A Surprise retiree got vaccinated and masked up. But others didn’t, and it cost him his life.

With too few people vaccinated and following COVID-19 guidelines, someone gave the virus to Buddy Fowler.

By: - December 8, 2021 7:42 am

Donna and Buddy Fowler moved to sunny Arizona after his retirement from the Blackfoot Police Department. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, they spent more time at home to minimize their risk of COVID-19. They both got vaccinated, but Buddy’s suppressed immune system made him vulnerable. Photo via Idaho Capital Sun | Courtesy of Donna Fowler

Buddy Fowler thought he had the flu. Three weeks later, he died.

“Buddy passed away unexpectedly with his beloved wife Donna by his side,” reads his obituary in the Post Register last month. “Due to pre-existing health conditions, Buddy was hit hard by a case of Covid-19 despite being fully vaccinated.”

Now one of countless COVID-19 widows, Donna Fowler says her husband’s death isn’t evidence that the vaccines don’t work. It is evidence that a person can do everything in their power to protect themselves, but COVID-19 can still take their life if their community isn’t doing everything in its power to fight off the coronavirus.

“It’s really about not giving COVID, if you have it, to someone else, who could die from it,” Donna said in a recent interview with the Idaho Capital Sun. “That’s a huge responsibility. And I take it very seriously. I’m vaccinated, but that doesn’t keep me from wearing a mask.”

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Gilbert Charles “Buddy” Fowler was born in 1955. He was born and raised in Blackfoot, Idaho, working for 20 years as a pipe fitter at the Idaho National Laboratory, then became a law enforcement officer for the Blackfoot Police Department.

Buddy retired from Blackfoot PD in 2013 as a patrol sergeant. He and Donna moved to Surprise to spend their golden years.

She worked as a senior account specialist for a bank, and Buddy spent his days on the golf course or volunteering to help with professional baseball spring training. He adored baseball and the Atlanta Braves especially.

When the pandemic hit, the Fowlers changed their habits.

Buddy had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis 10 years ago, after surviving a pulmonary embolism. He was on blood thinners for life, and immune-suppressing medication, which put him at much higher risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.

It also meant that, when he got vaccinated for COVID-19, his body may not have mounted a robust immune response against the virus.

Then, in early 2021, he suffered a heart attack.

Buddy Fowler gets sick. It’s not the flu.

Buddy was still recovering from heart surgery when, in early October, the Fowlers started feeling sick. It felt like the flu. Donna had a cough, but she didn’t lose her smell or taste — until she did. By then, Buddy was starting to cough. His cough went from bad to worse, and Donna took him to a nearby, eight-bed micro-hospital.

He tested positive for COVID-19 with low oxygen levels.

The physician put him on intravenous medications for five hours, then discharged him with two orders: get a pulse oximeter to watch for dangerously low oxygen, and find monoclonal antibody treatments. The doctor wrote a phone number on a sticky note and gave it to Donna. It was a medical center where, he said, Buddy could get an appointment for an infusion.

Quit bitchin' about how you want normal, but you're not willing to do the things we need to get back to normal.

– Donna Fowler

Donna says she got through to the medical center and rattled off Buddy’s risk factors that made him a prime candidate for the antibody treatments: immunocompromised, heart issues, history of blood clotting, over age 65.

She told the nurse who answered the phone that a doctor had referred them to that center.

“He suggested we go to your facility for the monoclonal antibodies,” Donna said.

“Well, I don’t know why,” the woman responded. “Because we don’t have them.”

Donna spent the day trying to find another monoclonal antibody center, but she came up short.

A day and a half later, Buddy was in worse condition. She took him to a major hospital in the area. There, they learned that he had missed the window when monoclonal antibodies could keep him from being hospitalized.

That was the last time Donna saw her husband of 20 years, until the day he died.

Buddy was hospitalized for three weeks.

Buddy Fowler’s family created a GoFundMe to help Donna Fowler with expenses from his end-of-life care and to cover living expenses while she waits for Buddy’s social security benefits to be approved for her: gofundme.com/f/buddys-end-of-life-care. As of Monday, it had raised $7,610 of a $15,000 goal.

