By Elaina Plott
The only thing that should have been different about the first Friday in March was the apple crisp. Heaven Frilot didn’t usually cook at the end of the workweek, instead letting her family snack on leftovers — a roast or pork chops she’d made earlier, maybe — or order pizza. But her 10-year-old son, Ethan, was having a friend over that night, and her husband, Mark, a lawyer, was coming off a crushing week of arbitration. She would bake an apple crisp.
Then Mark Frilot — 45 years old, “never, ever sick,” came home with a fever.
In the haze of days that followed, Ms. Frilot, a 43-year-old oil-and-gas analyst, occupied one world, the rest of her community in Kenner, La., another. She saw her friends making jokes on social media about the coronavirus — eye-roll emojis, Fox News talking points, Rush Limbaugh quotes writing off the threat. And then one person asked if anyone really had this thing.
Ms. Frilot had an answer to that.
“I have been seeing a lot of posts about people taking this virus lightly and joking about it,” she began in a Facebook post. “Mark has tested positive for the coronavirus.”
Days earlier, it never occurred to Ms. Frilot (pronounced FREE-low) that her husband’s fever that Friday — 99 point something or another, low enough that she teased him for being a wuss — would lead to this, even as his condition rapidly worsened.
By March 8, a Sunday, his temperature was 101.9. The flu, urgent-care doctors in Kenner told him.
Wednesday night, and the fever had worsened. “I just couldn’t break it,” Ms. Frilot said, remembering how she alternated between Tylenol and Advil, just as the doctor prescribed. She found her husband sitting on the edge of the bathtub, wrapped in a towel, talking to himself.
Thursday morning, emergency room. Thursday night, ICU. Friday morning, intubation. Saturday, coronavirus test results: positive.
Today, Ms. Frilot’s husband of 12 years remains quarantined in the ICU, hooked up to a ventilator, one of the 280-plus cases in Louisiana of the novel coronavirus rapidly spreading across the United States. On March 14, the day he received his diagnosis, Bourbon Street teemed with St. Patrick’s Day celebrants.
At first, Ms. Frilot limited who could see her Facebook post about her husband’s condition. “I am telling you this very private information because I care about my friends,” she said. “Please be extremely cautious and smart during this time. This virus has been in our community a while now without us knowing.” She shared that her husband had been misdiagnosed with the flu, and that this would be “a long recovery.” She said that because he was in quarantine, “I cannot even be there for him to help him get through this.”
Crises are only political until they are personal. As news of Mr. Frilot’s diagnosis spread, among his friends and on Nola.com, his story was no longer just that of a young, healthy person who caught a virus that young, healthy people had been told they were not supposed to catch. It was a revelation for the conservative suburbs of New Orleans, where many had written off the pandemic as liberal fear-mongering. Mr. Frilot, a registered Republican, and his family are generally apolitical, and were not thinking much about the virus — whether as a fiction or anything else — before he got sick. But many in their community had opinions on it from the start.
The language they used was the language politicians and media figures were also using. On March 8, when Mr. Frilot first went to urgent care, President Trump retweeted a joke from his White House social media director about Nero fiddling as Rome burned. The next night, Sean Hannity said on his prime time Fox News show that the virus was the media’s attempt to “bludgeon” Mr. Trump with “this new hoax.”
After Ms. Frilot shared her husband’s experience, she saw social-media musings about the virus as a liberal plot to tank the stock market come to a halt, toilet-paper jokes no longer rack up likes. Several people have called her “to pass on to me that everyone has been awakened,” Ms. Frilot said. “Because everyone knows Mark.”
Comments of disbelief, sorrow, promises of prayers rolled in almost immediately. A friend urged her to share her story more widely. Ms. Frilot was normally intensely private, but wasn’t that the point? That nothing was normal anymore? She made the post public.
Cheryl Pitfield, 61, a close friend and former co-worker of Ms. Frilot’s in the oil and gas industry, remembered reading it for the first time. “I just got chills,” she said. For Ms. Pitfield, before seeing her friend’s post, it didn’t seem like there was a face to the virus. “Now there is.”
She quickly sent a screenshot to friends in a group chat. “Oh my gosh,” Ms. Pitfield summed up the reaction, “this is real.”
Ms. Pitfield lives in Metairie, about 10 minutes from Kenner. Like many in the area, which is represented in Congress by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, she is a supporter of President Trump. She, and many of her friends, she said, believed that the coronavirus was a political stunt and media-induced hysteria.
“We kept kind of joking about it, like, ‘Oh, this is crazy! This is not going to affect us, why is everyone so wigged out about it?’ And then it did,” she said. Reading about Mr. Frilot, she added, put it into perspective for her.
