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Grounded: How one farmer pilot battled COVID-19

Holly Spangler Matt Runyan
BACK HOME: Matt Runyan comes from generations of farmer-pilots, including his cousin Joe, each of their dads, and their grandfather before them. Matt and Joe both fly commercially and work the farm on their off days.
Matt Runyan became the first individual in McDonough County, Ill., to test positive for COVID-19. Here’s how he isolated himself and how his family cared for him.

When he started feeling sick, Matt Runyan didn’t waste any time.

A commercial airline pilot and farmer from Bushnell, Ill., Matt returned from a four-day flight trip on March 15. The world was talking about the novel coronavirus, so when his throat started hurting the very next day, he began isolating from non-family — not terribly hard to do on the farm.


But it wasn’t long before his symptoms worsened. Matt has been a commercial pilot since 1998, and he isn’t one to panic or overreact. He takes measured responses, in life as in flight.

So, as he felt a little worse each day, he moved to the spare bedroom on March 19, isolating himself from his wife and three sons.

“Just out of concern,” he says. Just in case.

“It’s hard to be in a room when you hear your family engaging and not be able to talk to them,” Matt recalls. “You’re so close, but you feel far away, because you can’t open the door and talk.”

He says he and his wife, Kea, didn’t let the kids touch anything. Kea would bring food up to him, leave it outside his door, refill his water bottle, and go wash her hands. He’d wait until everyone had gone downstairs for the day before he left the bedroom to use the bathroom.

By the weekend, he had a low-grade fever — never above 100 degrees F, but enough to ground him as a pilot, so he called in sick for his weekend flights.

By March 23, the Runyans decided to see a doctor, mostly because Matt’s throat hurt and he just didn’t feel well. His temperature still was not above 100. The doctor diagnosed Matt with Strep C and sent him home, saying they don’t treat Strep C with antibiotics.

Still, Matt wanted to be cautious. He called the nursing hotline his airline provides. The nurse reassured him that he didn’t have the three symptoms they were looking for at that point to justify a COVID-19 test — fever over 101, shortness of breath and coughing — but told him to isolate, just in case. He was already on it.

Symptoms mount

Within a few days, though, Matt’s fever hit 101. After some debate (Should he expose Kea by riding in a car together to the clinic?), they headed back to the doctor. This time the doctor heard wheezing in his chest, ordered an X-ray and diagnosed him with pneumonia in his left lung. She went to bat for him, asking the hospital for a COVID-19 test.

“Her opinion was, ‘He was traveling in different states, he has pneumonia, and if anybody has it, it’s probably him,’” Matt says. Plus, he had the sore throat that doctors weren’t recognizing as part of the symptomology then but are now. 

So Matt received the COVID-19 panel on March 28. At that point, there were no confirmed cases in either McDonough County, where the Runyans live, or Fulton County, where they doctor. So, the doctor researched treatments in New York that were seeing a positive response, and sent Matt home with a Z-pack and doxycycline.

By the following night, he’d gotten worse. “I couldn’t stop coughing,” he says. “It was harder to breathe and catch my breath.”

They made a midnight run to the ER at Graham Hospital in Canton, Ill. Kea had to leave Matt at the door and wait in the car. Somewhere around 3 a.m., he was admitted to the hospital. She drove home.

They kept Matt in isolation for three days, giving him the same antibiotics via IV until his pneumonia improved, and sent him home on April 1 with a familiar admonition: Isolate from your family for 14 days. But he still hadn’t received the COVID-19 test result.

Matt says he gradually felt better. The McDonough County Health Department called to check on him, but still no test result.

Finally, 14 days after the initial test, Matt got the call: His test was positive. He had COVID-19.

Diagnosis positive

The positive diagnosis was, in some ways, a relief. It means Matt could have antibodies and may be cleared for work at some point. He was also feeling a heck of a lot better, even before the positive diagnosis.

In other ways, though, it opened up a whole other can of worms — namely, the social media kind.

Matt was the first positive COVID-19 case in McDonough County, an event that generated press releases, news coverage and reassurances from county health officials.

“A lot of people on Facebook demanded to know who I was and where I lived,” Matt says. “It was unsettling. You’re concerned about your family not getting sick, then you have to worry about people who may come by.”

Concerned about the aggressive nature of the commenters, the family contacted the sheriff. He reassured them he was watching and increased drive-bys of the Runyan farm to a couple of times a day.

Matt laughs a little. “We didn’t know what they [commenters] thought they were going to do — go sit in their car out here? Throw rocks at the window?”

He and his family took some solace in the sheriff’s real-life perspective: “He said a lot of people feel pretty brave at the computer, but when it comes to real life, they tend to back down a little bit.”

At the end of the day, Matt knew the facts of the situation: He was a commercial airline pilot, yes, but he’d also been quarantining on their farm since March 16. It wasn’t like he was working in a local factory or business and had contaminated their workspace. He kept on and continued his isolation on the farm through April 20.

Happy ending

As of early May, Matt says he’s fully recovered but still gets tired by late afternoon, likely remnants of the pneumonia that will stay with him for six weeks or better.

He has high praise for all of the rural medical staff he interacted with — from the hospital to the health department.

“Both doctors did their best. The nurses in the ICU were great. They were very caring and very professional. I’m sure they were concerned, too, but they didn’t show it,” he says. “I appreciate that very much. They did their job well.”

As for the lengthy test results, he says it’s unfortunate that the lab was so far behind that his March 28 test didn’t get a result until April 10 — well after he was feeling better. “But from what I understand, this was a private lab, and with the volume, they got behind a little bit. State-run labs were a little quicker,” he explains.

Today, his symptoms have waned. While he didn’t have the overwhelming body pain some COVID-19 patients experience, he did lose his sense of taste and smell. “I wanted A-1 on chicken, just so I could taste the spice, if not the flavor,” he says, laughing.

Matt looks around their rural community closely these days and is thankful.

“We’re blessed that we’re in a rural community and not so close together like in New York City. But it’s still out there,” he says, reflecting on how many asymptomatic people are touching gas pumps, grocery store shelves, pin pads.

“You do your best to wash your hands and not touch your eyes. You try to do the best you can,” he says.

In the end, the best news is that his family remains healthy — which means their hardcore isolation paid off.

“Isolating from the family is hard,” Matt says, “but we were fortunate no one else got it.”

Timeline of COVID-19 on the farm

March 12-15: Four-day flight trip, which included Las Vegas.
March 16: Sore throat started; began isolation from non-family.
March 19: Began isolation from family; moved to spare bedroom.
March 21: Called in sick for weekend flights, with sore throat and mild fever; felt worse throughout weekend.
March 23: Went to doctor with sore throat, mild fever under 100, just didn’t feel good; diagnosed with Strep C, which isn’t treated with antibiotics, and sent home.
March 23: Called airline’s nursing hotline; nurse confirmed he didn’t meet COVID requirements of 101 fever, cough, shortness of breath. Felt worse each day that week.
March 27: Fever finally hit 101.
March 28: Went to convenient care; doctor heard wheezing, ordered X-ray, diagnosed pneumonia in left lung. Tested for COVID-19.
March 29: General test results showed no Influenza A or B; began antibiotics for COVID-19. Felt worse all day.
March 29: Went to ER late at night due to labored breathing, constant coughing; was admitted to hospital and given IV antibiotics.
April 1: Pneumonia was better; sent home to recover.
April 10: Received positive COVID-19 test result.
April 13: Family released from isolation but didn’t leave farm.
April 15: Ended isolation from family but didn’t leave farm.
April 17: Family ended isolation.
April 20: Ended isolation on the farm and left farm.
April 23: Recovered.

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