Carteret County’s first reported death attributed to COVID-19 was not recorded as part of the county’s statistics. Instead, due to health department protocol the death statistic was applied to the victim’s home state.
Following is a story by special correspondent Mike McHugh, Swansboro area chamber of commerce director and host of Coastal Daybreak on The Talk Station 107.1 FM, who researched county records to identify the victim and subsequently to talk with the family for this story.
Robert and Elizabeth Estep loved to spend time at the beach.
When government officials suggested people begin to adopt isolation protocols in mid-March in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Esteps decided to spend their time in quarantine with their only daughter, Laura, and their four grandchildren. Their initial plans were to quarantine in Holden Beach, a favorite resting spot that they had come to appreciate during their 49 years of marriage.
Speaking from their home in Rural Retreat, Va., a small hamlet nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwest Virginia, Elizabeth Estes recalled their search for an appropriate beach house lead them to Indian Beach. “We always went to Holden Beach but when we called hoping for a home with a heated pool we were unable to find one. After a quick search we found a beachfront house in Indian Beach,” she explained.
A close knit family, Bob and Elizabeth had enjoyed a long and successful career together so family gatherings were standard.
Separated in age by six and a half years, Bob and Elizabeth grew up in Marion, Va. “My family moved to Marion when I was in 7th grade,” Elizabeth said. “I became friends with Bob’s sister who was my age.”
Bob graduated from the University of Virginia in 1962 when the college was still an all-male university. Elizabeth earned her undergraduate degree at Randolf-Macon Woman’s College and later enrolled in a graduate program at the Charlottesville school much to chagrin of Bob.
“He would say, ‘they ruined my college’ referring to the admission of females to UVA,” Elizabeth said. The University of Virginia, also known as the “Gentleman’s University,” had only allowed females in their graduate programs until 1970 when the university began admitting women as undergraduates.
Bob taught history and government in Virginia’s public schools after graduation. In 1966 Bob
joined the Army Special Forces. Separating from the Army in 1970 after a tour in Viet Nam and attaining the rank of captain, Bob decided to pursue a law degree from his alma mater.
With a law degree in hand in 1973, the couple set out for Chicago where Bob worked for a major law firm and Elizabeth was employed by the American Hospital Supply Corporation.
In 1978 Bob and Elizabeth moved to Dallas, Texas where he practiced law with Jones Day Law Firm until his retirement in 2008.
“He would still be practicing law today, if it was up to him,” Elizabeth joked.
The eight members of the family arrived in the Crystal Coast on March 22.
Soon after arriving at their rental home in Indian Beach and as the family was settling in, Bob admitted he wasn’t feeling up to par. Reflecting on those first days at the beach, Elizabeth believes he may have contracted the virus before arriving in North Carolina.
While Estep’s death certificate does not indicate any underlying conditions, Elizabeth said her husband had several ailments.
“Bob had mild Type-2 diabetes which was diagnosed about a year before and he had high blood pressure,” Elizabeth said.
As Bob’s condition worsened, his family grew concerned. On Thursday, March 26, just four days after their arrival, the family took Bob to Carteret Health Care in Morehead City where he was admitted.
“It’s was horrible and shocking,” Elizabeth recalls about realizing the coronavirus was attacking her husband. “It’s (the virus) like a freight train coming through.”
The medical team at the hospital offered Bob the option to go on a ventilator but he decided not to, according to Elizabeth.
“He was always lucid but just got weaker and weaker so that things like long conversations became difficult by Friday night,” Elizabeth said with great composure in her voice. “Bob contracted ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) at the end. You don’t come out from that.” In fact Estep’s death certificate listed three contributing factors to his demise: ARDS, the final condition, noting its onset was two days prior; Bilateral / viral pneumonia was listed beneath ARDS indicating Estep contracted it five days before his death and COVID-19’s onset beginning 10 days before death.
Elizabeth and Laura were allowed to stay in Bob’s room, albeit dressed out in protective personal equipment.
“The hospital staff was very nice. They were wonderful,” Elizabeth said.
To pass the time, Elizabeth and Laura held Bob’s hand while they read passages of Rudyard Kipling to their family’s patriarch.
With Elizabeth and Laura by his bedside, Bob died at 12:05 p.m. on Saturday, March 28.
“It was fast,” Elizabeth recalls.
After learning of Bob’s death, staff from Emerald Isle Realty, the property management company for the Estep’s beach house, delivered flowers and a wine basket. “They were so nice,” Elizabeth remarked. “They allowed us to stay another week.”
Robert Lloyd Estep born in Smyth County, Va., on Dec. 20, 1939, and died in Morehead City on March 28, 2020, becoming the county’s first Covid-19 recorded death, according to his death certificate on file at the Carteret County Register of Deeds.
The Carteret County Health Department issued a press release two days later informing the community. It read: “The Carteret County Health Department reports the first COVID19 associated death in Carteret County. The individual died on March 28, 2020 from complications associated with the virus. The patient was a Virginia resident, in their 80’s, and had several underlying medical conditions. The confirmed case and death of this person will be reported in the county in which they resided in Virginia and will not be reflected on the NC Department of Health Human Services case count for confirmed cases and deaths in Carteret County. To protect the family’s privacy, no further information about the patient will be released.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and loved ones,” stated Health Director, Stephanie Cannon.”
Estep was buried in the New Dublin Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Dublin, Va. A memorial service will be held at a later date when public health conditions permit, according to his obituary.