JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. --
No cough, no fever, no body aches. Nothing really out of sorts other than a slightly diminished sense of taste and smell that made the dinner his wife had prepared seem a little bland.
Unbeknownst to him, Master Sgt. Matthew Alejandro was sick with coronavirus.
But that would turn out to be the least of his problems.
Just days prior on March 14, Alejandro, an 844th Communications Squadron executive travel team member, had traveled to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to complete advanced network operations for the Secretary of Defense, who was slated to be there on official business.
One day later, Alejandro’s trip was cut short due to the Pentagon’s stop movement order. The COVID-19 pandemic had tightened its grip on the nation and world, as the uptick in illnesses and deaths persisted.
On March 15, a work van arrived at the airport to take Alejandro, his three colleagues, and their gear back to their office at Joint Base Andrews. There, Alejandro’s father picked him up to take him home, where his pregnant wife and 2-year old son were asleep and awaiting his arrival.
During the drive, his father mentioned muddling through a cold.
“I had just gone through two airports and sat on a plane with hundreds of people for hours,” Alejandro said. “So I was more worried for him than myself.”
As Alejandro and his wife, Aimu, had solidified their labor and delivery plans at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Alejandro’s father reported just a week later that he and his wife tested positive for COVID-19. Alejandro’s worry for the health of his parents, wife, toddler son, and unborn son was now amplified.
Meanwhile, Alejandro had lost his sense of taste and smell, the harbinger of what was to come. “I couldn’t really taste much … it was weird; my wife had made a meal that’s normally spicy, but I remember thinking it doesn’t really taste that spicy.”
The following night, his wife researched coronavirus symptoms, which prompted them to call the nurse advice line, where he was advised to get tested.
His quarantine began the day of his test on March 24. A glimmer of hope soon became the news they had dreaded.
“My wife and I were waiting for the result, and Fort Belvoir [Community Hospital] told me that even though I was on quarantine, I’d be allowed in the delivery room if my test came back negative.”
His wife, Alejandro recounted, was “elated” by the possibility. She was in front of their home when he called public health to get his results two days later.
“I remember opening the door and telling her, ‘Hey, I got the results; I tested positive.’”
At this point, Alejandro explained, he and his wife knew she would have to deliver alone and remain separated from his family until April 6, during which time his wife would go into labor.
“Her eyes just welled up with tears and I couldn’t really console her for obvious reasons, but I wanted to run over and give her a hug,” Alejandro said. “It was one thing to not be able to go into the delivery room with her, but if something were to happen to them during delivery, would this be the last time I saw her?”
While in quarantine, he was relegated to snippets of his son’s birth via live stream video from a midwife in the delivery room.
“I got to watch my wife on Facetime, but I didn’t want to say anything over the speakerphone for fear of interfering with the doctor and midwife’s delivery instructions,” Alejandro said.
His wife suffered a bit of nausea, the result of a complication with her son’s umbilical cord. All was well at the end, but the main objective, Alejandro said, was to keep her calm.
Life at home became an arrangement of necessary discomfort. The family painstakingly disinfected the house. Alejandro used separate facilities. He moved into a spare room-turned-office, and the walls, Alejandro lamented, aren’t well insulated.
“It killed me to hear the baby or my other son cry and I can’t go over and help; it killed me to hear my wife stressed,” Alejandro said. “I can’t be there for anybody — I’m basically behind this door, and I just sat in a room by myself for two weeks.”
Though Aimu’s mother had previously arrived from Japan to help, Alejandro’s only interaction with his family was by way of internet or phone.
“It feels like you’re not really with them and there’s no way around it because you don’t want to risk them catching anything, even though you’re asymptomatic,” he recounted.
Through the pane
Perhaps the only highlights of the family’s crisis were the moments through the glass window pane, Alejandro said. His wife would bring their newborn son, Sean, to the French doors that separated his room from the rest of the house.
“I felt tortured about something that I’m not suffering through, since I have no symptoms, Alejandro said. “I’m the extra hand who was supposed to be there to help.”
Save for emergencies, Alejandro knew he couldn’t leave his room, and if he had, he knew what was at stake.
"The two weeks I stayed in that room, that I didn’t get to be there with them probably saved their lives,” Alejandro said. “They were right there on the other side of the door and I kept thinking, ‘I can’t play with my son, I don’t want to get him sick; I can’t see my wife, because I don’t want to get her sick.’”
Though in the profession of arms, military families are accustomed to sacrifices, specifically in the way of duty-related separation from relatives and friends, Alejandro acknowledged the “firsts” he missed out on with his newborn son while under the same roof.
“You miss the first bath, the first feeding, the skin-to-skin contact to bond,” he explained. “You miss those precious moments, but in the long run, I’ll be around for the other things like school graduation, recitals — whatever they do as they grow up that may not have happened if they got sick.”
While he’s grateful for the offers to help, Alejandro said he understands the limitations.
“There’s no way anyone can remove my positive diagnosis, or enable me to hold my child, or give me back the time with my wife when she had to be in the hospital alone.”
Although he declines sympathy for himself, he praises the staff at the 11th Medical Wing and the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital for their care and attentiveness to him and his family.
“I wasn’t coughing or sick or immobile, but the medical staff took the highest precaution possible for the little amount of information they had,” Alejandro said.
His boss, Senior Master Sgt. Robert Hairston, 844th CS executive travel superintendent, didn’t seem surprised at Alejandro’s care and concern for others. “He couldn’t have handled this situation any better than he did; he’s just an amazing person who's always looking out for his coworkers and family.”
Alejandro’s lessons learned are simple, he said.
“Don’t take time for granted, and don’t underestimate the virus, since there’s so little history on it right now,” he shared. “The greatest risk is the unpredictability, so the best thing that anyone can do is follow the guidelines of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and trust that they’re doing their best to keep everyone safe and help contain the virus to a point where healthcare resources can handle the influx of patients.”
When it comes to protecting the life of himself and his family, Alejandro said he’d make the same decision again.
For more information, visit www.cdc.gov, www.af.mil, or https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Spotlight/Coronavirus/.