Chris Tillett, who had the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Connecticut, tells PEOPLE his wife is "Wonder Woman"

By Rachel DeSantis
April 02, 2020 12:47 PM
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Elizabeth and Chris Tillett
Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Tillett

Chris Tillett thought he had the flu.

The 45-year-old father of two from Wilton, Connecticut had recently returned from a work conference in San Francisco, and though he was cooped up with a 102-degree fever, the illness was treated as the flu by his doctor.

Eventually, though, his symptoms worsened, and within days, he was rushed to the emergency room, where he’d become the state of Connecticut’s first confirmed case of coronavirus, and where he’d spend the next 10 days intubated in the ICU in a medically-induced coma.

“It was just scary to just kind of go from zero to 60,” his wife Elizabeth, 32, tells PEOPLE. “It’s like, ‘Okay, my husband is sick, and now he has pneumonia, and he’ll go in the hospital and maybe get some IV antibiotics,’ to, ‘He’s in a coma with the virus that I didn’t know anything about and hadn’t been in our state and I hadn’t researched at all.’”

Elizabeth and Chris Tillett
Chris and Elizabeth Tillett
| Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Tillett

Chris, who has a partially thickened heart due to sleep apnea but otherwise no known underlying conditions, says his repeated suggestions that perhaps he had the virus were largely dismissed by all except emergency room Dr. Melissa Saad at Danbury Hospital.

But once his test results were positive on March 6, Elizabeth was immediately whisked away to be quarantined at home with the couple’s 5-month-old twin sons John and Luke.

“I didn’t even say bye to my husband, I didn’t even look at him, ‘cause I was just like, ‘I don’t even want to risk any more than I’ve already risked because I have to go home and care for two babies,’” she says.

For Elizabeth, a registered nurse, having to balance the role of wife and mother and healthcare proxy for her comatose husband was extremely difficult.

“It was just a very surreal, scary, trapped feeling,” she says. “I had to come from a place of no knowledge at all as to how to maneuver the disease process and being a wife. I didn’t know how to do anything and I had to learn really, really fast.”

Chris, for one, was utterly impressed by how Elizabeth held down the fort: “I was blown away. The best word to describe her is Wonder Woman,” he says.

Elizabeth and Chris Tillett
Elizabeth Tillett with sons John and Luke
| Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Tillett

Though she wasn’t allowed to visit Chris due to the contagious nature of the virus, his nurse Vanessa Williams and nurse manager Shelby Newkirk helped Elizabeth FaceTime into his room so that she could visualize his situation.

“The nurses at that hospital knew that no one was coming to visit me [so] they not only took care of me clinically, but they took care of me as a human,” Chris says, highlighting a generous act of compassion that isn’t always possible as hospital staff faces the escalating demand of the pandemic. “And so I just really appreciated that, ‘cause you’re all alone. You’re all by yourself. I’d say for the first time as an adult I was truly scared, because you don’t know what’s coming… and to have people that are encouraging you to continue on and things like that, it means a lot.”

Elizabeth and Chris Tillett
Chris Tillett
| Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Tillett

Meanwhile, back at home, Elizabeth found comfort in imagining the day that Chris would return home and hold their baby boys once again.

“That was all I could picture,” she says. “I just told myself that’s going to happen. I just have to wait, I just have to patient.”

Eventually, it did; on March 17, Chris was woken up from his coma, and about a week later, he was discharged from the hospital.

Though Elizabeth says she had been eagerly awaiting the day she could hug her husband again, their reunion wasn’t exactly as the couple expected, as Chris didn’t immediately remember that he was married with children.

“It was almost like I was reset as an adult male. It was like I was an 18, 19-year-old kid again in my mind,” he says, adding that it took about three or four days for him to finally feel like himself again.

Elizabeth and Chris Tillett
Chris Tillett
| Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Tillett

When Elizabeth finally picked him up from the hospital after two negative coronavirus tests, she was surprised to find her gut instinct was to push him away.

“My initial reaction was like, I don’t even want to hug you,” she says. “I don’t want to get whatever you have. You’re going to go home, take your clothes off, get in the shower for like, three hours, and then you’re going to stay downstairs. I was so scared to hug him for like, the first 24 hours.”

Since coming home, Chris says he’s slowly but surely feeling like himself again, though he sometimes finds himself unable to sleep thinking about the workers at the hospital and his fellow patients.

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“I’m thinking about the one lady who was screaming sometimes and I’m going, you know, I wonder how she’s doing, if she’s even still there, if she made it,” he says. “There is some definite emotional feelings you have.”

He also emphasizes the importance of staying home and practicing social distancing so as to prevent the virus’ spread.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were at least 3,557 cases of coronavirus and 85 deaths in Connecticut, according to the New York Times.

Elizabeth is staying home at the moment, but hopes to get back to work as a nurse as soon as she can.

“The nurse in me right now feels like I want to be helping other people,” she says, “like they helped my husband.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.