SAN ANGELO, TX — Five-year-old Brooke Wallace in San Angelo knows her daddy is very sick. On a sweltering afternoon, she sat under the shade of an oak tree beside her two younger sisters — Aubrey and Kate — swinging on a backyard play-set until it was time to call their father.
At about 5:15 p.m. that Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, Jessica Wallace gathered all three children together, and the four took a short walk to a relative’s house next door. She strolled hand-in-hand with Kate, who is one year old, while Aubrey, age 3, toddled ahead of her mother to keep pace with Brooke.
“Aubrey does ask a lot, ‘Where’s daddy, where’s daddy?'” Jessica said. “My five-year-old, Brooke, she understands.”
Before dying of COVID-19, mom pleads:‘I need my kids to get vaccinated’
The children sat at the dinner table snacking on cups of chocolate ice cream while Jessica called Shannon Medical Center. Eight months pregnant, she rested one hand on the curve of her belly waiting to speak with a nurse stationed at the hospital’s COVID-19 unit.
It’s become a daily ritual over the past three weeks: Jessica asks the nurse if a video call can be arranged with her husband, Caleb Wallace, who has been hospitalized with the coronavirus since the beginning of August.
The nurse tells Jessica it’s not a problem and hangs up to don a plastic suit of PPE, personal protective equipment required to enter Caleb’s room. About five minutes later, Jessica answers her phone and the video call begins.
“Keep fighting, daddy,” Caleb’s children said Thursday into the video screen. “We miss you.”
The conversation is one-sided; Caleb says nothing.
Since Aug. 8, the 30-year-old father of three (soon to be four), has laid unconscious, heavily sedated in an intensive care unit at Shannon Hospital. A mechanical ventilator pumps fresh oxygen into his lungs, which have been crippled by the virus.
This doesn’t stop Caleb’s daughters from talking for roughly 10 minutes Thursday. They tell Caleb how their day went, how much they love and miss him, and how badly they want him home.
As she watched from one end of the table, Jessica remained cheerful and upbeat for her children, admonishing Caleb not to give the nurses at Shannon too hard a time while he remains in the hospital.
Her mood changes after Brooke and Aubrey have said all they wanted to say and return to eating ice cream. When it’s her time, Jessica reached for the phone to have a private conversation with her unconscious husband.
“You need to keep hanging on,” she said, choking through tears, looking at Caleb’s motionless face in the screen. “You need to come home so you can meet your little girl.”
Baby Emsley Jean Wallace is a “wiggle worm,” her mother says, and is due to be born in about six weeks.
Jessica eventually hangs up the phone after speaking to Caleb for several minutes. Another call will be made tomorrow — Brooke won’t let her forget.
“When it’s getting late and we haven’t called yet, (Brooke) immediately starts asking, ‘When are we calling Daddy? When are we calling Daddy — I need to talk to the doctors,‘ Brooke says. She needs to talk to the doctors because she wants to tell them to ‘take care of her daddy,'” Jessica said.
“She wants to tell her daddy to ‘keep fighting.’ She tells him every day that she misses him,” Jessica said.
By Saturday, Aug. 21, Caleb will have spent more than 12 days on a ventilator. His chances of recovery are “slim to none” without advanced medical care, Jessica says.
As she continues to pray for Caleb’s full recovery, out of earshot from her children, Jessica is unsure if her husband is ever coming home.
Texas COVID hospitalizations remain dangerously high
Conversations like the one in the Wallace household are happening more frequently in Texas. The state is suffering from its worst surge of COVID-19 cases since last year.
There were 11,762 cases of the virus reported within a 24-hour window Friday, according to state health data released Aug. 20, a number far surpassing the roughly 3,300 cases reported across Texas on July 20, exactly one month ago.
Health officials reported 12,841 Texans were hospitalized Friday with COVID-19, pushing some healthcare systems to their breaking point as 330 staffed ICU beds were left in a state of about 30 million people.
“This delta variant is different in several ways. It’s very contagious — probably twice as contagious as the original (virus),” said Dr. Doug Schultz, Chief Medical Officer at Shannon Clinic, during a recorded interview posted last week to Facebook.