On Facebook, Kathy Perilloux shared a similar conversion. Before March 16, Ms. Perilloux’s page was almost solely posts questioning the severity of the virus. March 10: “Hurricane Corona …. HYPE …. sigh,” she wrote. (“I stole that from Rush, but I was thinking the same before he said it!!!!!” she added in a comment.)
Then Ms. Perilloux commented on Ms. Frilot’s post: “Your story puts a real face on a real danger, that’s what had been missing.” She hasn’t posted anything else about the pandemic.
Since Friday, March 13, Mark Frilot has managed just two breaths on his own.
Heaven Frilot is undergoing her own struggle for air. They had plans: Disney World for Easter, when Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway would finally be open. More date nights at the Ritz, where they liked to listen to Jeremy Davenport play. “They just kept saying over and over that the people at risk were the elderly and those with underlying conditions,” Ms. Frilot said. “And we’re none of that.”
“This could have happened to anyone.”
Ms. Frilot was last with her husband when he was in the E.R., even after doctors decided to test him for the virus. She was asked to wear a mask. The mood was tense, chaotic, and she remembers the way the doctors and nurses looked at him. Like they were “scared,” she said, like “they didn’t want to come in the room.”
She later learned that her husband was the hospital’s first patient to test positive for the virus. The looks of fear, she now thinks, reflected how unprepared they were.
What she doesn’t understand is how, where, her husband contracted the virus in the first place. They hadn’t traveled at all in the last month, and Mr. Frilot usually works in a small satellite office. She worked up a list of everything they had done the week before her husband got sick, then contacted people whom they might have been around. “That was horrible,” she said.
The likeliest culprit was a Mardi Gras parade they had stopped by briefly in Kenner. But for the most part, Ms. Frilot said, she and her family are “homebodies.” They prefer mainly to hang out with each other — it’s been that way for years.
Heaven was 28, Mark 31, when they met in Kenner, set up on a blind date by a student in one of the fitness classes that Ms. Frilot taught. “I was not ready to meet anyone at the time that I met him,” she said. “I was thinking all the negative things like, ‘I don’t date lawyers.’” He was also a musician, he offered. To which she responded, “I really don’t date musicians.”
Ms. Frilot admits she was a “pretty hard cookie to crack,” but eventually he won her over. She liked his dry sense of humor, his work ethic, his ability to take life as it came. They were both Cajun.
They dated through Hurricane Katrina and its painful aftermath. Like many in the area, Ms. Frilot was displaced by the wreckage, and her company relocated her to Houston for six months. Tough as it was, they survived the distance: In September 2007, they wed in an antebellum mansion in New Orleans’s Garden District.
Katrina is the inflection point for so many in Louisiana. Today, it can help explain why for some in and around Kenner, the desire to minimize the threat of coronavirus feels a layer deeper than just allegiance to Mr. Trump, or distrust of the media.
“There were no grocery stores open, we were under curfew, helicopters were flying overhead nonstop,” Sheila DeLaup, 59, a small-business owner in Metairie, remembered. “We’ve been through that disruption of life,” she said, and no one wants to live that again.
Ms. DeLaup had “mixed emotions” at first about the virus. On the one hand, her fellow Trump supporters were insistent that it was being blown out of proportion, that the flu was far deadlier, that everyone was being ridiculous. On the other hand, she thought, “It’s not just us: Everyone around the world is reacting like this. Would everyone be throwing things out of proportion? Just to try and hurt the president?”
Ms. DeLaup found Ms. Frilot’s post on Facebook after mutual friends had shared it. “It wasn’t until I read her story that I thought, ‘You know, people are wrong.’”
It encourages Ms. Frilot to know that her family’s pain could potentially prevent that of another. “Sometimes it’s hard to think of the world as a good place, but I got to tell you, there are people who don’t know me at all, sending me food” she said. “I think it’s because they get it, like, ‘We’re with you now, we’re around the corner from you.’”
She is quarantined now with Ethan, whose school has closed. Neither of them have been tested for the virus, or show signs of illness. They are at home, where everything is a reminder of the person who is not there with them. They play Uno and Yahtzee and Hot Wheels and wait to hear from Mr. Frilot’s nurses with the latest. Friends and strangers have sent Ethan toy after toy. “But his response is, ‘I don’t want any toys,’” Ms. Frilot said. “‘I want my dad.’”
On Wednesday, after learning that Mr. Frilot’s doctors expected him to be on the ventilator for as much as another week, she didn’t feel like talking. “I’m just having a bad day,” she said in a text message, as if, with the news she had just received, it might have been anything but.
Almost unrelatedly, she went on: “Our anniversary of dating was actually this month.”
“I don’t remember the day,” she said. “But he would.”
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