It was a Christmas present that didn't turn out so well.
Retirees and Shafter residents Jerry and Donna Ezell bought tickets to see Lionel Richie in Las Vegas as their gifts to each other, having no idea the concert would be held just as the coronavirus was taking hold in the United States.
When they went to the March 11 concert, the couple took some precautions — using hand sanitizer and diligently washing their hands — but it was well before masks and gloves became a norm. People were crowded together and dancing in the aisles, just like a typical concert.
Jerry began feeling unwell the next day, and after returning home, they were diagnosed with the virus, becoming among the first diagnosed in the county, which has recorded close to 1,500 cases of the virus as of Saturday and two dozen deaths. Their daughter Amy, 47, who had come to stay with them while recuperating from surgery, also got the virus. While Amy's illness was moderate, both Jerry and Donna were hospitalized, and at certain points, wondered if they'd survive.
"I don’t think there’s any three people more adamant about protecting yourself than we three," said Jerry, who is 74 and retired from a career with Pacific Gas and Electric and West and later the Shafter Wasco Irrigation District. "Donna and I could've died. The doctors said we were on a downward slope and they considered putting us on a ventilator."
It's been nearly nine weeks since Jerry became sick and he says he's feeling about 80 percent his normal self, but it's been a long road. The three finally tested negative for the virus last week.
They are trying to regain strength by walking around the backyard pool. Jerry and Amy do up to 50 laps, which is more than a mile, most days. And they hope others will take the virus as seriously as they do.
"The biggest thing is we don't want anyone else to get it, we want people to take it seriously and, until they do, I don’t think we’ll be out of this," Jerry said.
He was the first to develop symptoms, starting with a headache and later developing into what felt like a cold.
He saw his doctor on March 17, who told him to come back the next week if he wasn't feeling better. On that next visit on March 23, his doctor sent him to Kern Medical.
"I guess I was a lot sicker than I realized," said Jerry, a Bakersfield native who endured a tough battle with valley fever in his 20s.
As Donna waited at the hospital to hear about her husband's condition, she also began to feel poorly.
“I went home and went to bed and just got worse,” the 72-year-old said. “I kept saying, ‘I’ll be OK.’”
But she wasn't.
A few days later, the day Jerry was discharged from KMC, Donna was taken by ambulance to Bakersfield Heart Hospital.
After one day at home, Jerry also was admitted to the Heart Hospital.
They each spent six days there.
"I’ve had pneumonia probably 20 times in my life and this didn’t feel like pneumonia at all. I didn’t think I was having a hard time breathing but apparently I was," Donna said.
As this was happening, Amy, a sales manager for Oakley, the sunglasses company, was at her parents' home, sick and unable to leave the house.
"You don’t know how it’s going to end for you. That was one of the scariest things for me," said Amy, who resides in Los Angeles but is still staying with her parents in their Shafter home. "I’m home by myself, both my parents are in the hospital. I don’t know if it's going to get worse. That wasn’t easy for me."
Yet she took care of her parents after they returned home, heating up meals and tending to their needs. As her mother put it, "she was the only one of us who could move."
"If Donna and I would’ve been here alone it would’ve been way different," Jerry said.
"I think you would’ve found bodies," added Donna.
Though they were some of the first in Kern County to be treated for the virus, the Ezells were confined to their home for so long they didn't realize how much the outside world had changed until they ventured out to Target last weekend and were greeted by employees disinfecting carts, lines to get in the store and the social distancing inside.
"If I had a hazmat suit, I wouldn’ve worn it," said Amy. "We had our masks on and our gloves on."
She recalls being shocked when she saw a woman in the children's clothing section coughing into her hand and then touching the clothes. The woman was wearing a mask, Amy said, but it was down around her neck.
"I get on my soapbox daily about this," Amy said. "This is a humanitarian issue and people are taking it in a totally different direction."
Even though they've had the virus, the family is taking the same precautions as if they didn't because experts don't know yet if survivors can become reinfected or for how long immunity might last.
"I’m afraid we’re not going to get through this if people don’t change their attitude," Jerry said. "I understand a desire to want to go back to work and make a living. I’m very sympathetic to that, but they also need to consider the impacts of this thing. What’s going to stop it?"
Jerry and Donna said they're indebted to the doctors and nurses who cared for them. Donna recalled the effort it took for the medical staff to get geared up in personal protective equipment before coming into her room. She said they seemed to be going through a lot of protective equipment every time they went in and out of her room, and initially they didn't have face shields.
"It was amazing how concerned they were for us," she said.
Amy said that over the course of their illnesses, the same group of firefighters and paramedics who twice responded to her home "were extremely kind and helpful," offering to bring groceries if she needed it, since she was housebound by herself. Neighbors and family members also helped out and kept tabs on the trio through their ordeal.
"They went above and beyond, everyone really did," Amy said.
After spending so much time together, the family said they each had their moments "hitting the wall" with being stuck at home, but overall they feel lucky to have pulled through.
Jerry and Donna, who have three children and two grandchildren, are expecting a third grandchild in the coming months and will celebrate 50 years of marriage this September. But they're unsure how those celebrations will look, knowing life will be different for a while to come.
"I’m going to get a new baby and I want to hold that new baby," Donna said.
As for their original plans to go to Kauai for their anniversary, Donna said that type of travel is out of the question for now.
"We'll probably just celebrate in the backyard," Donna said.
"And stand 6 feet apart," Jerry added.