By Gaige Davila
When COVID-19 hit the Rio Grande Valley, Doug Atwell, a South Padre Island resident, became a cautious man, advocating to his family and friends to stay inside, wear masks and practice social distancing.
Even after the state reopened with a slew of orders issued by Governor Greg Abbott, Doug Atwell kept his distance from others.
“Even once things opened up on the Island, he was still staying put,” Dawn Atwell, Doug’s oldest daughter, told the PRESS in a phone call from her home in Houston. “It wasn’t until Memorial Day passed that I noticed my dad starting to kind of venture out a little bit more.”
Around June 16, Doug Atwell started feeling symptoms, a scratchy throat. A few days later, Doug came down with a fever and wasn’t feeling well, knowing he was sick.
On June 22, Doug tested for COVID-19, Dawn said. They were having difficulty finding a location to get him tested.
Doug, after testing positive for COVID-19, attempted to recover from the disease at his home on South Padre Island for two weeks, going back and forth between feeling better and feeling worse. Dawn would regularly ask her father if he wanted any of his family to come help him.
“He kept saying no, that he didn’t want any of us to catch it and he really thought he was doing better,” Dawn said.
Dawn’s last text message from her father, sent on July 2, reads:
“I sure feel like I’ve done my best,” Doug Atwell wrote. “The only thing this whole virus thing needs is time to work through me. Some people it’s a few weeks other people it takes months…it’s only been 2 weeks I’m thinking I have another week or so.”
The next day, another of Doug’s daughters called him, noting that Doug was slurring his words over the phone. He had a stroke from a blood clot developed in his then-pneumonic lungs and was rushed to the hospital and put on a ventilator. The doctors attending to Doug at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harligen said he had one of the worst cases of COVID-19 they had ever seen.
Doug Atwell died seven days later at 69 years old.
Doug Atwell moved to South Padre Island around 5 years ago, coming from San Antonio, Texas, after a long career of selling Toyota cars across the country. He was known as “Bowtie Doug,” for his signature bowtie.
He had always wanted to live by the water, his wife Monica Atwell, told the PRESS over the phone from her home in San Antonio.
“When he got there, it was just like something set him free, and he really started to live his life,” Monica said.
Monica and Doug met in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the Alibi Inn Bar, which Doug’s parents owned. They married in 1975, in the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque. From there, they moved to Colorado Springs, where Doug worked as a silvercaster, after attending the University of New Mexico, where Monica’s father, famed author Tony Hillerman, taught journalism. Doug, an avid reader for his entire life, had read one of Hillerman’s books before he had met Monica.
They moved to Washington, DC, after, where Doug was from, living near the D.C. Armory while Doug attended George Washington University, graduating with a degree in political science. Both had taken part in protests on Capitol Hill in the late 70s, some of which Doug led himself. They moved to Germantown, Maryland, after, where Doug began selling cars at a Toyota dealership in Alexandria. After returning to Albuquerque, a coworker tipped Doug on a sales position in a San Antonio Toyota dealership, and they both were off to Texas.
Doug and Monica lived together in San Antonio up until five years ago, when they separated.
“We had an adventure of a life,” Monica said. “It really could be a book.”
Since then, Doug was taking daily six-mile walks on the beach, starting from his home on South Padre Island then down to the Jetties and back. When COVID-19’s world spread came to the Rio Grande Valley, Doug stayed home, but eventually returned to his usual haunts, namely the QuarterDeck Lounge, a bar inside the Isla Grand Beach Resort, where he had an unofficially designated seat. That’s if he was sitting: Doug came to the QuarterDeck to dance and listen to music, two of his favorite things, Monica said.
It was when he started going out again that he likely contracted COVID-19, Monica said, but she doesn’t know for sure. Doug was headed to Houston and San Antonio to visit Dawn and Monica around the time when he started feeling symptoms but ultimately stayed home.
When Doug was in the hospital, family members couldn’t visit, because of the risk of contracting COVID-19. Their communication was limited to texts, phone calls and FaceTime.
Doug’s stroke damaged both sides of his brain significantly, a neurologist at Valley Baptist told Monica, and that if he did survive he would be in a vegetative state, needing to be fed through a tube, without the ability to walk or talk. Monica decided to take him off life support after.
“Doug always said, ‘you know Monica, if anything were to ever happen to me, I wouldn’t want to live my life like that,’” she said. “We kind of all knew what we had to do at that point.”
Doug’s daughters said goodbye to their father through a phone call on speaker, as doctors removed his life support systems. Monica couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye that way.
“It was so hard to let him go, because none of us could see him,” Monica said. “That was probably the hardest thing. Because we all felt like we could move his hand or we could talk to him and maybe we could push him along.”
Dawn said grieving for her father was difficult, too, since they are unable to see him physically, and with funeral homes in the Rio Grande Valley backlogged on processing COVID-19 deaths.
Monica said Doug told her that going through COVID-19 was the worst thing he’d ever been through. Yet, doctors told Monica that Doug fought through the disease in a way that shocked them, saying other patients with Doug’s condition would not have lasted as long.
Nurses and doctors would watch videos of Doug’s dancing at the QuarterDeck Lounge on South Padre Island, enjoying a light moment in an otherwise nightmarish scene inside the hospital, filled with patients also suffering from COVID-19.
A memorial service is planned on South Padre Island, Monica said, whenever it is safe to do so.
Dawn said the last thing her father would want is to put more people at risk for contracting COVID-19 by attending his funeral. But when the time comes to celebrate, the Atwells will do so, because it’s what Doug would have wanted.
“He would never want people sitting around crying about him,” Dawn said. “We need to have a dance party.”