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Coming Up for Air

The heavy cost of COVID on the pool industry

I heard someone say the other day, “How bizarre that every single person on this planet has spent the last two-plus years living through the same thing.” We hope the following stories resonate not just because they are pool industry people, but because they are people. Because they remind us of other stories we’ve heard about how the pandemic bulldozed life as we knew it before.

As we move toward something resembling normality, we are honored to share a few of the many stories of people in the pool industry who are still rebuilding the lives they almost lost, or coping with the loss of people they loved. —SPH

Keith Johnson
Owner, Pool Works
Auburndale, Florida

Hospitalized with COVID for 27 days

I got COVID on March 14, 2020 — my wife’s birthday. I don’t forget her birthday anymore.

My dad had died six weeks earlier of bladder cancer. He and I started this business in 1984 as a water treatment company and added pool cleaning in 1987. I didn’t even really get a chance to mourn him, because I got COVID 30 days after we buried him.

My wife and I got COVID from a couple we’d come in contact with. About 10 days in, I called my physician; I suspected I had the flu or COVID, but my doctor wouldn’t test me because I had not been outside of the country.

I left my doctor’s office, but I knew I was in bad shape — so I went to a walk-in clinic that evening. They said I was in trouble, that my lungs were completely clouded, and sent me to the hospital. I thought, “But I can clean 15 pools a day. I’m your run-of-the-mill, 53-year-old guy.”

In the hospital, my oxygen levels were dropping. The doctor told me, “We don’t really have a choice but to put you on a ventilator.” I could barely breathe on my own. I wasn’t scared; I knew that was the only way I might live. I had the flu really bad in my 30s, and it was nothing compared to this.

I was on the vent for 12 days, and the longer you’re on the vent, the less likely you’ll come off. They were telling my wife I wasn’t going to make it — to “make plans.” My wife also had COVID for three weeks in the middle of this and was very sick. She went through hell, too.

I came off the vent on Easter Sunday, 2020. The whole time, my family was keeping it quiet; we didn’t want to lose customers. I have 60 employees, but had I been a one-poler with three or four employees, it would have ended my business. Still, I didn’t know if my employees could do it without me, and yet when I finally walked back into the office, there was nothing on my desk. I started crying.

My son is 30 and about to take over the business. You wonder if your kid is ready to do something like this, but my son really put his shoulder into it. He was a hero. I was just the old sick guy.

I spent 27 total days in the hospital. I forgot how to swallow. l had to learn to eat and drink again. I lost 35 pounds. My muscles were gone. I could not even pick up a fork. My nurses were putting their lives on the line, even though they had 85-year-old mothers and 5-year-old sons with asthma.

Today I have no lingering symptoms, except mild high blood pressure and being overweight — but it took me six months to get to 90% of normal. I think I know COVID as well as anybody possibly could know it. And I know vaccines and masks work.

After I got home, I wanted to do something for the doctors and nurses, like buy PPE (personal protective equipment) or bring them lunch. But then I thought, “They’re saving your life, and you’re going to buy them a cheeseburger?” I soon realized the way I could best pay them back was to go public and educate people. I’ve done many interviews and have talked to a lot of families going through similar things to what mine went through.

And I’m friends with the doctor who saved my life to this day. I get choked up talking about it.

Jeff Duke
National sales manager, Loop Loc Safety Covers
Atlanta

Friend and colleague of Sam Hull, who died of COVID in January 2022 at age 49

Within two or three minutes of meeting Sam, I knew he was the perfect guy for the job of southeast territory sales manager. He and his wife, Mary, wanted to move to the south because he had family there. Sam’s family had a pool business in New Jersey that he’d been part of; it is still there, and his brothers still work there.

Sam and I became pretty good friends, talked almost every day. His Jersey accent would come out from time to time, and he just made you feel comfortable. I was traveling with him one day, and he was telling me about how one of his sons had bad vision. Sam said he wished he could give his eyes to his son. That’s how much family meant to him. He always spoke about his family, always had a story about something. He is worthy of being honored.

I told him he should have been a stand-up comedian. He didn’t take life very seriously at all. Two days before he passed away, he sent me a selfie from the hospital and wrote, “Sexy, huh?”

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When he got sick, he was traveling in Florida, and he was supposed to go from there to Mississippi. He called me on a Thursday, and said he felt bad and wanted to go home. The following Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and that next day he told me he was going to the hospital. Sam drove himself from Florida to his home in Tennessee, and they admitted him to the hospital in Jackson, Tennessee. The following Saturday he passed away, just 10 days later.

