Mack family

From left: Reggie Mack, Regina Mack, Rodney Mack and Etta Mack (front)

Rodney Mack had been hospitalized with coronavirus for less than a week when his mother answered the phone and received the worst possible news: His organs were failing and the end was near. 

Those words sent her into shock — her son was 39 and otherwise healthy — but the doctor's next question left her almost speechless, Etta Mack said in a recent interview.

The question was whether she would give permission, when the time came, for her son's caregivers to avoid extraordinary resuscitation measures out of concern for their own health, according to her account of the phone call, which matched the accounts of other relatives who were also on the line. It was one of the countless difficult conversations health care providers have had in recent months as coronavirus victims often decline rapidly, leaving their families with tough medical decisions.

Etta Mack thought for a moment before answering, and even contacted her cousin who's a respiratory therapist for advice. Then she called the doctor back and told him no.

"That's what I told him: I'm not going to stop fighting for my child, and neither are you," she said. "I feel like my son was being treated like a guinea pig. They weren't trying to do everything possible to save him."

A spokesman for Ochsner Medical Center in Baton Rouge said the hospital couldn't comment on a specific case because of medical privacy laws. 

"Our caregivers' pledge is to save lives every day and to offer comfort-focused treatment during times when our loved ones' lives simply cannot be saved," hospital officials said in a statement. "Ochsner prioritizes discussing individualized care options directly with the patient, as well as with a family member when appropriate."

The Mack family's account of their experience presents the latest example of modern medicine being turned upside down during the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted hospitals nationwide to make fundamental changes like prohibiting visitors, reusing protective equipment like masks and gowns, and limiting contact with contagious patients whenever possible.

Normally when a patient starts to code, or go into cardiac arrest, a team of nurses and doctors rushes into the room and immediately starts lifesaving measures. Even in the best case scenarios, those actions might not save the person, but amid the coronavirus pandemic, some hospitals have fewer staff and supplies available to attend to coding patients. The process also poses an acute risk for staff because chest compressions and other treatments send virus particles from the patient's lungs spewing into the air. 

Rodney Mack's family acknowledged the massive sacrifices that health care workers are making and expressed concern for their safety, but said the question of whether to resuscitate had crossed a line. Health care workers, however, have said such conversations are unfortunately necessary.

Rodney Mack was overall healthy until coronavirus ravaged his body, relatives said.

He had been diagnosed with high blood pressure several years ago, but changed his diet to control the problem and never needed to take medication, relatives said. He didn't have other underlying health conditions that exacerbate the effects of coronavirus, including diabetes, obesity and chronic lung illnesses. 

Most people killed from the virus have been older, making him one of the youngest in the Baton Rouge region. Less than 5 percent of more than 200 victims parishwide have been under age 40, according to data from the East Baton Rouge coroner's office.

Records also show the parish's youngest victims are overwhelmingly African American. That statistic falls in line with larger disparities at the state and national level showing the disease is having an outsized impact on communities of color.

"To see a healthy person like that go to the hospital for treatment and never come out," said Rodney Mack's sister Regina Mack. "Something's just not right."

She said her brother started feeling sick toward the end of March. He went to an urgent care clinic with a fever and shortness of breath but was not tested for coronavirus, she said. Then he went to Ochsner hospital, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and sent home with antibiotics, relatives said. They weren't sure whether he was administered a coronavirus test at that time.

He finally returned to the hospital a few days later — after he had started coughing up blood and couldn't walk from one room to the next without losing his breath, according to his family. That's when he was admitted for treatment. 

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He died less than a week later on April 15.

"If they just would have caught it earlier, treated it earlier," his brother Reggie Mack said. "We don't know if the outcome would have been different, but at least he would have had a fighting chance."

Ochsner officials said they have been following federal and state guidance to determine when to administer coronavirus tests, which are now being given to all the hospital's patients. Federal guidelines have changed repeatedly amid widespread testing shortages since the virus arrived in the United States. 

"We believe in broader testing to learn more about COVID-19 virus prevalence in order to help make the best decisions regarding the future of our employees, patients and community," Ochsner officials said in a statement.

Hospitals across the country have struggled with questions about how best to handle the influx of coronavirus patients: When should a patient be placed on a ventilator? Are there less invasive treatments to help them breathe? What's the best way to handle conversations about "do not resuscitate" orders, either with patients themselves or their families?

Those questions add to underlying concerns about patient comfort. People hospitalized with coronavirus often can't have visitors and receive limited contact with hospital staff. Many are fighting for their lives alone, heavily sedated and hooked up to a bunch of machines.

Meanwhile their families are stuck on the outside, waiting anxiously for phone calls from doctors and nurses, hoping for a chance to video chat with their loved one.

Before Rodney Mack was intubated and placed on a ventilator, his mom told him over the phone that everything would be alright. She tried to calm him down, describing the "welcome home" banner that would be waiting for him when he was released from the hospital.

That was the last time she heard her son's voice.

The family held a small funeral service and drive through viewing, adhering to restrictions on crowd sizes.

Relatives said they're committed to keeping his memory alive, recalling his playful sense of humor, his delicious cooking and unwavering devotion to his sons, ages 6 and 16. Mack had recently gone back to school, enrolling in college computer science classes because he wanted to make his sons proud and give them a better life. He also worked for his brother's construction business and had a chauffeur's license. 

Etta Mack said she decided to share her family's story because she wants the public to understand the impacts of this disease. She said it's almost unbearable to watch people protesting business closures and travel restrictions, calling on state leaders to ignore advice from public health experts and reopen their economies.

"Do y'all have any idea what this disease does to a person? Let me show you some pictures of my son, laying in that hospital bed full of tubes. Let me show you his coffin," she said. "Let me just show you what this did to my child."

Maybe then people would start taking this more seriously, she said. But in the meantime, she wants answers.

She wants to know why the federal government didn't take more steps to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, why warnings weren't issued earlier, why hospitals were running out of protective equipment and why testing was largely unavailable for weeks as the death count continued to climb.

She wants to know why her son couldn't be saved.

Advocate staff writer Andrea Gallo contributed to this report.

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