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"A victory every time": Battling cancer while the world battles the coronavirus

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Nikhil Shah, 5, undergoes weekly chemotherapy treatments in San Antonio. Courtesy of Rupal Shah

Each week, The Texas Tribune is featuring the stories of a group of Texans from different parts of the state and different walks of life who are confronting the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. New installments will be published every Thursday. You can read the entire collection here.

Click on a name to jump directly to a story.

Monday victories: a 5-year-old faces cancer during the pandemic

Rupal Shah, 45, is an education technology executive in San Antonio.

BY EMMA PLATOFF

Sometimes in the evenings, 5-year-old Nikhil Shah asks his parents: Do I have to go to the clinic tomorrow?

On Sundays, they have to tell him yes.

Lea and Rupal Shah do their best to prepare their son for his weekly chemotherapy appointments, which fall first thing every Monday morning. They try not to make him feel rushed. He’ll watch a TV show with his older sister, Nina, brush his teeth.

Before they leave the house, one of them has to apply lidocaine over the quarter-sized port in his chest where the medicine goes in. By the time the numbing medicine is being applied, Nik knows full well where he’s headed; by the time they get there, his chest is numbed enough to dull the pain of the treatment.

So much has changed since March, when Nik started treatment for a Wilms tumor, the most common type of kidney cancer in children. His parents first realized something was wrong during a meal at a Tex-Mex restaurant, when Nina picked Nik up and he winced. Now, the restaurants are closed along with everything else, and there is no traffic on the 25-minute drive to the clinic in San Antonio.

There’s now a screening process to enter the clinic, a strict protocol of questions. Only one parent is now allowed in, so Lea and Rupal take turns.

When they arrive, it’s a mad dash from the parking garage into the clinic. Nik wears a child-sized N95 mask. Rupal, in a mask and often gloves, sometimes worries that he brushed something or came too close to the parking lot attendant. With elective procedures paused, there have been fewer people in the clinic every week. Everyone wears a mask.

Like any other 5-year-old getting a shot, Nik fights — the needle is an intimidating 22-gauge, three quarters of an inch long, scary at any age. When Rupal goes, he distracts Nik with “Paw Patrol” on his cellphone. Lea reads him Arthur books. It takes 30 minutes or so for the drugs to enter his body. The whole process is usually over by lunchtime.

“It feels like a victory every time,” Lea said. Each week is closer to the end of the 25-week course. When Nik gets home, she swallows him up in a hug.

Nik knows he has to go, and he doesn’t fight his parents — but it’s not easy on him. When he gets home on Mondays, he’ll sometimes ask again: Do I have to go tomorrow?

“No,” Lea gets to tell him. “No, you don’t have to go back tomorrow or the next day or the next day ... .”

Then he does a little celebration.

Mourning their dying business, but "excited about what's next"

Joseph Norman, 37, is an oil well technician in Midland.

BY MITCHELL FERMAN

Joseph Norman was preparing for his first test run. He downloaded new computer software, set up the microphone and sounded excited to start his newest challenge — turning a homemade livestream show on YouTube into his next career.

But first?

“Dealing with this crying baby over here,” Norman said, laughing.

Joseph Norman does a test run for what he hopes will be a series of livestreams on some of his favorite topics.

Joseph Norman does a test run for what he hopes will be a series of livestreams on some of his favorite topics. Courtesy of Joseph Norman

Between staying home to avoid the coronavirus pandemic, helping raise two children and losing nearly all of his business as an oil well technician after global oil prices tanked recently, Norman is trying to figure it all out. Norman — like so many people working in Texas oil fields — is facing a lot of tough choices.

The biggest choice: whether to try keeping Forty A&M, the company that he and his wife, Belinda, launched in 2013, alive during the hardest economic times they’ve experienced.

After they lost their biggest client last month, Norman said he worried about breaking the news to Belinda.

“I didn’t want to tell her,” he said. “We [had] just found out we were pregnant.”

The company had succeeded far more than they could have imagined seven years ago, eventually bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Now their income is nearly nothing.

“I told her,” Norman said. “And she was like, ‘It’s okay, I'm excited to see what's next.’”