The first two weeks, he sat in the hospital’s COVID-19 unit, on oxygen and a slew of medications, Donna said.

Donna wondered how Buddy had caught the virus. Was it during one of his solo trips to the golf course?

Was it when they met up for lunch at a restaurant with a friend? That was the only time they’d ventured out in months.

Did Donna herself bring it home to him, having caught it while grocery shopping? Did she remove her mask at the wrong time?

Donna wants people to understand that her husband, and other fully vaccinated Americans like him, did not expect to die.

People who are fully vaccinated are significantly less likely to die of COVID-19 than those who aren’t fully vaccinated, according to data from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, 247 fully vaccinated Idahoans have caught the coronavirus and died.

That’s because no vaccine is 100% effective, and people with compromised immune systems may be unable to develop immunity after they get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Buddy was fully vaccinated. He hadn’t yet received a booster shot or third dose of vaccine, when he became infected in either late September or early October.

“You will die quickly from this, that’s all I can say. And it will shock you,” Donna Fowler said. “It is very hard to wrap your head around a virus (whose transmission) can be prevented by simply wearing a mask, just like I did for a year.”

She also believes strongly in vaccinations.

“If you’re not vaccinated, you’re a carrier. Period. You’re going to get it, and you’re going to share it,” she said. “If you’re vaccinated, it’s less likely that you’re going to suffer illness … and possibly (less likely to) spread it.”

She is tired of hearing people talk about how they’re healthy, so they don’t need to take precautions or get vaccinated.

Even after losing Buddy, she said, “I’ve got family members who say this. That’s fantastic for you, but you not wearing a mask is going to (allow you to) give it to someone else. Because someone gave it to us. Masks and all, we still got it.”

Buddy’s last words to his wife came to her through text message

The doctor was cautiously optimistic one day in late October, when Buddy seemed to be getting better. He spent the evening watching a baseball game on television. He was hoping the Boston Red Sox would play the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. 

He sent Donna a text message that evening. “Darn the luck,” he wrote. Boston had lost the game, so his Braves wouldn’t be going up against them for the pennant.

“Been a long afternoon may not make it to the news tonight. So I will say Goodnight now just in case,” he wrote.

“Ok. Love you night. Sleep tight,” she wrote back.

“Sweet Dreams,” he wrote.

Two hours later, she got a phone call from the hospital.

“We need your permission to put him on a ventilator and put a (central IV) line in, because his oxygen is down in the 60s,” she remembers the doctor saying.

If you’re not vaccinated, you’re a carrier. Period. You’re going to get it, and you’re going to share it.

– Donna Fowler

Buddy went into a medically induced coma, “and that’s how he was the last week of his life,” Donna said.

She sent him a “million text messages” while he was unconscious, hoping he would see them when he recovered.

His kidneys began to shut down, so the doctors tried to put him on dialysis. But the first attempt shot his heart rate up to 170 — about twice the normal rate — and the second attempt pushed it even higher, to nearly 200 beats per minute.

There was no way to save his life.

When Donna went to the hospital to say goodbye to her husband, she counted more than 20 bags of IV solution hooked up to Buddy.

“When your heart is still mending, and then he has an autoimmune disease, so your immune system is already less by far than any average person, it just becomes a fight, and your heart just can’t take it,” Donna said.

His death certificate notes that he had a history of heart attack and pulmonary embolism — blood clotting in his lung. But it lists his cause of death as “COVID pneumonia,” Donna Fowler said.

“I’m just angry about it, because it’s very hard, every day, to say, wow, there was this crazy virus that hit the world, and it just killed my husband,” she said. “It wasn’t cancer. It wasn’t a car accident. It was a virus. It was a virus that killed him. And that’s very difficult to swallow.”

Buddy died Oct. 30 at 5:48 p.m.

Three days later, his Braves won the World Series.

This story was first published by Idaho Capital Sun, a sister publication of the Arizona Mirror and a member of the States Newsroom network of local news sites.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton is the senior investigative reporter at the Idaho Capital Sun, a member of the States Newsroom network of local news publications. Prior to that, she worked 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.

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