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Ronald “Buck” McKinney enjoyed so many of the outdoor pursuits that others in our beautiful county partake in: fishing, hunting and camping. His struggle with multiple sclerosis robbed him of his ability to participate in those activities. On Sunday, COVID-19 robbed him of his life.

McKinney passed away Sunday at Prestige Post-Acute and Rehab center in Ellensburg after a short bout with the virus. He was 71.

SLOW PATH OF DECLINE

A retired truck driver, McKinney was diagnosed with MS in 1998. His wife, Maureen, said it took about six months to diagnose his disease.

“There’s no definitive test,” she said. “He had primary-progressive MS. The bulk of the people who get MS get what they call relapsing-remitting, meaning that they’ll get really sick with something and they go into remission and it goes away. Each time they have one of these attacks, it comes back a little bit less. What he had is whatever happened happened slowly, but it never remitted. It was a constant slow slide to ultimate disability.”

Buck continued driving trucks until 2000, but Maureen said his difficulty getting in and out of the truck forced him to retire for liability reasons. He continued to walk for a period of time with a cane, but Maureen said the disease continued to progress at that point.

“The cane became a walker,” she said. “The walker became a manual wheelchair. The manual wheelchair became a power wheelchair. Last fall, I was right at the absolute limit of what I could do to care for him, because he was 6’1’’ and weighed 230 pounds. As long as he could stand up and help me move him places, I could get him from the bed to the chair, to the toilet, to the shower.”

Maureen said Buck became ill in October, and the doctors they visited couldn’t come up with a diagnosis for what he had. Maureen found out later that it was a urinary tract infection that went undiagnosed for two weeks.

“We went on what I call the 15-day tour of hospitals in Seattle,” she said. “They all thought it was neurological. He came back here, and the infection finally went septic. They treated him with antibiotics for sepsis, and two days later his brain was clear as a bell, but by that time he had spent 15 days doing absolutely no physical activity. He only sat up on the edge of the bed twice.”

Because his muscles had deteriorated due to lack of use during that situation, Maureen said she had no choice but to admit him to Prestige Post-Acute and Rehab, hoping they would be able to get his strength back up to the point where he could come home. He began rehab at the facility in early November.

TIME AT PRESTIGE

As Buck began his rehabilitation regiment at Prestige, Maureen said no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get back his ability to use his muscles.

“His MS had finally taken that away from him,” she said. “He had to live there, which was horrid. He hated it and I hated it, but trying to get people consistently in your home for in-home care is absolutely crazy. You get a merry-go-round different people, different abilities. Some people could handle it, some people had no idea of what they were getting into.”

As they realized that Prestige was the only option for Buck, Maureen said he slowly began to adjust to his new reality. Because of the mild winter, she said it was easy to get him in the van to go on outings from the facility.

“I’d take him down to Fred Meyer for the day, or we’d go and have lunch with friends, but I’d have to bring him back,” she said. “Our trips were limited to how long he could last before he’d have to go to the bathroom.”

As the news broke about COVID-19 arriving in the Seattle area, Maureen said she was still going to spend hours with Buck each day, feeding him lunch and keeping him company. On March 10, she arrived at the facility to see a sign saying she was prohibited from entering to see her husband.

“I had absolutely no notice,” she said. “I had no time to prepare, to get Skype on his computer. I had no time to talk to him about it and make sure he had what he needed. Nothing. I was locked out, and I have not been allowed in that building since.”

Maureen began sitting at the window with Buck on a regular basis, struggling to talk to him via phone due to Buck’s impaired hearing and speech. On days where she didn’t physically visit, she would Skype with him, facing the same communication challenges.

“Four months with no hugs, no touching his hand,” she said, again holding back tears. “Absolutely no physical contact. It was easier on me than it was on him. I could see that it was taking a toll, but what choice did I have?”

On July 9, Maureen was informed by facility management that one of the patients had tested positive for COVID-19. Buck was tested on July 13. Maureen said she waited patiently by the phone for the test results, but nothing came.

During that week, she said she would sit at the window with him and see him progress deeper into sickness. She said people with MS don’t present symptoms in the same fashion as people who don’t have the disease, but after years of working with Buck and his disease, she had learned to spot the signs.

“People with MS, their circuits are so fried that they can either listen, they can see, or they can do something with their hands,” she said. “Trying to multitask like a normal person like listening to me and trying to follow my instructions to reach or something, I knew he was getting sick at that moment.”

During that week, she was informed on Wednesday that Buck’s roommate had tested positive for the virus. Despite this, she said Buck wasn’t moved until the following Saturday.