The idea of shutting down the business that they had “built up from an idea” put him in a funk for a while, Norman said.

“At this point, I don't expect to go back to Forty A&M,” Norman said. “I think it’s done. I think it’s over with.”

Belinda, who is pregnant with their third child, has tried to keep Joseph’s spirits up.

“Joe was cleaning out the office, it was kind of a mourning thing,” Belinda said. “He said, ‘I guess I got to throw this away.’ I said, ‘Babe, let’s get a bunch of bins, mark them ‘Forty A&M’ and put them in the garage.’

“The faster we accept it,” she added, “the quicker we can move on.”

Joseph said his mid-20s — when he made a lot of money in a single oil deal and then lost nearly all of it in the 2008 recession — taught him about moving on after a setback.

“I pouted for two years!” he said. “You can’t sit there and pout for two years, man.”

Now he has a rule: He cannot feel sorry for himself longer than 72 hours.

“My wife’s having a baby, my kids need to eat,” he said. “I cannot wait. And I'm not going down the pity party road and feel sorry for myself and wait for stimulus checks.”

On the menu this week: experimentation and hope for the future

Debbie Chen, 49, is a restaurant owner in Houston.

BY ALEX SAMUELS

Things might be looking grim right now, but Debbie Chen is still preparing for the future — or at least the next four to five months.

With summer around the corner, Chen is already thinking up ways to jazz up Shabu House’s menu: a Vietnamese dish with vermicelli noodles, chocolate chip and almond cookies to go with the restaurant's milk teas, and a new rice dish.

It’s hard to think ahead when she doesn’t know whether her restaurant in Houston’s Chinatown will be open for dine-in eating in May, let alone during the sweltering summer months. But Chen’s trying.

“I almost feel like there’s two people inside of me sometimes,” Chen said. “If I can picture the worst-case scenario and figure out the plan, then I feel calm enough to compartmentalize that and then focus on the things we can be doing.”

Besides Houston’s lockdown on dine-in eating — which has hampered the restaurant’s ability to make virtually any money — she also hasn’t received the loans that she applied for earlier this month. For April, she had to dip into her savings to pay the nearly $6,000 the restaurant owed in rent.

Debbie Chen has been working on additions to the menu at her restaurant in Houston's Chinatown as she waits for permission to reopen to dine-in customers.

Debbie Chen has been working on additions to the menu at her restaurant in Houston's Chinatown as she waits for permission to reopen to dine-in customers. Courtesy of Debbie Chen

It’s not that she was denied the money from Chase Bank or the Small Business Association. She just never heard back. She’s been trying to check the status of her loan application, but she said the bank employees have been slow in getting back to her.

She’s read news reports that a lot of the federal money originally allocated to help small businesses like her own has run out.

“For me, right now, the worst-case scenario is we don’t get a loan,” said Chen, who is the restaurant’s majority owner. And if that happens, she added, “I liquidate the rest of my savings, and that means we’ll have enough money to maybe get through the end of July or August.”

By July or August, she’s hoping Shabu House will be open again for dine-in customers. While Chen doesn’t know what business will look like then, she’s at least hoping to earn enough to break even by the end of the year.

So for now, she’s focusing on the menu and thinking of summer.

“The silver lining is we have the freedom to experiment,” she said. “What do we have to lose by trying something new?”

County judge is ready to return to normalcy. But only when it’s safe.

Nathan McDonald, 64, is the county judge in Matagorda County.

BY CASSANDRA POLLOCK

Matagorda County is ready to get back to some sense of normalcy after the new coronavirus upended life for most everyone there — but it can’t, at least not yet.

“We’re all at the starting line, ready to start going into recovery,” county Judge Nathan McDonald said last week. “This is just a different animal.”

McDonald, the county’s chief executive since 2007, said the issue is the “width and breadth” of the pandemic. This is nothing like the natural disasters he has helped his rural community confront in the past.

With Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017, he said, the county started the recovery process within a matter of days. Harvey hammered the middle Texas coast with winds and storm surges before dumping more than 50 inches of rain on the Houston area. But “in nine days, it was over, and we were able to start the recovery,” McDonald said.

