But Not to see her. He was not allowed to say goodbye in person. He had to do so by video conference earlier today, his wife in a coma, and the person enabling the video conference still in the room at the hospital. It’s not clear how, or whether, Carey will be allowed to conduct a normal funeral. Nothing is normal anymore. Nor was Dorothy’s frighteningly quick spiral from healthy woman to feverish to bedridden, to coma.
And even that, after an ordeal of trying to get tested.
Dorothy’s story from the time she felt ill to the times she attempted to get tested will not seem surprising to those who have gone through the same ordeals, those who are still going through the same ordeals: Flagler County’s testing criteria continue to be limited by abjectly absurd criteria dictated by equally abject shortages in testing kits and contradictory hopes of “testing, testing, testing” (in the words of the local health department administrator) colliding with the reality of the world’s richest nation proving incapable of living up to a hope that second-world economies like South Korea mastered within weeks of the outbreak.
An eternity ago, on March 14, on March 15, Dorothy felt fine, said Johnston, a long-time friend and neighbor and a local Realtor who’d spoken to her repeatedly and has stayed in close contact with her husband many times a day since. Monday, March 16, she developed a little fever. Tuesday it spiked: 103. Her sister is a nurse. She was monitoring her, monitoring her lungs especially: Dorothy had asthma, one of those underlying conditions that would normally prick up the ears of Covid-19-alert caretakers, as it did her sister.
Dorothy sought to be tested for the coronavirus. “The health department told her she didn’t fit the criteria to get tested,” Johnston says. There was disbelief, frustration, the sort of anger others in similar situations have been talking about publicly or to reporters, not at all just in Flagler but across the country. After all, the Centers for Disease Control’s criteria were the criteria. This was not an arbitrary local caprice.
Thursday, March 19, Dorothy decided to go up to Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine, where she was tested. But there was to be a five-day wait for the results–another reality that many people seeking the test have had trouble comprehending, that one dictated not only by what was at the time a limited number of testing labs, but another kind of shortage: the chemicals needed to complete the test have been in very short supply (in the nation whose leaders have nevertheless been boasting of having the very best health care system in the world.)
“I talked to her afterwards, she was like, Suzy, they were all in hazmat suits,” Johnston said today.
With no results, Carey took his wife to Halifax hospital on Saturday, March 21. She was tested immediately. She got the result back fast. She had tested positive. Carey texted Johnston and told her. She was hospitalized. She had developed viral pneumonia, according to her husband. She was on a ventilator either Sunday or Monday, Johnston–whose memories were occluded by sobs–couldn’t remember exactly. But Dorothy was intubated then, and could no longer speak.
The virus being what it is, virulent, without a cure, the outcome may have been impossible to defeat whether she had been tested or not, wherever she had been treated: she did not lack for all the care available, though none of it can possibly be consolation for what seemed unimaginable two weeks ago. More relevantly with regards to testing–even in the absence of a cure–it would have been far more difficult to trace how many people she would have infected in the days of not knowing, having gone as many days as she did untested, but contagious.
Dorothy had been a hair stylist in Miami for decades, living there most of her life even after buying the house in Flagler Beach, where she moved permanently only a few years ago. She had her own business, Strictly Dorothy and Friends (“all about hair”). The name matched her character, naturally social, generous, ““would bend over backward to help anybody and was always a very good friend,” Johnston says, continuing her involvement in business events, charities and civic events in Flagler Beach, especially breast-cancer fundraising events: she was a survivor, her case caught early. After leaving Miami to live in Flagler Beach permanently, she continued to work out of her home. Johnston took a picture of her own daughter, Sydney, getting styled there recently. “She worked all the way up until she got the fever,” Johnston says, barely two weeks ago.
Johnston continued talking to her every day, then with the family. With Carey, who has endured the other side of a Covid-19 spiral–forced exile from the person he loves most, an experience thousands of family members are now experiencing across the country. “The moment she tested positive,” Johnston says, ” she had to leave and he has not been able to go back. Imagine it’s your spouse, you want to hold her hand throughout this whole thing and tell them 1,000 times how much you love them. You want to watch someone take their last breath on earth and their first breath in heaven. And you’re not able to do that.”
They were married 32 years. Dorothy was pronounced dead at 4:46 this afternoon.
Carey has tested positive for Covid-19.