“Part of the time they moved the roommate out, but he sat in the same room 15 feet apart,” she said. “He was in there for who knows how many days positive before they finally moved him, and then he had to stay in a room full of COVID germs until they moved him.”

Each day Maureen went in to visit Buck, she said he would continue to get worse. Because his body was working so hard to fight the infection, she said he lost the ability to handle even the most basic functions such as speech and picking up objects. On Sunday, some of Buck’s best friends came and visited with him at the window, and Maureen stuck around for about an hour after they left to keep him company.

“I told him I’d be back in the morning,” she said. “I wasn’t home for an hour and a half and I got a call. I thought they’d say he was positive and they had retested him. They told me he had just passed away.”

TEA TIME IN THE CANYON

Buck and Maureen met in 1974 on a weekend outing with mutual friends. They went out dancing and at the end of the night Maureen and her friends misplaced their purses. As they misplaced their car keys, Buck offered to drive them home.

“He wasn’t even sure if he had the gas to make it back to his own house afterward,” Maureen said. “He called me the next day, and we started dating from there.”

Maureen said they were basically inseparable after that first date and eventually married in 1982.

“He died two days after our anniversary,” Maureen said, holding back tears. “I’ve known him 46 years. Two-thirds of my life, he’s been in it.”

The couple bought a 10-acre plot of land in Manastash Canyon in 1980 for $20,000 after seeing a classified ad in the newspaper. They camped on it with friends for years before deciding to build a home on the property in the mid-1990’s.

“We used to have huge campouts,” she said. “I have pictures of it looking like a hippie commune.”

As Buck’s MS progressed, Maureen made the decision to move out to the canyon full-time in 2003. She made sure to incorporate design features into the home that helped make it easier for him to move around.

“I built the house like a big tree house, so you could see out every window,” she said.

Because of the rural location, Maureen said the neighbors were a tight-knit group. She said the men would gather regularly to have what they called “Manastash tea time”, a social gathering that involved drinking whiskey and catching up on the local news. Despite being removed from town, she said they wouldn’t have picked any other place to live out their golden years. Once he was at Prestige, Maureen said Buck yearned for their happy place in the canyon.

“He loved it here. He would beg me for the last four months to take him out for just a day when everything was over so he could just sit on his porch. He never got to come back. He just never got the chance.”

CHANGING THE WAY THINGS ARE DONE

As Maureen processed the information she had received Sunday afternoon, she realized she had to make arrangements for Buck’s final care. As she began to make phone calls, something unfathomable dawned on her.

“I realized at that time that if I didn’t see him then, I would never see him again,” she said. “They suited me up like an astronaut so I could spend 10 minutes with him. Over four months, I never got to touch him. The only time I got to touch him was after he was gone. It was heartbreaking.”

Maureen was informed by the Kittitas County Public Health Department on Thursday that Buck’s COVID-19 test came back positive. The news came as no surprise to Maureen after seeing the signs in Buck as he got sicker before passing. Because the results took so long to receive, she couldn’t include in his obituary that he died as a result of the virus.

“I wasn’t going to say he died of COVID until I knew for positive,” she said. “I just waited and waited.”

Even if his test had come back negative, Maureen believes Buck’s death also came as a result of being isolated from others for months on end.

“He died of loneliness and separation from people,” she said. “He had nobody but the aides who could touch him. The aides are angels, and so many of them are sick now.”

Maureen said she plans on spending the rest of her life advocating for changes in long-term care facilities. She said the pandemic has shown major gaps in the way they handle isolation, testing, family contact, as well as the worker and patient conditions. It is her hope that other families in her situation will also advocate for the same changes so that future generations won’t have to suffer the pain she is currently feeling.

As COVID-19 cases increase throughout the nation, with many of the positive cases now presenting in the younger population, Maureen said she hopes people will take the virus seriously before they lose a loved one of their own.

“Viruses don’t care,” she said. “They just want a host, a body. Yes, some bodies are stronger and maybe can fight it off. Some bodies like my husband’s, it takes three or four days. If you never get sick, good on you, but don’t wait until you have somebody in your life die.”

Although she can’t bring her husband back, Maureen said it’s going to take a wider understanding of the personal sacrifices people need to make in order to protect themselves and their loved ones before it’s too late.

“If you’re in tornado country and you hear a siren, what do you do? You run for cover and protect yourself,” she said. “You don’t run outside and look up at the sky and see if you can see where tornado is. Don’t wait until it’s personal. If you can do a simple thing like wash your hands, wear a mask and don’t belly up to a bar 40-people deep. Take the precautions.”

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