‘He went downhill so fast.’ Dad who lost 15-year-old KY student to COVID warns others

·6 min read

A 15-year-old Shelby County High School student who loved school never got to go this semester. Two days before classes started, he tested positive for COVID-19, and he spent nearly a month in the hospital before he died from the virus.

Justin Cline, 15, died from COVID-19 on Sunday after testing positive on Aug. 9, according to his father, George Cline. The teenager loved to dance to Johnny Cash, go swimming, and spend time with his loved ones. But his loved ones spent Justin’s final days watching him struggle to breathe, tangled in tubes in a hospital bed.

“To sit there and watch it is the most difficult thing I’ve ever went through,” said Doyle Manley, a longtime friend of Cline’s family who, along with his wife, helped take care of Justin. “Just to see the kid there with tubes. At the end, he had tubes coming out of his chest, one coming out of his side, all the monitoring stuff, the IVs ... it’s an awful thing.”

Manley was often alone with Justin at the hospital. After Justin tested positive for COVID-19, so did his father and his father’s girlfriend. Both suffered significant symptoms and weren’t allowed to see the 15-year-old boy for two weeks. COVID-19 restrictions at the hospital made it difficult for his recovered dad to see Justin.

Manley planned to rotate 24-hour shifts with his wife, Sarah Manley. But just days into Justin’s hospital stay, she tested positive, too. Doyle Manley went to the hospital by himself during the day and then went home to try to sleep at night, he said. It was too hard to sleep at the hospital with all the noise.

Justin’s grandmother, who also contracted COVID-19, recovered from her symptoms and was able to get onto the visitation roster, Manley said. More family members were eventually added, but Justin’s symptoms had gotten more severe at that point.

“It’s heartbreak, heartbreak pure and simple, just to see him there suffering like he was,” Sarah Manley said. “It’s senseless.”

Shelby County Superintendent Sally Sugg confirmed Tuesday that a 15-year-old student, whom Cline later identified, had died from the virus. “We are using all tools currently available to us to keep students and staff safe,” Sugg said.

‘100 percent sure it was COVID that killed him’

Justin had autism and was non-verbal, his father told the Herald-Leader. He had extensive medical issues, a weak immune system and had 25 or more surgeries in his lifetime, his father said. But Justin had never had to be hospitalized over lung issues. Even if he had survived, doctors told the family he would have scarred lungs forever due to COVID-19.

Cline said he was “100 percent sure it was COVID that killed him.”

“His lungs basically hardened on him,” Cline said. “He was getting holes in his lungs.”

Cline said Justin got the virus after it had spread around the family, and “he just was coughing and coughing and coughing.” He was taken to a hospital and tested positive. Cline said Justin went to the hospital a couple of times and was given medication to treat the symptoms.

On the third visit, the hospital admitted him.

“Within a couple of days, he was on the ventilator,” Cline said. “He just never really made any progression.”

In Justin’s final days, hospital staff believed he may have been recovering, Cline said. He was briefly taken off the ventilator but had to be put back on it.

“He went downhill so fast,” Cline said.

Justin’s past medical issues didn’t make things easier. Because he was nonverbal, it was difficult for him to make others realize he was ill, his father said. And because he was autistic, he was often combative with hospital staff as they tried to hook him up to IVs or put in tubes. He frequently had to be sedated, family members said.

“It’s heartbreaking to see your loved one strapped to a bed,” Doyle Manley said. “ ... It’s one of the most awful things a person could have to go through.”

Justin needed a significant amount of oxygen via the ventilator, Manley said, especially in his final days.

“His lungs were so destroyed,” he said.

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‘He was a joy to be around’

Justin loved to be around the Manleys, whom he called Mimi and Papaw. He also loved being around his maternal grandmother, whom he called Mamaw.

“He was a joy to be around,” Sarah Manley said. “He was laughing all the time and just a pure joy to be with. He loved music and swimming. He was just an outgoing child.”

Cline said his son always wanted to make others feel better.

“He was happy all the time,” Cline said. “It was the same Justin, whether he was sick or not.”

Justin loved to play a Johnny Cash album on repeat on the Manleys’ CD player, Sarah Manley said. They plan to play Cash at Justin’s funeral Saturday, she said.

‘What does it take to convince a person?’

Doyle and Sarah Manley were both vaccinated and advocated for vaccinations. They hoped Justin’s story would help more people realize the importance of getting vaccinated.

Sarah Manley called the death a “horrifying ordeal.” She said she had a son killed in a car accident, and “it was nothing compared to this.”

“This has hit me way worse because it was way more preventable,” she said.

Both said they wished people would take the virus more seriously to keep others from having to go through what Justin went through.

“People just need to see it,” Doyle Manley said. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but they’ve got to understand the gravity of the situation and what could happen.”

Justin wasn’t vaccinated, Cline said. Cline also hadn’t been vaccinated. He said he wanted the vaccine to get full approval from the Food and Drug Administration first. He was planning to get the Pfizer vaccine now that it has received that approval. Cline said he believes people should get to make their own choices about vaccinations.

“I’m going to go take my vaccine,” Cline said. “I’m going to do my part ... As bad as it sounds, once it affects them personally, then they’ll change their minds.”

Cline also said his girlfriend had been vaccinated but got just as sick as he did when they both contracted the virus. While vaccinated individuals have still contracted COVID-19, data indicates symptoms are less likely to be severe for a vaccinated person compared to an unvaccinated person.

Cline said he’s a big advocate for wearing masks to try to stop the virus’ spread.

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