Widowed Kansas teacher: ‘Pull your head out of your ass’ and get your COVID-19 shot

February 7, 2022 3:33 am

Travis Zirkle (left in couple photos) lost his husband, Jeff Wallace, to COVID-19 almost a year ago. He wants everyone to know the importance of vaccination against the virus. (Travis Zirkle photos)

Kansas special education teacher Travis Zirkle has a simple message to those who haven’t yet been vaccinated against COVID-19: “Very bluntly, I would say pull your head out of your ass and get the vaccine.”

Travis lost his husband, Jeff Wallace, to the virus a year ago. He believes he likely contracted COVID-19 at school and brought it home to Jeff, 48. The two had spent the better part of a year masking, sanitizing and limiting their social contacts after they both survived an earlier bout of the virus. Travis, now 50, has spent the months since Jeff’s death working through his guilt and grief, all while continuing to teach.

He also has become an advocate for free, safe and effective vaccines against the virus.

This is his more diplomatic approach: “Coronaviruses are not new. Neither is the research behind these vaccines. There are no harmful effects on this vaccine that are any worse than any harmful effects on any vaccine that has been mandated that we have taken since polio. And somebody that watched Jeff’s funeral actually changed their mind about getting the vaccine, and they got the vaccine just because they thought: ‘That could be me. I could catch it. I could bring it home. My husband could die.’ ”

This story, for those of us who have followed the pandemic since 2020, doesn’t just involve the struggles of two people. It’s a worst-case scenario. You can do everything right, take extreme care and yet lose the love of your life to an unrelenting public health threat. Vaccines, which only became widely available after Jeff’s death, make all the difference. But only if you and those around you take them.

“It’s the story now of three worlds,” said Steve Stites, chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Health System, during Friday’s online briefing. “The fully, completely vaccinated folks — all up to date — are doing really well. … The undervaccinated are not doing as well as that, and the unvaccinated are doing the worst.”

Travis shared his story with me on this week’s Kansas Reflector podcast.


Small-town life

He lives in Barnard, Kansas, a town of a few dozen people northwest of Salina. Many of them were related to Jeff, which is why the couple bought a weekend home there in 2009.

Jeff Wallace, shown here in a photo from the early 2000s, was named Mr. Kansas Gay Rodeo Association in 2000 and 2001. (Travis Zirkle)

The couple moved to town full-time in 2011. Travis had found a teaching job at the Glasco Attendance Center for the Southern Cloud School District. Jeff, who had worked as a nurse technician in Wichita, injured his back in 2007 and was disabled. Both participated in the gay rodeo circuit, with Jeff being named Mr. Kansas Gay Rodeo Association in 2000 and 2001. Travis continues to this day.

When we spoke two weeks ago, the omicron variant was surging through the area, reminding Travis of all the emotion, pain and struggle he had endured the previous two years. More than half of his school’s students were out sick.

“Some people will deny that kids can have it,” Travis said. “But just the other day, Friday, we had 40 out of our 77 students absent because of COVID. Today, we have 27 gone out of 77 because of COVID.”

While some Kansans might want the pandemic to be over, it persists in ways both big and small. Public discussions have often focused on those protesting masks or vaccines. Nearly 900,000 Americans and 8,000 Kansans have lost their lives.

For those left behind like Travis, the effects of COVID-19 will reverberate for a lifetime.


COVID arrives

The two were concerned as soon as the virus began sweeping across the United States in spring 2020.

“When COVID came up and it started killing people in droves, I panicked,” Travis said. “Jeff was a little more calm, simply because, well, he wasn’t one to get horribly excited. But he was also in the medical field. So he had more understanding.”

Both men survived a bout with the virus at the very beginning of the pandemic. Travis fell ill the week before the infamous spring break that never ended. Jeff was sick during the break, the worst that Travis had ever seen. They both made it through, however.

At the Kansas Statehouse, plenty of conservative lawmakers claim they don’t have to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions because they’ve already had the virus. They believe that one infection means Kansans are protected from overhyped, liberal foolishness. They’re wrong, of course, but I asked Travis whether he or his husband had similar thoughts.

“We never thought that,” he responded instantly.

The couple continued to mask, socially distance and be scrupulously careful.

“We did not think that we were out of the woods. And we were scared that we could get it a second or third time,” Travis said. “And with the varied reaction that people have had to COVID since the beginning of the pandemic, who knows if we got it again: Would it kill us then? Or would we survive it?”

Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at KU Health, said small studies had shown reinfection had variable effects.

“Some people will have no symptoms, some people will have worse symptoms,” he said during a December briefing.

He added: “The best thing, though, is if you have been infected is to get vaccinated.”