As the Delta variant of COVID-19 burns through Texas like viral wildfire, adding fuel to the flames is the state’s relatively low vaccination rate. Less than 56% of all Texans above the age of 12 have been fully vaccinated.
“In the Concho Valley, about 8 out of 10 people who are positive are not vaccinated,” Schultz said, noting that while some patients who test positive are fully vaccinated, they usually do not require hospitalization.
Health experts pushing for masks and social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19 have met resistance from Texas lawmakers, like Gov. Greg Abbott, who recently tested positive for the virus himself, though he is fully vaccinated
Abbott is currently embroiled in several legal challenges from his ban on mask mandates as more than 5 million Texas students return to public school.
Advocates for public health and personal freedom spar over COVID
The battle between public health and personal freedom is a familiar one in Tom Green County, of which San Angelo resident Caleb Wallace took an active role.
On July 4, 2020, Caleb helped organize “The Freedom Rally.” A flyer for the event called it a peaceful protest by people “sick of the government being in control of our lives.” Signs carried by protesters that day criticized the wearing of masks, business closures, the science behind COVID-19, and liberal media.
Upset the United States flag wasn’t waving at the Tom Green County courthouse on July 4, rally attendees raised their own. The person who tied the U.S. flag to the pole was Caleb Wallace.
“We are not real happy with the current state of America at the moment,” a then-healthy Wallace said in July.
In addition to the rally, Caleb organized “The San Angelo Freedom Defenders,” a group “to educate and empower citizens to make informed choices concerning local, statewide, and national policy and to encourage them to actively participate in their duty to secure God-given and constitutionally protected rights,” as stated on the group’s Facebook page.
Using both the Freedom Defender’s page and his own social media presence, Caleb criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic and guidelines advocated by health experts.
“Show me the science that masks work,” Caleb wrote on the City of San Angelo’s official Facebook in December 2020. “Show me the evidence that school closures work. Show me the evidence that lock-downs work.”
In 2020, Caleb appeared in video interviews with local media outlets denouncing mask policies and school closures at San Angelo ISD. As late as April 2021, he penned a letter demanding the school district rescind all its COVID-19 protocols, claiming that science didn’t support their need.
At one point during the pandemic, the Freedom Defenders collected a list of local businesses in the San Angelo area who were asking residents to wear masks as a prerequisite for entry, information its members could use to avoid shopping at those locations.
The page belonging to the Freedom Defenders appeared to be deactivated from Facebook shortly after Caleb was hospitalized for COVID-19.
‘He didn’t want to be a COVID statistic’
On July 26, Jessica said her husband began experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus: shortness of breath, high fever, and a dry cough. Those symptoms became worse the following day.
“Every time he would start to cough, it would turn into a coughing attack, and then that would cause him to completely go out of breath,” Jessica said.
At first, Caleb refused to get tested for COVID-19, or go to the hospital.
“He was so hard-headed,” Jessica said. “He didn’t want to see a doctor, because he didn’t want to be part of the statistics with COVID tests.”
Caleb instead began taking tablets of Ivermectin, high doses of Vitamin C, zinc aspirin, and an inhaler. By July 30, however, Caleb was taken by a relative to the emergency room at Shannon Medical Center.
Later that same day, the City of San Angelo reported 111 new positive cases of COVID-19 in the community, along with 34 people hospitalized for the virus — Caleb was one of them.
“He couldn’t breathe on his own,” Jessica said. “The first week he was able to be on oxygen. By the morning of (Aug. 8), he had to be ventilated.”
Jessica described Caleb’s hospitalization for COVID-19 as a “humbling, eye-opening experience” for the Wallace family, who she said used to casually bicker about “anything and everything.”
“We’ve grown so much closer now as a family,” Jessica said. “We check on each other every day to see if we’re OK or if we need help with anything. … This is something we take seriously. It’s made us realize that COVID-19 does not discriminate.”
Jessica said the virus has completely changed her life. In contrast to her husband, she wears a mask.
