On the day this past winter when his mom, Doris Wells, developed a persistent cough, started experiencing chills and couldn’t catch her breath, Kelly Wells was filled by dread.
“All those symptoms, all those signs, I was like, ‘She’s got COVID, for sure,” Wells, the University of Pikeville athletics director, recalled Tuesday.
When the coronavirus pandemic came to the fore in Kentucky, it was Kelly Wells’ father, Mickey Wells, for whom his family feared.
Long before Kelly Wells became one of Kentucky’s most successful 21st century basketball coaches — winning a boys’ high school state championship at Mason County in 2003 and a men’s college NAIA national title for UPike in 2011 — his dad had been a pioneering women’s hoops coach at Morehead State (1975-84).
In recent years, however, Mickey Wells, 79, had faced an unending series of medical trials — esophageal cancer, lupus, diabetes — which made him acutely vulnerable to COVID-19.
Doris Wells, 78, however, “was an ace. Healthy as could be,” Kelly Wells says. “She was partnering with us, trying to take care of Dad.”
Since the coronavirus started to exact its cruel toll in the United States last year, over 600,900 Americans have died.
Among those stricken by COVID-19, Kelly Wells’ family is one that has most-keenly suffered.
“In days, you go from having two parents to having none,” Wells says. “It just flips your world.”
‘We tried to be careful’
There is no way to know for sure how the coronavirus penetrated Mickey and Doris Wells’ home in Morehead.
In his bountiful stint as women’s basketball coach at Morehead State, Mickey Wells brought a fiery zeal and a willingness to do things his own way.
Those traits help explain how he successfully wooed Donna Murphy — the first truly great female player produced in the commonwealth after Title IX — away from higher-profile schools such as Kentucky and how he built MSU into our state’s early women’s basketball power.
When Mickey Wells stepped down as Morehead women’s coach in 1984, his record stood at 156-91. To this day, that remains the Morehead State record for most women’s hoops coaching wins.
Now, even as his health declined, Mickey Wells was channeling the will that made him a winning coach into a fight to stay out of the hospital.
“He had so many health problems, but he just kept going — and it was strictly out of love for his family. He wanted to stick around as long as he could for his (six) grandchildren,” Kelly Wells says. “But his other thing was, he did not want to die in the hospital. He wanted to be in his home.”
As their dad’s health declined, Kelly Wells and his older sister, Shelly Walter, pitched in to help their mom care for Mickey at home.
“We tried to be careful (regarding COVID-19), but we had a lot of people coming in the house,” Kelly Wells said. “We had Home Health there. We had oxygen people changing tanks. You know, it could have happened a million ways. But somehow, we got (the coronavirus) in the house.”
‘It was horrendous’
In caring for his parents, Kelly Wells, 50, came down with the coronavirus, too.
Given the Pikeville AD’s medical history, that was scary.
Kelly Wells suffers from a chronic kidney ailment, Berger’s disease (aka IgA nephropathy). Twice, in 2004 and 2014, his condition has required Wells to receive kidney transplants.
“The Pikeville Medical Center knows my history,” Wells says. “The infectious disease person called and said, ‘Listen, I hear you (tested positive for COVID). Go to the hospital right now. There’s a Bam infusion waiting on you.’”
Once he received the Bamlanivimab infusion — a monoclonal antibody that can help keep COVID-19 from replicating in a person’s body — Kelly Wells said he never had another symptom.
“Instantaneously, I was fine,” Wells says. “It didn’t do the same for my parents.”
Doris Wells spent much of her career working as an administrative assistant at Morehead State. In contrast to her husband’s coaching life, she wielded her influence in less public ways.
“She was the one who got us where we needed to go,” Kelly Wells says of his childhood. “She was the caretaker. She prayed over us all the time.”
Because of Mickey Wells’ COVID diagnosis, he ended up stuck where he did not wish to be — in the hospital.
On Feb. 8, as Mickey was dying, his wife was “three doors down” from him in the intensive care unit of St. Claire HealthCare in Morehead.
“She didn’t even know Dad had passed,” Kelly Wells says. “With COVID, we couldn’t even go in (the room). My dad passed with a complete stranger, a nurse, in there with him. My sister and I had to tell Mom.”
Kelly Wells says the family barely had a moment to grieve Mickey’s death before Doris Wells — to her overwhelming reluctance — had to be placed on a ventilator.
“It wasn’t three days later,” Kelly Wells says. “It was horrendous.”
Exactly two weeks after her husband’s death, Doris Wells succumbed to the coronavirus, too.
“With Dad, it was heart-wrenching, but he had been in bad health, so you were somewhat prepared,” Kelly Wells says. “But (before the coronavirus), Mom had been as healthy as she could be. It was devastating.”
In grief, two blessings
Kelly Wells says the reality of both one’s parents dying in such a condensed time frame still seems unreal.
“Even now, I will pick my phone up (to call them) 10 times a day,” he says.
For Wells, the first Mother’s Day without his mom was painful. He was dreading Father’s Day.
“All the firsts of the firsts are terrible,” he says.
Yet from the searing experience that is losing one’s parents in a two-week span, Kelly Wells says there have been at least two “blessings.”
Wells made the decision after the 2019-20 basketball season to go from Pikeville’s head men’s hoops coach/AD to just its athletics director.
He did that, in part, to have more time to see his aging parents.
“I had no idea the time I had left with them would be so short,” Kelly Wells says. “So, looking back, I cherish the time I got with them because I made the move (out of coaching).”
Meanwhile, because Mickey Wells chose to be cremated, “we put Dad’s cremation in with Mom and her open casket,” Kelly Wells says.
That meant that Mickey and Doris Wells, who had been together since they were high school sweethearts in Manchester, Ohio, ended their time on Earth in union.
“The way I look at it, they started together, they stayed together and they literally went out together,” Kelly Wells says.
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