Valentine’s Day

When Travis speaks about the early days of 2021, he does so with exacting clarity and precision. He knows the dates and medical details. He knows the sequence of events. He knows what happened, when and why. It can be difficult to hear. For those who have turned away from the reality of COVID-19, it is vital.

The bad news began Jan. 19, 2021, before vaccines were widely available. That’s when Travis tested positive for the virus. He knew he had to tell his husband.

Jeff Wallace holds his and Travis’ dogs, Henry and Patsy, in January of 2020. (Travis Zirkle)

“That particular day, he had a doctor’s appointment in Salina, and so he had gone to the doctor’s,” Travis said. “I called him and I said, ‘You need to go get tested for COVID. I just tested positive, and before you come home, you need to see if you’re positive or negative. Because if you are negative, then you need to stay with your aunt in Salina.’

Jeff told his husband he felt poorly and ended up driving to the hospital in town. On admission, his oxygen level was 68%. He spent four days there.

Travis didn’t have an easy time, either. He ended up receiving a monoclonal antibody treatment, which made an almost immediate difference. Unfortunately, Jeff had missed the short window of time to receive a treatment of his own.

He didn’t get better. Jeff returned to the hospital on Feb. 5, with an oxygen level of 62%, and stayed there until Feb. 11. Travis didn’t want him to leave.

“I tried to tell him to stay in because he seemed to be getting better in the hospital,” he said. “They had him up and walking down to the end of the hall and back and he seemed to be improving with oxygen.”

But Jeff wanted to be home for his Valentine’s Day birthday, Feb. 14. So he came back, along with oxygen tanks.

The two had a pleasant dual holiday. Travis cooked spaghetti, and they had a couple of friends over to the house for a low-key celebration. After the friends left, two two exchanged gifts. It was a tradition that meant a lot to both of them.

“He had a bunch more stuff to give me and he says, ‘Travis, I’m just so tired. You’re just gonna have to wait till tomorrow to get the rest of your gifts,’ ” Travis said. “I’m going to point out that that just showed how wonderful Jeff was, because even though it’s his birthday, he gave me a lot of gifts for Valentine’s, and it was just the way it was.”

Despite the pandemic, despite the health challenges, the two were together.

“We were in our happily ever after. We were in our, well, till death do us part,” Travis said. “And little did I know we were within 24 hours of death doing us part at that point.”

The next day, Travis worked at a school inservice and a friend watched Jeff. Electrical blackouts rolled through the state because of frigid temperatures. Jeff’s oxygen concentrators were knocked out for about an hour.

He died while Travis was driving home, oxygen canisters in the car.

Jeff Wallace and Travis Zirkle were married Pine Valley Christian Church in Wichita on Dev. 12, 2012. The pastor officiating was Leigh Carlson. (Travis Zirkle)


Right to life

I can’t include every detail about Jeff’s struggle with COVID-19 and his last day. I urge you to listen to this week’s podcast and hear Travis talk about the experience in his own words. Better yet, play it to a friend who has yet to be vaccinated. 

In the year since, Travis has gone through counseling and continued to teach. He has struggled with his role in bringing the virus home and how students may have brought the virus to him. He has also been fully vaccinated and boosted.

On Dec. 12, he marked what would have been his ninth wedding anniversary with Jeff.

Travis knows, by the way, that you noticed my mention toward the beginning of this column about Jeff’s disability. That frustrates him greatly. It frustrates me greatly. We all know someone with a pre-existing condition, and most of us have one or more of them ourselves. We can’t dismiss someone’s death because he or she has an existing health challenge.

They ended up taking away his rights to life. And he had a right to life. But he's dead. And that's all there is to it.

– Travis Zirkle

“I still get questions now about when I say that Jeff died of COVID,” he said. “One of the first things even sympathetic people will say is, ‘Did he have any underlying conditions?’ And outwardly, I say, ‘Yes, he did. But they were managed, and that’s not what killed him.’ ”

Travis doesn’t miss the hypocrisy of those who cherish the right to life in some contexts but not when it comes to fighting a contagious virus.

“They ended up taking away his rights to life. And he had a right to life. But he’s dead. And that’s all there is to it,” Travis said. “And other people, it wasn’t just one person that had a factor in it. It wasn’t just me carrying the disease to him. It was a whole mindset of people that decided, as a large chunk of our society, decided that they were more important than the people standing next to them, even though we’re all of equal importance.

“Every single one of us has somebody that loves us. And we are all somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s parent, somebody’s cousin, somebody’s aunt or uncle, or grandparent. And who wants to see somebody go through that loss of a loved one?”

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.