He doesn’t know how long he and other county officials around the state will be dealing with the virus, but he expects to be dealing with it even after the president and Gov. Greg Abbott give the green light to begin reopening parts of the economy.

McDonald said about 95% of the community is abiding by the social distancing orders, and he and other local officials have encouraged businesses to get creative in finding ways to stay afloat. McDonald said some of the larger businesses in the community have pitched in by purchasing lunch from a local restaurant for the sheriff’s office, fire department or hospital staff.

“A hundred and fifty lunches at $15 a pop is a good day for these little restaurants while they’re closed down and can’t have normal traffic,” McDonald said. “It’s just one good story after the other.”

Only a few restaurants have shuttered their doors so far during the pandemic, McDonald said, adding that he thought they would reopen as soon as the recovery process started.

Still, McDonald doesn’t think that the state should “open the gates” overnight and try to return to business as usual.

The county has already started laying the groundwork for entering what McDonald called “economic development mode,” assembling an economic task force and encouraging local businesses to apply for relief money to help them survive the pandemic.

McDonald says many businesses already have applied for financial help through programs like the federal Paycheck Protection Program and Small Business Administration loans. His mother-in-law, an accountant, has been working around the clock to help her clients file the necessary paperwork.

Responding to the virus so far, McDonald said, has been like skiing: a slow ride up the mountain, then arriving at the peak before skiing downhill. The past six weeks, he said, have felt like riding that lift as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise. The county reported 56 COVID-19 cases and three deaths as of Tuesday.

“We’re just about to that peak,” he said. “That’s what I look forward to — is getting off that peak.”

“It doesn’t feel like a crisis as much”: a new normal in the pandemic

Liz Salas, 23, is a food pantry employee in Dallas.

BY STACY FERNÁNDEZ

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic upended everyone’s lives, workdays are starting to feel normal again to Liz Salas, an intake specialist at the CitySquare Food Pantry in Dallas.

This week the pantry got boxes of fresh produce — bananas, melons, grapes and sweet potatoes — in larger quantities than it's seen in weeks, along with meat donations from local restaurants that don’t have enough customers and worry the food will go bad.

“It helps us out to be able to give our neighbors something a little bit different, especially if it's something fancy,” Salas said of the restaurant donations. “That definitely puts people up in spirits.”

Texas Army National Guard soldiers have been among the volunteers at the Dallas food pantry where Liz Salas works. Food donations, including fresh fruit, have been increasing lately.
Texas Army National Guard soldiers have been among the volunteers at the Dallas food pantry where Liz Salas works. Food donations, including fresh fruit, have been increasing lately. Courtesy of Liz Salas

The rush of overwhelmed first-timers has died down. People know to grab their clipboards and check in. Those who initially came to the pantry in a panic because they’d lost their jobs or their kids were now home all day are now becoming regulars and greeting some of the staff members by name.

A new group of volunteers — most of them from the Texas Army National Guard and a program for out-of-work service industry workers — have largely taken over the daily operation. Some days things go so smoothly that the team wraps up ahead of schedule.

Salas still hasn’t taken a day off since demand soared at the pantry last month as the pandemic took hold in Dallas. The self-proclaimed workaholic is still apprehensive about leaving her boss without her right-hand woman, but the pulsing uncertainty Salas has felt for the last month and a half is less overwhelming.

At her local grocery store, the shelves are a little more full. This week, Salas scored a rack of ribs so she could make her signature spicy BBQ ribs. She’s making them this weekend after craving them all week. It’s a recipe she hasn’t had the time or energy to make since she first moved into her apartment in January.

It’s progress. When the pandemic started, she was too exhausted from work to do anything but eat, sleep, talk to her mom and watch Netflix.

“It’s becoming our new routine,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a crisis as much.”

In a rural hospital, the first COVID-19 patient arrives

Donna Boatright, 66, is a hospital administrator in Sweetwater.

BY EDGAR WALTERS

It finally happened.

Six weeks after Texas’ first reported case of COVID-19, the Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital admitted its first patient to fall ill from the coronavirus.

For Donna Boatright, the hospital’s administrator, the experience went about as smoothly as she could have hoped — at least by the standards of a chaotic global pandemic. The patient, a man in his 50s from out of state, was wearing a mask and got sick at a local business last Sunday, Boatright said.