My son works in health care. I was not planning on getting the vaccine, until my son asked me to get it. He said he, at age 26, had seen too many people die from this.

I kept telling Sam, “You need to get vaccinated. There is no rhyme or reason for who gets this.” Sam was younger than me, he exercised, but he was the first person I was close to who died of COVID.

Sam was one of those people you always looked forward to talking to. We’ve hired someone else, but he’s not Sam.

Josh McDermott
Owner/president, TruBlu Pool and Spa Service
Georgetown, Texas

Had COVID twice, is a paramedic and also works in pool industry

I grew up in the industry in Thousand Oaks, California. One of my dad’s three jobs was running a pool company. For a long time, I hated it and thought the way he did things was old school. I was interested in being a paramedic, so I have done that since 2010 and have been in Emergency Medical Services since 2005 or so.

When I found out my wife was having twins, I thought there was no way I could afford daycare on a paramedic salary, so since 2015 I’ve had a side job, which then was called Josh’s Pool Service. I started as a one-poler, but I’ve got two guys working for me now and we rebranded a few years ago.

For about two years, I’ve known this is what I wanted my main job to be — but then, in March 2020, I got COVID. Luckily, I was a member of [the Independent Pool and Spa Service Association] and relied on their sick route. I was pretty sick; I’m pretty sure I had the Delta variant. I didn’t have to be hospitalized, but everyone else I knew who got sick around that time ended up in the hospital.

The minute I tested positive, my EMS director told me I was no longer being paid on administrative leave and he wasn’t sure I’d even be covered under workers’ comp. I reached out to the IPSSA guys and told them, “Look, I have about 30 clients and I’m freaking out.” I later did get covered under workers comp. It took over a month to receive pay for this due to process of filling paperwork and getting approved by workers comp.

Had it not been for the guys with IPSSA, my business wouldn’t have been able to survive. They even covered putting chemicals in clients’ pools and wouldn’t let me reimburse them. It was then I started thinking, “What a cool industry.” Now I’m on the board of IPSSA. I just had COVID again, last week. It was not nearly as bad, and my wife is recovering from getting it from me.

Tony Dix
President, Tony Dix Custom Pools
Long Island, New York

Several family members lost to COVID

Even before COVID-19, I was obsessed with having wind-up radios, canned food and such, from about 10 years ago in the bird flu era. I started collecting because we also periodically have hurricanes, and I wanted to make sure my family and I were capable of handling any situation. My friends thought I was nuts.

The week before COVID hit the States, I ordered gloves and masks. I was wiping down the vehicles and the outside of coolers. I was in double gloves, double masks in the supermarket. I even sprayed my money. I didn’t let my kids touch money, touch grocery bags. We just didn’t know.

People in our family began dying. My wife, Anabela, and I lost five members of our family in under 12 months to COVID. And my wife lost her mother, who was 86, four weeks ago — not related to COVID, but it’s been devastating, to say the least.

The day the United States closed their borders in March 2020, I was in Madrid to watch a soccer game. My mother was sick in England, where I’m from, and the following Monday she unexpectedly passed away.

We have lost a nephew of my wife, two of her uncles and an aunt to COVID. The aunt lived in Portugal, and the others lived here. We chose this area of Long Island because Anabela is Portuguese and her family is all very close. I myself, had an asymptomatic case of COVID in December, 2020. We had it again a year later, but again with no symptoms.

 Anabela and I started our business 25 years ago after working with family in pool construction. I came to this country from England with a couple thousand in my pocket, and now we are a $20 million company. But this year was my worst ever in regards to stress. We are limited on the amount of materials we can get, and the demand for work is mesmerizing. I’m booked for the next year. I also have a homebuilding business and a restaurant. I’ve been talking about retirement, to be honest.

It may sound silly, but I do not associate with others in the pool industry. I do run up against the same five or six guys, and they’ve been around 50 years, very reputable companies. Compared to them, I’m the new guy on the block, so I keep to myself. But my employees obviously knew what we were going through, and my clients. I’ve had guys working for me for over 20 years, and when they have somebody pass away, I may be the first person they call. I am extremely close with my clients, too, and they were consoling me through all this loss.

I went back to England earlier this year after 18 months away; normally, I go back five or six times a year to watch soccer games. My wife was asleep in the hotel room, and I looked over Manchester, the city where I was born, where my mother had been buried. It was very emotional. I sat watching the sunrise and said to Anabela that I was so glad to be home again.

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