Heidi Stevens: Blind author and her husband are in a difficult spot: He has coronavirus, and she might. ‘It’s a hell of a thing’

Tribune Content Agency

In a way, Beth Finke hopes she has COVID-19.

Her husband, Michael Knezovich, has been hospitalized with the virus since March 26. He’s been fever-free for more than 24 hours now and is eligible to be sent home, but the situation is complicated.

Finke, 61, has Type 1 diabetes. She was diagnosed at age 7, and it caused her to go blind at 26. She first started seeing spots while she and Knezovich were on their honeymoon in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1984.

If Knezovich feels well enough to come home but is still contagious, Finke could contract the virus from him and fall gravely ill, given her age and underlying condition. On the other hand, she may already have the virus and simply be asymptomatic.

“I finally called my endocrinologist at UIC and asked him, ‘What do you think about Mike coming home?’” Finke said Wednesday. “He was really quiet on the phone. Then he said the only way he could feel comfortable with Mike coming home and me being here is if I got tested and I tested positive.”

Finke laughed, recounting the call.

“He said, ‘That would be fabulous,’” she recalled. “He said, ‘You would be one of the lucky ones that has it, but doesn’t have symptoms.’ And, boy, did I have to get my head around that. I thought, ‘This whole world is upside down.’”

The decisions facing Finke and Knezovich, and the circumstances leading up to them, illustrate the confounding and fearsome nature of this disease, in which the stakes are perilously high and the knowledge and guidance are changing by the day.

I wrote about Finke last summer. She’s a prolific author and essayist who teaches memoir-writing classes to Chicago senior citizens. We’ve stayed in touch since that column published, and she emailed me Tuesday night to let me know her husband was hospitalized and she may be sick as well.

On Wednesday, I talked to them both by phone.

“It’s like nothing I’ve felt before,” Finke said. “I usually get through rough situations by thinking back about something that’s happened before. I lost my sight and we worked through that and I learned new things. But this one — it’s the great unknowns. You can’t project ahead.”

Knezovich, director of communications for the Passive House Institute, started to feel bad on March 17, shortly after finishing up a conference call. He quickly developed a fever and severe chills. His doctor instructed him to stay home, but proceed as though he had contracted the coronavirus.

“Beth set up shop in the guest room,” Knezovich said. “It’s a 1,300 square foot apartment, but we stayed out of each other’s way. I was towing a Clorox bottle with a roll of paper towels everywhere I went. And we just kind of existed that way.”

Knezovich said his doctor put in an order for him to be tested for COVID-19, but the hospital rejected it because he didn’t have a cough. A few days later, on March 21, he said he received a call from a nurse, and this time he mentioned his atrial fibrillation. That got him green-lighted for a test, which he received at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s drive-thru site.

“You feel like a sword swallower,” he said, describing the notoriously deep test swab.

He returned home, where he and Finke waited for the results.

On March 25, he blacked out trying to walk to the kitchen for a banana.

“That was a bad day to be blind,” Finke told me. “Every day’s a bad day to be blind, but that day was the worst ever. I heard this crash in the hallway and I said, ‘Mike, are you all right?’ No answer. ‘Mike, did you fall? Mike?’ Finally he kind of came to and he moaned, ‘I’m all right.’ But I couldn’t go and touch him. I couldn’t help him up. That was awful.”

At that point, Knezovich’s doctor instructed him to go to the emergency room at Northwestern, which he did by cab. At the hospital, he learned his test was positive.

“It’s very isolating,” he said. “Of course, everyone here is terrific, but it’s a hell of a thing.”

The nurses call or text him, mostly, rather than check on him in person, which limits their contact with the virus and saves them having to get in and out of the extensive protective gear over and over. The meals arrive in styrofoam boxes, rather than on a tray.

He can’t have visitors, of course. And he finds himself worrying about the nurses’ mental and physical health. He found out one is dating a White Sox fan, which warmed his heart. (He’s a die-hard fan.)

He worries about Finke. They’ve spent days apart before; he travels with friends here and there. But they can plan ahead for those times — stock the house with groceries, have friends on-call.

Finke uses a glucose monitor that keeps track of her blood sugar so she doesn’t have to stick her finger throughout the day. Knezovich is in charge of changing the sensor.

“There are a bunch of things like that in our lives that are logistically different,” he said.

Finke isn’t alone. She has her Seeing Eye dog, Luna, who she walks three times a day. Friends throughout the city have arranged a meal train, so that someone picks up dinner for her each night from a local restaurant and delivers it to the doorman at her Printer’s Row apartment building. She puts on a mask and grabs the food from the lobby.

On Tuesday, she was approved for a COVID-19 test after several attempts. A longtime friend who’s a doctor told Finke to call Rush University Medical Center, where a nurse listed a strict set of criteria Finke needed to meet in order to get a test.

She hasn’t experienced a fever, chills or shortness of breath, but because Finke is in her 60s, lives with someone who tested positive, has a chronic illness and had open-heart surgery six years ago, the nurse told her, she could come in.

Finke put on a mask, grabbed Luna and called a cab. The test took all of five minutes. She may get results by Friday.

Knezovich, meanwhile, waits in limbo. He may be sent to one of the hotel rooms Chicago has set aside for people who are mildly ill with COVID-19 or awaiting test results. As of late Wednesday morning, he didn’t know which hotel or how he would get there.

“The irony is they probably would’ve released me already if I lived alone,” he said. “But they don’t want to send me home to Beth. I understand. Some of it makes sense, some of it doesn’t. It’s got this invisible quality to it. Like, I was home sick for six or seven days. I think the damage might be done. But it might not be.”

Knezovich said it’s frustrating to watch the news from his hospital bed and hear President Donald Trump deny that the United States lacks sufficient tests.

“Setting aside partisanship,” he said, “That’s really insulting. It’s insulting to be lying here and hearing that. It’s insulting to me, but also to all the people working here so hard and having to figure out who to give tests to and who not to, because they don’t have enough of them.”

Finke is crossing her fingers that her test comes back positive and she can be reunited with her husband.

“It’s surreal,” she said. “It’s hard to think about for very long, so I think about it for a little while and then I stand up and make myself do something. When Mike is sick or I’m sick, we’re together when the doctor comes in and the social worker comes in.”

For now, they keep each other updated by phone. Knezovich laughed the last time they talked, Finke said. It had been several days since she heard him do that. It gave her hope that life would feel normal again soon.

“You feel powerless,” she said. “I’m not powerless. We could just say, ‘screw it’ and he could come home. But we want to honor what keeps us safe and keeps as many people out there as possible safe, if we can help it.”

A valid, valiant objective, and a guiding principle for this tumultuous time.


(Contact Heidi Stevens at hstevens@tribune.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)


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