Someone called 911, and the ambulance team arrived wearing protective equipment. They called the hospital staff to let them know to prepare for a likely COVID-19 patient.

Hospital workers suited up in protective equipment and readied a room to hold the patient in isolation. He was admitted to the emergency room, given X-rays and transferred to the intensive care unit. A test confirmed the doctors’ fears. But after three days, the man had recovered enough to be discharged.

Donna Boatright, left, appeared with other officials as Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital announced  its first case of COVID-19.

Donna Boatright, left, appeared with other officials as Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital announced its first case of COVID-19. Courtesy of Donna Boatright

“He was really brought through the facility in a very safe manner,” Boatright said. “The plans that we put in place for the most part were very effective.”

On top of all that, it was the first pay day for hospital staff after a hospital-wide pay cut made necessary after the cancellation of all elective procedures.

“I’ve not had any whining or crying or carrying on,” she said. “They’ve really bucked up and are doing their part.”

Still, Boatright, an obsessive planner, is holding her breath about what things would look like if there were person-to-person spread in her community.

Maybe Rolling Plains’ experience has made people more cautious about the virus, knowing it could appear in their community at any time.

Or maybe not. It’s hard to know when the only places you go are work, home and occasionally the pick-up station at Walmart, Boatright said.

She watched with dismay the news over the weekend about protests to reopen businesses as record numbers of Americans have lost work. “I understand the concern over the economy, good heavens, but I’m a firm believer in the greater good,” she said. “Sometimes we all have to sacrifice for the greater good.”

For now, Boatright continues to adjust to life at home. She’s taken on some additional housework since her housekeeper is no longer able to visit. She’s waiting on Amazon to deliver a paint-by-numbers set she ordered a few weeks ago that she hopes to share, remotely, with her grandchildren. And she’s praying for and listening to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She’s a huge fan.

“I’ve laughed and said my biggest inconvenience is I need to get a haircut,” Boatright said. “In fact, me and the dogs need haircuts.”

Soldiers, candy and face masks: Lawyer walks both sides of the border

Taylor Levy, 33, is an immigration lawyer in El Paso.

BY JULIÁN AGUILAR

EL PASO — Taylor Levy did something last weekend she hadn’t done regularly for more than a month: She went for a relaxing walk.

It wasn’t something she could usually do while she was temporarily living in Ciudad Juárez because the gritty, industrial border city is still plagued with violence. She had relocated there after the coronavirus pandemic hit the borderlands because she wanted to be able to help migrants in Mexico even if the border crossings were shut down.

Levy came back to Texas after she realized she’d still be able to go to Ciudad Juárez every day because her work as an attorney is considered essential on both sides of the border.

She’s now able to do more immigration work in Texas — like visiting an immigration detention center to assist a colleague with a client — while still acting as an unofficial adviser for asylum-seeking migrants in Ciudad Juárez, most of whom are waiting for court dates in the United States.

Last week, Levy added her name to an effort by the Borderland Immigration Council, a group of legal, religious and human rights groups that are pressuring the Trump administration to release from detention immigrants who could face severe illness or death should they become infected with the coronavirus. Since last Friday, the number of COVID-19 cases in Texas detention centers climbed from five to at least 30, including four in El Paso and 24 in Alvarado.

But she remains a fixture near the downtown bridge in Ciudad Juárez — so much so that Mexican soldiers recognize her and seem to appreciate the candy she offers them from time to time. (The candy is usually reserved for the migrant children she meets.)

She recently met a group of asylum seekers who traveled from Nogales, Sonora, to Juárez to find out when their court dates were scheduled in El Paso. Because Sonora has a strict stay-at-home order right now, Levy said some of the migrants were terrified that they had violated the law by leaving. But they’re still determined to find refuge in the U.S.

Levy remains dedicated to helping them however she can, even if it means only offering them a homemade face mask or some hand sanitizer.

“I feel like the work is essential and it’s necessary and that I am in a privileged place where I can do it,” she said. “There is definitely a risk of contagion, but the restaurant worker and the grocery store worker are exposing themselves, those are also essential jobs.”

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