“I’m from the border town of Del Rio, and my views are less conservative,” she said. “I’m not a liberal. I stand somewhere in the middle. …Caleb would tell me, ‘You know masks aren’t going to save you,’ but he understood I wanted to wear them. It gives me comfort to know that maybe, just maybe, I’m either protecting someone or avoiding it myself.”
Each of us is ‘more than the sum of our political beliefs’
While many residents in San Angelo are familiar with her husband’s political opinions, Jessica said it’s an incomplete picture on who Caleb is as a person. The father of three would come home from work she said to help with dinner, play outside with his daughters, and take them out for ice cream.
If Caleb was running late, Jessica said it was often because he had volunteered to help someone from church, or because he was mowing an elderly person’s lawn, or assisting a military service member move their belongings.
“That was just Caleb’s nature,” Jessica said. “At the end of the day, whether he was a hardcore conservative or not, he was an amazing man.”
Jessica recalled how Caleb collected donations for victims of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. His efforts grew quickly from “one trailer full of supplies,” into a second trailer that Caleb helped haul to the Texas-Louisiana coast.
Caleb was also there to help San Angelo residents during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 after record-setting freezing temperatures trapped many people in their homes without power.
Putting politics aside, Caleb called San Angelo Mayor Brenda Gunter and offered his assistance driving on dangerous, icy roads to help her reach people who needed help.
Gunter remembered their time together.
“We spent two-and-a-half hours going door-to-door to touch base with people that we knew had been without electricity for some time,” Gunter said.
“Even though we disagreed on certain subject matters, he had an overwhelming love for this city and its citizens. And that was bigger than anything else,” Gunter said. “…He’s still a human being and he has a family, and that family needs him.”
Jessica said she’s praying for her husband to get well again, but that Caleb’s chances of survival will come down to one of two miracles: either he makes a full recovery on his own, or he gets approved for advanced medical treatment.
ECMO machine could be ‘last hope’
A medical device known as an ECMO machine is Jessica’s “last hope,” but all her efforts so far to find an available device have proven unsuccessful.
Short for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, the ECMO machine works by inserting a plastic tube into a large vein and/or artery through the neck, chest or groin of the patient. Essentially, the device helps patients by acting as their heart and lungs, giving organs a chance to rest and heal.
As of Aug. 21, 2021, the number of hospitals who have available ECMO machines are scarce, and thanks to COVID-19, the waiting list is long.
Shannon Hospital does not have an ECMO machine. The nearest medical centers that do are places awash in COVID-19 hospitalizations, like San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, according to the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization, the world’s largest registry of ECMO and ECLS Centers.
“We’ve been calling people left and right trying to find that miracle,” Jessica said. “A hospital in Plano removed (Caleb) from their waiting list because he’s been intubated too long. … Without that machine, the doctors have said Caleb’s chances are ‘slim to none.'”
As the Wallace family continues its search for an ECMO machine, Jessica said she plans to keep fighting for Caleb, even though she isn’t sure what the future will hold.
“I have three kids and a fourth on the way. To keep them strong, I remind them how much their daddy loves them and how loved they are by so many,” Jessica said “I’m definitely not strong, but I have to be for my girls — I have to.”
How to help the Wallace family on GoFundMe
Jessica, who is a stay-at-home mother of three, started a GoFundMe campaign to help with family bills while Caleb is hospitalized.
“With being this far along in pregnancy, I can’t get a job, and after delivery I’ll need a few weeks to recover,” said Jessica in a message on the campaign website. “I have been in contact with his doctors and they have estimated Caleb will be out at least 6 months. 1-2 intubated and at least 6 months of hard rehab to get him back on his feet. “
Those who wish to donate money to help the Wallace family can do so through a GoFundMe campaign started by Jessica Wallace at this link: https://gofund.me/b90c802f.
John Tufts covers enterprise and investigative topics in West Texas. Send him a news tip at [email protected]. Standard-Times Reporter Alana Edgin and Standard-Times Photojournalist Colin Murphey contributed to this story.