Rachel Hughes answered a phone call Wednesday from her husband’s intensive care doctors.
The Rev. Terrance Hughes – co-pastor at New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha Omega Ministries Disciples of Christ in Denver – is critically ill with COVID-19-related lung and kidney damage. He is nearing his fourth week at the VA medical center in Aurora and his third week breathing through a ventilator, unconscious.
Rachel, too, is infected with the new coronavirus that so far has hospitalized 239 people and killed at least 31 in Colorado. She is sick, though not critically like her husband, and quarantined alone at home in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood.
She does not know how they caught the virus. Maybe in New York City where they took their grandson in mid-February to celebrate his 13th birthday with pizza and doughnuts, as he had asked, in Times Square. Maybe on the plane, seated behind a man who kept coughing. Or ringing doorbells and shaking hands while Big T, as his friends call him, gathered signatures to petition onto the ballot for Colorado House District 7. Or any of countless other ways this monster of a microorganism can ambush you.
What Rachel did know when her phone rang Wednesday was that it had been two days since she had heard about Big T’s condition, 11 since they were able to speak by phone before he was put on the ventilator, and 16 since the Air Force veteran was admitted to the VA and the pandemic separated them from each other.
It seems like forever since she could hold his hand, she says. It all seems like forever.
The physicians, nurses and a psychologist from the intensive care unit introduced themselves on speaker phone.
“So, Mrs. Hughes… I think if it’s ok, I’ll just share with you that we’re, we remain pretty worried about your husband,” the palliative care doctor can be heard saying in a conversation Rachel recorded and shared with me.
The team explained that Big T’s kidneys, also attacked by the virus, weren’t responding to dialysis. VA specialists had consulted colleagues who have treated people with COVID-19-related kidney disease only to learn, one of the doctors told Rachel, that “those patients haven’t done well, and a lot of them have died, and that worries me.”
“Are you all by yourself right now, Mrs. Hughes?,” they asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Yeah, so sorry. I think it’s hard, hard to get a call like this, you know, where people are sounding so concerned,” they said. “[It’s] really hard when those you love the most are right there. But when you are by yourself, I think it must be extra scary.”
“Yes, it is.”
Rachel supervises the VA hospital’s team of telephone operators. You can hear in the medical team’s voices their powerlessness fighting her husband’s infections. You can sense their frustrations that she could not be there with him, that they could not hug her or hand her a Kleenex as they told her he’s not recovering. You can hear them stammering, reluctant to come right out and say it.
“Rachel, I’m so worried that if his heart stops because this virus has gotten so bad taking over his body and his heart, I’m worried that if he dies and his heart stops, that us doing CPR isn’t going to bring him back,” the palliative care doc said, finally able to push out the words.
Rachel did not hesitate:
“I would like for you to try it.”
Anyone acquainted with Rachel and Terrance Hughes knows they don’t give up on people, let alone each other.
I met Big T in 2014 while he sat for months in the civil trial the family of Marvin Booker, a homeless street preacher killed by deputies in Denver’s jail, won against the city. We came to know each other better shortly after when he went on hunger strike demanding the city release video of deputies killing Michael Marshall, a mentally ill inmate, also in the city’s jail. He ended his strike after The Independent sued Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration, forcing it to make the footage public.
The pastor is an unflinching champion of the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable. He is a piercing question-asker, a close listener and a devoted, insightful friend. He lights up whenever near or even talking about Rachel, whom he met 21 years ago and married on the anniversary of their first date two years later. Though he rarely touts his own work, he’s always lifting up hers as an evangelist, a volunteer in Denver’s underserved communities, a grandma, mom and wife.
“Don’t worry, babe. You know I’ve got metahuman powers and I’m going to come through this,” Rachel says he assured her from the hospital a few weeks ago. She says she believes him because he is a man of his word.
“I have been diagnosed with the Covid19 virus,” Big T wrote in a March 13 statement from his hospital bed before going into sedation. “Making this announcement was not easy. I wanted to both be honest with those who have come into contact with me and also keep family safe and protected.”
He wrote of his gratitude for his own health care and his fears that “this virus is going to hit some neighborhoods and neighbors worse than others and the idea of health equity is going to be tested in the coming weeks.”
Rachel has been recording her phone calls with doctors partly so she may share them with her family without forgetting the details. She is, after all, suffering from intense headaches, body aches and coughing from a virus she says she can feel “burning and literally moving through my body like a worm.”
She also is recording the conversations so Big T will know what happened to him “when he wakes up.” Dying alone, she tells me, is not an option.
Rachel heard full well the grim prognosis doctors shared on Wednesday’s phone call. But she also hears other callings, especially those of the God to whom she and her husband pray, side by side, each morning.
“We’ve had words of prophecy. Some of those prophecies haven’t came so far, so I have to stand on faith,” she says, coughing.
The Hughes’s family, their church, Fresh Wind International church, Solomon Temple and Denver’s community of pastors and civil rights leaders have rallied around the couple, leaving food at their doorstep, paying their rent and organizing community prayers for Big T via Facebook Live and conference calls.
In one of those prayers Thursday, Timothy Tyler, pastor of Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church in Denver, asked God to “build a hedge around (their) household” and give Rachel “comfort and give her peace at a time when comfort and peace may not be so readily available.”
“We’re all just kind of hoping for a miracle,” adds Reginald C. Holmes, Big T’s co-pastor at New Covenant/Alpha Omega and a close family friend. “If anybody fights, he’ll fight. He’ll fight it to the end.”
As Holmes sees it, the quarantines required for people with COVID-19 present a particular kind of anguish he has never seen in three decades of ministering.
“The whole isolation of it all is incredibly sad,” he says. “Rachel has to deal with this alone, and he has to deal with this alone. And that’s probably the most troubling part of this.
“How do we deal with a grief process that doesn’t allow people passing nor their loved ones to be together and share that transition?”
Rachel is coping the best way she knows how. She has ended Big T’s state House campaign and is asking VA nurses to hold an iPad to his face or a cell phone to his ear each day “to say I love him, the whole family loves him, and not to worry because I’m ok, and that everybody is praying for him, and to just speak the word of God to him, speak blessings over him and speak some life into my sweetie.”
The hospital psychologist ended the phone call Wednesday assuring Rachel that the medical team will not give up on him.
“We are absolutely going to hold the hope with you for Big T,” she told her. “We will hold that hope and we will care for him with all the things that we have. Especially when you can’t be here yourself, we will be treating him with extra tenderness.”
“Ok,” Rachel said softly.
She hung up the phone, sat on her bed, and then, she said, she panicked and prayed and wept.
“I just cried and cried and cried.”
She cried for her sweetie and for herself. She cried for all the others whose hands most need holding just when they can’t be held.