In the house her father built, Alyssa Chalk held his hand as he took his final breaths. He died in his office, surrounded by his family, gasping for air.
The coronavirus already had devastated the Chalk family before it swept into their Ellicott City home and took John Chalk Sr., whom his daughter described as a loving soul who would’ve given her the world. It also killed her grandmother, Pat Chalk, on April 29, and possibly her grandfather, Francis “Buzz” Chalk, who died April 14.
John Chalk Sr., a self-employed architect, had shown signs of improvement in the days before he died — and had felt well enough for Alyssa, 23, to bring him multiple plates of food as he worked at his desk, where he had quarantined himself after a brief hospital stay.
“He was supposed to be OK,” she said. “On Thursday, he said it was the best he’d felt. He wasn’t dehydrated, he was eating. He was working.”
It didn’t matter. Within a day, he was gone. She heard him struggling to breathe as she brought him his favorite oatmeal raisin cookies to snack on.
Like thousands of other COVID-19 victims, Chalk, 65, had developed a high fever and spent the first week of his diagnosis fighting to return to normal. By the second week, his fever broke and his blood work came back normal, but he still succumbed to the virus, which medical experts believe can not only devastate the lungs but circulate throughout the body’s other vital organs and cause heart inflammation, kidney disease, blood clots or other complications.
“We’re seeing it all the time, in the inpatient setting,” said Dr. Jeremy Pollock, a cardiologist at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, who was not involved in Chalk’s care. “The patient is doing fine, doing fine, doing fine, and then their oxygen drops very fast.”
Still, Pollock said, it remains difficult to determine which patients are most at risk of developing further complications from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus, or at which point in their treatment they’re most vulnerable.
“We don’t know why it attacks people so savagely,” he said. “That’s the scary thing about this.”
Chalk, like his father, hated saying no to anyone and rarely asked for help, Alyssa Chalk said, adding that he wouldn’t let her or her siblings get a job while they were growing up so he could be the sole provider.
“I wish he knew how much he was loved,” she said. “He had no idea.”
The family believes the tragic domino effect began when their grandparents had a nurse visit them at their house in Baltimore, where they had lived for decades. “Buzz” Chalk, 88, an avid poker player who had long hosted Friday night games in his basement, had cancer, and had become too weak to bathe himself.
The nurse gave him a sponge bath, Alyssa said, and then found out that she had tested positive for the coronavirus. The family assigns no blame to the nurse or her agency, Alyssa said, and declined to name them. They found out about the nurse’s diagnosis the day of her grandfather’s funeral and cannot say for sure that “Pop Chalk,” as Alyssa called him, died from it — though he was exposed to it.
"My dad wasn’t even upset — he said, ‘That’s ok, I don’t blame you guys,’ " Alyssa said. “We know they’ve been through hell, too.”
For essential workers dealing with the crisis day in and day out, without adequate testing capacity or enough personal protective gear, the risk that they contract or unknowingly pass on the virus to others remains high. The numerous and deadly outbreaks in many state nursing homes is believed to be fueled by staffers infected with the virus, but not showing symptoms.
For the Chalk family, these issues further complicate their grief.
Pat Chalk, 87, was the first to find out she had the virus, Alyssa said, and spent the day of her husband’s funeral in the emergency room battling it. She died alone a week later, without her family and without goodbyes.
The Chalk grandparents loved to entertain and dote on their five grandchildren, Alyssa said, and would often buy them spontaneous gifts just because.
“My dad learned how to care by having them as his parents,” said Alyssa’s brother, John Chalk Jr., who turns 26 this month. “We’re not sure they had wallpaper in the house because it was covered with us and our photos and our doodles.”
John Chalk Sr.'s sister, Marcy, also tested positive, as did his wife, Laurie.
Both women now fear for their lives, even though their symptoms have largely subsided. Laurie Chalk performed CPR on her husband in an attempt to save him, but even first responders could not revive him once they arrived at the scene, her daughter said.
“They’re both terrified,” Alyssa said. “My mom was already anxious, even before we were in a global pandemic.”
Alyssa, John and their other siblings, Daniel, 21, and Courtney, 19, have shouldered much of the family’s responsibilities as their mom remains quarantined on the other side of the house. But for all they know, they could have the virus, too.
“We can’t even get tested because we don’t have symptoms,” she said. “We’re a little lost without my dad. We haven’t been able to mourn at all.”
To help ease the family’s emotional and financial burden, a group of Alyssa’s Towson University lacrosse teammates and her former coach have created online fundraisers to provide them with meals and other needs. Kat Connelly, who played with Alyssa, said she sought to have meals delivered to the family after learning about the death of John Sr.’s parents.
Little did she know, the need would soon balloon. But the money poured in.
Breaking News Alerts
It’s a testament to who John and his parents were, said Connelly, who remembers seeing them cheer her friend on in the stands at home games and local matches.
“Not everyone is fortunate enough to get playing time, but Alyssa’s parents were always in the stadium watching her, even just to see her warm up, until the end of the game,” she said. “I could look up and always see Mr. and Mrs. Chalk watching.”
Michael Molster, who coached Chalk and Connelly at Towson, said he had met Alyssa’s parents and grandparents over the course of her college career. He didn’t know them well, he said, but could sense the strength of the family’s ties to one another.
“They were very devoted parents, very involved in every aspect of the program,” he said. “Everything John Sr. did was for the kids — the schools he sent them to, their education, and staying involved in their lives through college.”
Alyssa and John Jr. said they wish they could trade places with her dad — though they know that’s the last thing he would want. He was their light, they said, and while they know he’s still with them, they’re not sure how they’ll withstand the shock of this without him.
“It’s just completely ripped my heart out,” John Chalk Jr. said. “It’s unbelievable how much this virus has taken. It’s so hard.”
Despite the family’s best efforts — the masks, the gloves, the bleach on the walls — none of it mattered. It took their beloved grandparents, then it took the person who mattered most.