This Father’s Day will be especially difficult for many of the more than 600,000 American families mourning the death of a loved one from COVID-19.
Among these are the Ballard family in North Carolina, grappling with the loss of their patriarch.
Gordon Ballard, a dedicated husband and father of eight who went through lifelong illness to support his family, died of COVID-19 on May 17, 2021, his daughter said.
The 65-year-old tested positive two weeks earlier on May 3 – the same day he was due to receive his second dose of the vaccine.
As a child in upstate New York, Ballard had a unique career in mind: one of his daughters, funeral director Sharena Ballard-Hart, told ABC News.
He attended the Simmons Institute of Funeral Service in Syracuse before doing an internship at a funeral home in Rochester. He was there for a funeral when he fell in love with the deceased’s daughter, Sandra.
Gordon and Sandra got married and reportedly celebrated their 40th birthday in July, Ballard-Hart said of his parents.
The Ballards’ road to parenthood began quickly. When Sandra’s mother passed away, the young couple took in Sandra’s 4-year-old brother Quinton and raised him as their own son.
“I just remember them picking me up with my suitcase, driving me home. At the time, we lived above a funeral home,” the eldest Ballards told ABC News, Quinton Wilburn.
After welcoming Sharena and her brother Marcus, the Ballards decided to become foster parents and adopted five children.
As a father of eight, Gordon Ballard was a hard worker and “very generous,” Wilburn said.
“He watched ‘Jeopardy’ faithfully every day,” and wanted his family to think “he knew everything,” Ballard-Hart added.
Gordon Ballard was born with sickle cell anemia – a disorder in which there are not enough healthy red blood cells to move oxygen around the body – and has had one or two attacks per year, his daughter said.
Despite the pain, he continued his career as an autopsy technician in the hospital by day and working in various black-owned funeral homes by night.
“He would miss a few vacations with us to work,” said Sandra Ballard.
“Everyone was always asking him, ‘How are you going to work with this disease? And he said, ‘I have to go for my family,’ “Wilburn recalls.
“He never complained once,” Wilburn said.
But Gordon Ballard’s sickle cell disease flared up during the winter months, so his doctors recommended he move south, prompting the family to move from New York to North Carolina in 2008.
Gordon Ballard received weekly treatments at the sickle cell clinic at Duke University Hospital as well as monthly blood transfusions, Ballard-Hart said.
“Every day in fear”
When the pandemic started, “my father spent every day in fear” because he was certain he would die if he contracted COVID-19, Ballard-Hart said.
But as a funeral director, he wanted to help. When a relative died during the pandemic, he and his family piled into a van to drive to New York City so he could arrange the funeral, Ballard-Hart said.
He was also afraid of the vaccine, Ballard-Hart said. Gordon Ballard’s doctors begged him to get it – and he received his first dose on April 5, she said.
The father of eight was scheduled to receive his second dose on May 3. But instead, that day he tested positive for COVID-19.
Five other family members tested positive for COVID-19 within days: Ballard-Hart and his 2-year-old daughter Wilburn, Sandra Ballard and the Ballards’ teenage son.
Ballard-Hart, her parents and teenage brother all received a dose of the vaccine when they tested positive, she said.
Wilburn said he had been fully vaccinated since February but still suffered from pain, nausea and difficulty breathing – all the while wishing he could be by his father’s side.
(COVID-19 infections are extremely rare after a full vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even when these rare breakthroughs do occur, vaccines are still extremely effective in protecting people from hospitalization or death. )
Gordon Ballard was hospitalized on May 3 and was strong enough to talk to his family a few times during his two week stay.
But then it quickly got worse.
On day one Ballard-Hart tested negative for COVID-19, she said a doctor told the family her father would not be staying the night.
“I was very moved,” Ballard-Hart said, fighting back tears. “I ran outside and just screamed and cried and asked God, ‘Why?’ My neighbors heard me and some came and prayed with me.
Gordon Ballard died May 17 at Duke University Hospital, where Ballard-Hart works in the human resources department.
“As if it was the last time”
Ballard-Hart still works from home, worried about returning to the hospital where she has so many memories of visiting her father in the sickle cell clinic.
“My whole work team knew that if I had to go out, it was because of my dad. Or if my dad had a date, his date ended early, then I would go get him and he would hang out. my office with me until the end of the day, ”she said. “When people saw me, they saw my father.”
“I had to go back… I couldn’t do it,” she said. “To get to my office, I have to walk past the sickle cell clinic and I’m just not ready.”
For Wilburn, this marks the third parent he has lost, since his birth parents died when he was a little boy. But he stressed that Gordon Ballard was indeed his father.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s your father biologically,” he said. “What matters is how they raised you, who raised you. That makes a father.”
Sandra Ballard said she and her husband “made a plan a long time ago” that every time Gordon Ballard was admitted to hospital with sickle cell attacks, “we would act like it was the last time. “.
“We would kiss, we would kiss and we would say our goodbyes …
But with COVID-19, she said it came down so quickly and was intubated by the time hospital staff called, that she never had that chance. He was unconscious when she arrived at the hospital.
“I wasn’t there with him at the end… I wasn’t there to hold him,” she said. “I wasn’t there to really say our last goodbyes.”