An Iowa couple with COVID-19: She lives; he died

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Every day of their more than 50-year marriage, Gayle “Muggs” Isaac told his wife, Marcia Isaac, how much he loved her.

“He told me how much joy I brought into his life and how he couldn’t even imagine living a day without me,” Marcia Isaac said.

But he spent his last days sedated on a ventilator — quarantined in a hospital by the scourge of the pandemic. He died April 3 from complications related to COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. He was 71.

Now, Marcia, herself recovering from COVID-19 at age 70, must contemplate every ensuing day without hearing Muggs’ declaration of love.

“I see his chair over there and I think, ‘Well, maybe he’s just gone out for a little while,’” Marcia said. “Then I remember.”

The story of Muggs and Marcia Isaac is emblematic of how the global coronavirus pandemic has torn through Iowa families like a tornado, taking some lives and sparing others, even in the same house.

The couple had been enjoying themselves on a cruise. But on their drive home, what started as shared feelings of lethargy turned into fever and chest-rattling coughing for Muggs.

Here’s a look at this loving couple’s lives, and how a highly contagious virus ravaged their family.

Muggs picked up his nickname as a baby in Fairbury, Nebraska. Family lore says somebody handed baby Gayle to his mother and said, “Look at that mug.”

Somewhere along the line, an extra “g” was added to the moniker, and that’s how most friends and family knew him.

Marcia was introduced to Muggs on a blind date while the pair were in high school. He attended the now defunct-Des Moines Tech; she was an East High girl.

Marcia played in the school band, and one of her bandmates wanted to go out with a gal Muggs knew. The bandmate asked if Marcia would go out with Muggs on a double date.

“The first night we met was the night of my homecoming dance,” Marcia said. “I guess you could say it went pretty well.”Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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The two were crazy about each other and married in 1969. She worked as a middle school band teacher in Des Moines. He worked in school finances and retired two years ago from his job with Newton schools.

The couple had two children and made their home on Des Moines’ east side.

The cruise was meant to be one of their many “happily ever after” moments.

Even on the ship, others noticed the couple’s coziness. Once, when Marcia was getting food from the buffet, another woman approached her. 

“Do you know how much your husband loves you?” Marcia recalled the woman saying. “Ever since you got up from the table, he hasn’t taken his eyes off you. Oh, to be loved like that!”

People had made observations like that about Muggs and Marcia their whole lives together. They were the kind of couple where their names were almost one word: MuggsandMarcia.

“We did everything together and went everywhere together,” Marcia said. “Where one of us was, the other one was right there or not too far behind.”

The cruise chugged along for its first two ports without problems, but by the time the ship reached Cartagena, Colombia, the country refused to let it dock.

That started a trend. Events planned at future stops were canceled, and eventually more ports refused entry to the ship.

“We just thought everyone was being pre-cautious,” Marcia said. “No one on the ship had coronavirus that we knew of.”

The ship navigated through the Panama Canal and eventually docked in San Diego on March 19.

Muggs and Marcia had planned to spend a couple of weeks in San Diego, but decided to rent a car and head home.

Both felt weary after the cruise. Marcia didn’t think much about it. She takes weekly allergy shots, but had not done so on the trip. Being far from her native environment, she figured her troubles stemmed from exposure to an unfamiliar allergen.

Muggs felt lethargic, too. Again, Marcia wasn’t too concerned. Travel wore them both out.

The real trouble started outside Edmond, Oklahoma. Muggs’ health deteriorated so much he could no longer drive.

Marcia practically had to carry him into the hotel. He developed a cough that repeated rapid-fire like a machine gun. A fever burned.

Muggs sprawled out in the car, beset by sweats, chills and that cough. The couple arrived home the evening of March 23.

Muggs collapsed into bed and barely moved. Marcia was also weak. She coughed, too, but it didn’t compare with Muggs’ chest convulsions.

Marcia worried that Muggs had suffered a stroke. His legs weren’t working right. He couldn’t stay awake. Other parts of his body weren’t working normally.

Finally, on March 26, Marcia took Muggs to the hospital. He tested positive for COVID-19. So did Marcia and their daughter, who lives with her.

Muggs’ temperature was 104 degrees. He could barely breathe. The hospital sent Marcia home. She was well enough to heal there, but she needed to leave the hospital, lest she risk infecting others.

Muggs called Marcia at home later that day. They were going to put him on a ventilator to help with his breathing. They would sedate him so he didn’t fight the machine.

One more time, Muggs told Marcia he loved her.

He never spoke another word.

His organs failed. He died about a week after he first arrived at the hospital. Muggs was overweight, and his extra girth complicated rescue efforts, Marcia said.

Marcia, still recovering from the virus, couldn’t go to the hospital. Her son, Jeremy, held a smartphone close to his dad so Marcia could say goodbye via videoconferencing to the unconscious Muggs.

“I couldn’t even be there with him in his final days,” Marcia said. “I couldn’t even say goodbye in person.”

Like so many families in this time of social distancing, Marcia and her family must wait until the pandemic passes before they can hold a proper celebration of Muggs’ life.

They will have a private viewing at Hamilton’s Funeral Home in Mitchellville, and Muggs will be buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Des Moines.

Marcia mostly has recovered. Her daughter, Heather, is also on the mend.

A month ago, Muggs and Marcia were enjoying tropical weather aboard a ship cruising the Caribbean. It was one of the many moments the couple expected to share in their retirement.

But COVID-19 killed Muggs and spared Marcia.

Marcia will rebound. She has her two children and seven grandchildren to love.

She’s frustrated by people who think that COVID-19 is a hoax and that the national calls for social distancing and other preventive measures are overblown.

“Tell that to my husband,” Marcia said. “This is the real deal, and people better take it seriously. I don’t want anyone else to feel the loss I’m feeling right now.”

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