It was not coronavirus. But it took a while for us to know that. We only know it now because his family, out of concern for us in the neighborhood, pushed the medical examiner to test the body.
That part of the story, the testing of the dead, is like everything else about the virus, strange and counterintuitive for us lay people because we have never had to think about such things before.
I was walking my dogs toward home at dusk, and I saw flashing lights of an ambulance and police car parked down around the bend in the street. A neighbor couple standing stock-still on their front lawn looking down toward the lights both had that certain gaze, hands gripped before them at the waist.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Tommy,” she said. “I went down there. The police said he’s gone.”
“Nobody had seen him for a couple days,” he said. “One of the neighbors called the police.”
He probably died Friday. Several neighbors knew he had been sick and were checking on him, bringing him food, urging him to go to the ER.
This week, I said on the phone to his sister in Houston, “I guess he was hard-headed about going to the hospital.”
“He was hard-headed about everything,” she said. But she laughed a little.
They grew up in Carthage in deep East Texas, 15 miles from Louisiana. Carthage was the setting for the wonderful 2011 Richard Linklater film, Bernie, based on Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly stories about a funeral home worker who lived lavishly on spoils reaped by murdering a wealthy widow. When Bernie came out, Tommy told me, “I knew everybody in that film.”
“Those characters really rang a bell with you, did they?” I said.
“No, they didn’t ring a bell. I knew them.”
His family was well off. He bolted from Carthage young to take a teaching job on an Indian reservation. He came to the Dallas area and taught first in suburban Grand Prairie, then later enjoyed a long career in the Dallas public school system.
He was a member of Mensa, the club for people with high IQs. He had an uncanny ability to pluck hidden and surprising talents from his hip pocket at unexpected moments. He emerged as a wonderful actor in the living history reenactments at the landmark Aldredge House near Bryan Parkway, our neighborhood. One day standing in front of his house with my dogs, I observed that he also was fluent in sign language for the deaf.
But there was always a reason and a story. Yvonne Alvarez, a former teaching buddy now also retired, said he probably picked up signing when he was a special education teacher. “That was for his special kids,” she said. “He loved them dearly.”
He predated me and my wife in the neighborhood by several years. We moved to Bryan Parkway in the early ’80s as part of the first wave of boring people. Tommy was one of the pioneer hipsters who came in when the area was still a slum. There were notorious parties at his end of the street back then that I was unable to attend, because they usually started later than the curfew for boring people. My wife could have gone, I guess.
I got to know him later, initially because I was walking my dogs down his alley and spied my Mustang in his back yard. Well, not mine, but a perfectly restored cherry ’65 exactly like the one I owned when it was new. He was the kind of guy who didn’t mind at all being yelled at through the fence by some dude in the alley wanting to know about his car.
On Wednesday, two days before he died, he exchanged texts with Angie Cook, my neighbor across the street. She’s young, a single mother who teaches college English. He and she were part of a front porch crowd who sit up late weekend nights across the street from my house irritating me by laughing and having a good time. My wife is a member of that club.
Angie looked through her phone texts for me this week: “I’m scrolling,” she said on the phone. “He texted and said he wasn’t feeling well. There it is. It was on Wednesday. He said, ‘I’m down with coronavirus. Will let you know when I get better.’
“I immediately pick up the phone, and I call and say, ‘What?’ He said, ‘My stomach has been hurting. I’m in pain.’ From the sound of it, he had been sick and hadn’t been able to keep anything down.
“I said, ‘What makes you think it’s coronavirus?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. My fever has been so high.’”
At the same time, Yvonne Alvarez was on the phone and texting with him: “He told me that he didn’t feel good,” she said, “and that he had bad stomach cramps, hard to swallow, and he had a temp.
“First thing out of my mouth was, ‘Go to the hospital. Go now.’ But, Thom being Thom, well, no, he won’t do it. I go, ‘Thom, don’t play with this. Go.’ He said he was going to make a doctor’s appointment.
“So I text him later in the afternoon. I said, ‘How are you feeling?’ He said the fever had spiked, but he didn’t tell me what it was. So I call again. I go, ‘Thom, please go.’ He goes, ‘No.’
“So Thursday I texted him in the morning. He said the fever had gone down. But that was it. Later that afternoon, I texted him, ‘Are you still going to the doctor Friday?’ I never heard from him again.”
Virgie Ingram, his sister who lives in a small town near Houston, told me that the family pushed the Dallas County medical examiner to test the body for COVID-19. “We were insisting that they do a test on him for the virus, because we knew that he had been in several houses there in the neighborhood.
“At first they told us that they did not want to waste a virus test on a dead body, but we kept insisting.
“Thomas was gone. We were concerned about the people around him, especially the little lady across the street with a child, a single lady (not Angie Cook, another one). We were really concerned about her.”
Most of us — well, me — might assume the medical authorities would test every dead person for COVID-19 in order to know how many cases and deaths are occurring. But we would be quite wrong.
First of all, there are not enough test kits available for the living. Dr. Jeffrey Barnard, chief medical examiner of Dallas County, says his staff is making decisions on a case-by-case basis:
“We are evaluating cases based on investigation as to whether to order testing,” he told me in an email. “I have three different labs to do the testing based on the number of cases and turnaround time. With most cases if we think a test is needed, we hold the body until we get a result.
“If they have symptoms and are positive, we do not do an autopsy and certify as a COVID-19 death. If negative, we autopsy, if an autopsy is indicated.”
So if the dead are rarely tested, how do the epidemiologists measure the size of the epidemic? The answer, it seems, is that they do not rely on those death counts that you and I are seeing every day from the county. The epidemiologists know that those numbers, based on confirmed test results, are a seriously inaccurate under-count, almost irrelevant to the true size of the epidemic.
Charles Edwin Haley, former chief epidemiologist for Dallas County, explained to me in a Facebook exchange that the scientific measurement of an epidemic is an estimate based on a baseline of normal death rates and hospitalizations before, during and after the epidemic. The true death rate attributable to the virus, in other words, may have little to do with the tested death count and is almost always a higher number.
Tommy’s sister told me he suffered from Crohn's disease. His health was not perfect. An autopsy has been performed, and the family will learn the results in few weeks. Meanwhile, the specific test for the virus was carried out because the family insisted on it. The medical examiner called them with the results Tuesday showing there was no COVID-19, and the family sent word to the neighborhood immediately.
His family insisted on a test not to satisfy their own curiosity but out of concern for the neighborhood, especially for those whom he had helped the most. The test itself, then, was the perfect way to honor and commemorate the life he lived among us.