FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – As he sat in an isolation room at a hospital in Fort Worth, the Rev. Robert Pace felt humbled.

Days earlier, he thought he had the flu. His body ached and he woke up with a deep cough and fever. He visited his doctor, who sent him home with a Tamiflu prescription and directions to keep hydrated. Soon, his fever went away. He led the Lenten program at Trinity Episcopal Church of Fort Worth on March 4, but made sure to stay out of close contact with worshipers. He didn’t shake their hands.

But then the fever returned and suddenly it got harder to breathe, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He skipped church that Sunday. Then his friends started to call him.

“Did you see someone at that conference you went to tested positive for COVID-19?” they asked.

Then, he made the connection.

“I felt miserable,” he said, adding that he called the Tarrant County Public Health Department at about 10:30 p.m. on March 8, but got a machine.

He called his doctor the next morning and told him about the conference. He met his doctor at the Baylor All Saints Emergency Room.

In a day, he would find out he was positive for COVID-19 – the first known case in Tarrant County.

When Pace, 53, was admitted to the hospital, he was put inside a negative air pressure isolation room. His only view was of the doctors and nurses as they prepared to step inside his room.

“I was so humbled by it because for every time someone had to come in to take care of me, it would take them about five minutes to put on their gear because they had to put on a gown, gloves, and this space-looking helmet they would put on,” he said.

He made sure before pressing the button for help that he really needed it. He didn’t want the health care workers to have to go through all of that preparation for nothing.

And he couldn’t get over the space helmet.

“I finally asked them about that space helmet thing and one of the nurses said,’ We could wear just regular masks with you, but we don’t have enough of them,’” he said. “That was three weeks ago and they already had a shortage and it makes me really sad to think that that mask shortage has probably gotten worse.”

Pace said his difficulty breathing never escalated to needing a respirator. Because of that, he was able to go home for self-isolation on March 11.

It was the longest time he and his wife of 31 years, the Rev. Dr. Jill Walters, 55, went without physically seeing each other.

“I was in the master bedroom and she was in the rest of the house,” he said. “She cooked meals and would leave them on the floor and knock on the door. I would get the food and close the door. For eight days, that was it. That’s how we functioned.”

They communicated through FaceTime and texts. Every day they would pray together before going to sleep.

“She takes care of me when I’m sick and I take care of her when she’s sick and to not have her be able to physically give me even a pat on the head, it was difficult,” he said.

Pace said his health has steadily improved. On March 19, he received his second negative COVID-19 test and was officially released from quarantine.

He and Walters ordered tacos to celebrate.

Pace had never felt sicker in his life than during the time he was fighting off the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“This coronavirus is no joke,” he said. “It’s a very serious illness and it’s been very difficult. I’ve had the flu and I’ve had coronavirus and coronavirus is so much more serious.”

The virus attacked his lungs quickly and having difficulty breathing was scary. Pace now wants to urge everyone to take the recommendations of social distancing seriously to keep the virus from spreading.

“Just stay at home,” he said. “We are called to love our neighbors and we do this just by staying at home and being isolated. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to take care of our neighbors by checking in on them. We can be socially connected while remaining physically separated, so please do that.”

Pace said he felt inspired by the doctors, nurses and other health care workers who helped him remain healthy. He said that includes those at the Tarrant County Public Health Department, who checked in on him and the more than 45 other people he had been in contact with before testing positive.

His inspiration goes beyond that.

“The grocery workers, the mail carriers, the food delivery people – we’ve had people bringing food to our house and I’m just so grateful to all of the people who are keeping our society going and all the people who are taking care of each other in all of the new ways we should take care of each other,” he said.

Because of that, when his pulmonologist, Dr. John Burk, called and asked him to donate plasma, Pace immediately said yes.

“We have antibodies that could be used to help those who are testing positive by donating our plasma,” Pace said. “I’ll go give as much plasma as I can, what a blessing to have something like this come out of this. I want to help people all I can.”

Part of that help will begin when Pace returns to Trinity Episcopal Church of Fort Worth to lead the service, which will be streamed through Facebook Live or Zoom.

“We will all be physically separated from each other and all of the people worshiping in their pajamas, I hope, but that’s how this should be,” he said. “We will be worshiping together and that’s inspiring for this new reality right now as we defeat this virus.”

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