Our Lives Have Changed: A daughter with special needs got sick. Then the home became a Covid cluster

Feb 9, 2021

Becky Dornoff at home shortly after she left the hospital for the coronavirus.
Credit Becky Dornoff

In October Danielle Dornoff came home with mild Covid symptoms. She also has a heart condition so her mother Rebecca took her to the hospital.

She's one of eight adopted children Becky and her husband Michael have at home, all with special needs.

Not long after she tested positive for Covid and was admitted, Becky and Michael weren't far behind.

‘Special kids’

Becky and Michael are the proud parents of 22 children total, most of them are adopted.

The couple met in the 80’s when he was a special education teacher and she was a school bus driver. They bonded over their shared love of working with kids with Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy.

“It’s only a big thing to people who have never cared or become attached or lived with special kids,” Becky says. “Special kids in their own way are just really cool.”

“They’re a lot of work, it’s true … but they’re just fun, we have fun taking care of our kids.”

Right now Becky and Michael have eight under one roof, all with special needs. In the past they’ve had up to 15.

Covid

When Danielle went to the hospital in the fall, she tested positive for the coronavirus and was admitted into the Covid wing at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City.

Becky left the hospital worried. Then she came home to find an exhausted and visibly-sweating Michael.

“He said, ‘Honey I feel really bad I can’t even drive myself to the hospital.’ And I couldn’t leave,” she remembers. “So [we] called an ambulance and they took him in.”

The 65-year old had come down with a severe case of Covid-19 and was put on a ventilator.

The next morning another daughter, Destiny, 23, was showing symptoms, so Becky brought her into the hospital too, where she was soon admitted.

“And so there were three rooms in a row, I was in the first room and Danielle was in the next room and Destiny was in the next one after that,” Michael remembers of the hospital’s Covid Wing. “I thought maybe they would rename [it] in our honor.”

Not their first quarantine

As crazy as this was, Becky and Michael have been through infectious disease scares before.

In the 1990s Chickenpox ran through the house. Next the family got a bacteria called Shigella, which attacks the digestive system.

And in 2009 most of them got the Swine Flu. That was the hardest time for them, says Becky.

“All of our kids had it, except myself and one of our adopted children,” she says.

“One of our kids passed away. He seemed to be doing better, then the next day he was gone.”

Becky says she struggled to recover from that loss. Michael adds with the kids they take in, health scares are frequent.

“The more you kind of go through with the kids, the deeper the attachments are,” he says.

The couple has lost five of their adopted children due to various health complications over the past 30 years.

"They're our kids, maybe not biologically our kids, but they're our kids. When there's that loss it can be devastating," Michael says.

"Our perspective has been that we've given them a good life for however (long) they have."

 

The family at church.
Credit Becky Dornoff

‘No help’

Becky and Michael say they get by with their faith, a lot of work and a strong support system.

They have a few healthcare workers around the house through Northern Lakes Community Mental Health and Choices, a home health agency in Traverse City.

They come by in the evenings and weekends to help care for Becky and Mike’s children.

Several are in wheelchairs. Others can’t eat with their mouths so they use feeding tubes. When he or Becky would get sick, Michael says they knew they had backup.

“That’s what made the Covid a little bit different. There was nearly a month that we had virtually no help,” he says.

Around mid-October when Michael checked into the hospital for Covid-19, those healthcare workers stopped coming over. They told the couple that they couldn’t let staff back because of the risk.

That’s when Jerry Huron, case manager at Munson Medical Center, tried to help. He makes sure people leaving the hospital have everything they need to recover.

 

Munson Medical Center
Credit Taylor Wizner

Huron says when he found out the Dornoffs had no one to help take care of their children, he was shocked.

“That raises the red flag for our team here to say, ‘this isn’t going to be safe, this could potentially lead to a disaster,’” Huron says.

Huron found out that the Dornoff’s staff wouldn’t be considered essential caregivers. Plus Huron says even if someone could come to the Dornoff’s house, they were understaffed and personal protective equipment (PPE), like N-95 masks and protective visors, were in short supply.

Michael and Becky were out of luck. 

A nightmare at home

Now home from the hospital, Michael still hadn’t recovered.

“Something hit and I was just so tired, really really wiped out, and that’s when Becky came down with it,” he recalls.

Becky ended up taking care of the kids -- including the two who had returned home from the hospital -- while her own Covid symptoms were getting worse.

“I had to do the lifting, I was the only one there, I had to do it all… all the cooking, all the cleaning and diapers,” Becky says, adding that most of the children wear them.

With the stress and the virus racking Becky’s body, she says she lost 14 pounds in just a few weeks.

She remembers feeling like a zombie and walking around with what she calls ‘Covid brain.’

“I remember getting to be so tired I could hardly see straight,” Becky says. “It was like I was in this fog.”

Sending in backup

Back at Munson Medical Center, Case Manager Jerry Huron tried again to assist the Dornoffs.

He got in touch with the county health department to help get the healthcare staff some PPE.

After four weeks on their own, one healthcare worker was sent back to the Dornoff’s home in November. Becky still remembers seeing her approach the home for the first time clad in PPE.

“They look like they’re going to the moon,” Becky says.

Becky and Michael could finally rest and recover with the extra help from staff. By December they were able to get back to the kind of parenting they love.

He was glad he was able to tuck the kids back into bed each night.

“Bed time would be more fun and a lot quicker, I wasn’t like the walking dead,” Michael says laughing.

He says they’re more grateful for their health now.

But Becky realized Covid wasn’t just another outbreak for the family. They thought they had a backup plan, until they didn’t.

“You have to realize those times are very likely ... and it’s gonna happen again,” she says. “Then you decide, are you gonna keep going? Well, we’re not giving up.”

Becky and Michael have reached out to their attorneys to make sure they have a safety net for the next outbreak. 

This story was part of IPR’s series ‘Our Lives Have Changed’ on northern Michiganders whose lives have been uprooted by the coronavirus pandemic.