When Dr. Sumrall's husband and their children were diagnosed with COVID-19, the family became a house divided but it didn’t tear them apart.

Coronavirus Updates | one year ago

COVID-19 Hits Home for Doctor, Her Husband and Their Children

When a doctor’s husband and their children were diagnosed with COVID, the family became a house divided but it didn’t tear them apart.

On July 20, Rusty Sumrall woke up without his sense of smell. And life turned upside down in a flash, not only for him, but also his wife, Ashley Sumrall, MD, and their children. 

“As soon as that happened, he moved to a different part of the house,” says Dr. Sumrall, a neuro-oncologist at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute. “It really was unnerving.”

Rusty tested positive a few days after he had moved to a different part of the house. “I was isolated by myself and the kids didn’t test positive for a week,” Rusty says. “But when they tested positive, they joined me.”

Abraham Lincoln said a house divided cannot stand. But in the Sumralls’ case, a house divided was their best chance of keeping Dr. Sumrall and their six-month-old baby  healthy, while Rusty, 11-year-old Emma Kate, and 10-year-old Carter recovered.

Throughout the Sumrall’s recovery, Dr. Sumrall was tested three times and they all came back negative. Neither she nor Rusty know how he contracted the disease

Another New Normal Hits Home

Feeling healthy but remaining at home out of precaution, Dr. Sumrall continued to provide care for her patients. The first change in patient care was Dr. Sumrall’s pivot to strictly virtual patient visits, while she picked up the mantle at home. Prior to his illness, Rusty handled the bulk of childcare and household duties. But his unavailability shifted those responsibilities to his wife’s plate. Juggling everything was no easy task but, thankfully, she didn’t have to do it alone.

“We had a lot of support,” she says. “A lot of our friends brought food and supplies over. They came to the house and dropped it off on the porch. Rusty adds: “We did a lot of carryout, too.”

Rusty, Emma Kate, and Carter had their own areas of the house and their own dinner time. Dr. Sumrall and the baby were on their own as well, and the separation was difficult. “We’re really a close family, so the hardest thing was distancing from each other,” she says. “As a mom, I did the best I could to effectively distance from the kids.”

After his initial test, Atrium Health COVID-19 Virtual Hospital entered the picture. “Being admitted greatly impacted my health,” he says. “If they weren’t navigating my patient care virtually, I probably would’ve been a lot sicker.”

Rhonda Patt, MD, the family’s pediatrician based at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Charlotte Pediatric Clinic - SouthPark, says the virtual hospital has been a game-changer for many COVID-19 patients. Healthcare workers call routinely to detail symptoms, make sanitation checks, and offer quarantine advice. There’s a virtual hospital for adults and another one for pediatrics.

“Based on conditions, we make decisions on how frequently to check in,” Dr. Patt says. “We have the ability to send teams to the home when necessary. It has been a huge success because it’s kept a lot of COVID patients out of the brick-and-mortar hospital, leaving more availability there for the sickest patients.” 

Ripple Effects Go Out and About

Effects of the novel coronavirus extended beyond the Sumralls’ walls, all the way to a nearby long-term care facility for individuals with special needs. That’s where their 15-year-old daughter, Kinsey, lives, and the facility was closed to visitors from March until August.

“We just saw her for the first time in a little over five months,” Rusty says. “That was a little emotional. The new baby was only one month old when we had to stop visiting Kinsey. They effectively don’t know each other.”

Dr. Ashley Sumrall and her husband, Rusty, visit their daughter at a long-term care facility for individuals with special needs under strict COVID-19 protocol.

Prior to the pandemic, Rusty visited Kinsey daily, Dr. Sumrall went every weekend, and the whole family made the trip together as often as possible. When the facility finally allowed visitors to return, the experience was completely different. “We had to sit six feet away and we couldn’t touch her,” Rusty says. “That had much more impact on us.” 

Dr. Sumrall appreciates the staff’s diligence in establishing and following protocols; “They’ve done a great job of keeping Kinsey protected,” she says. “It was really great seeing that. The people who care for her have been amazing.”

Once their home quarantine ended in early August, the Sumralls tried to re-establish normalcy. Emma Kate and Carter have gone back to school. Dr. Sumrall has gone back to the office. Rusty has gone back to the grocery store, but sometimes struggles with the mental side effects of being in public places. “I knew I was recovered but I was afraid I was going to affect someone else,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t putting other people at risk, but it was hard to overcome that in my mind.”

He says there’s a stigma among some friends because he had COVID. Dr. Sumrall has noticed it as well. “It’s a very strange feeling,” she says. “Even though I tested negative, people think I have it, too.” 

Dr. Patt commends the Sumralls for the way they managed their situation. “There are a lot of hurdles for a family when one member gets sick,” she says. “There’s a difficult balance on how not to spread the virus and make sure you’re taking of each other and staying safe and healthy.”

She doesn’t have to tell the Sumralls. They’re living proof.