Becoming a nurse in 2018 was a dream come true for William Coddington.
He loved helping people and felt needed in his West Palm Beach, Florida hospital. The 32-year-old was on the upswing of a decade-long battle against opioid addiction and other drug abuse, friends and family said that he was committed to his recovery.
In March everything started to dissolve when fatally ill COVID-19 patients showed up in his intensive care unit.
Coddington was shocked to see patients of his age die, his mother Carolyn said. He was no longer able to attend his 12-step recovery sessions in person. He was afraid of how little personal protective equipment he had. He had nightmares about alarms on fans in the intensive care unit.
On the night of April 24, he spoke to his best friend Robert Marks on the phone and sounded distraught, Marks said. Coddington was caught between the war zone at work and his detention at home.
"Don't take unnecessary risks, just stay tuned," Marks wrote.
The next morning Coddington was found dead in his car in a hotel car park in Deerfield Beach, Florida.
His family suspects an overdose of drugs. A spokeswoman for the Broward County Medical Examiner said the case is still pending. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said it is still investigating but suspects no foul.
Reuters reconstructed Coddington's recent weeks using some of his text messages, Facebook posts, and interviews with his parents, brother, and two close friends. Reuters was unable to independently verify Coddington's cause of death.
Health care workers are at the forefront of coping with the trauma of treating the novel coronavirus that flooded U.S. hospitals with desperately ill patients and killed more than 90,000 Americans in less than three months.
Healthcare workers with a history of drug abuse may have greater difficulty dealing with fear, isolation, and experiencing so many deaths during the pandemic, psychiatrists told Reuters. These factors could cause relapses in workers recovering from addiction, they said.
"Patients treated for opioid use disorder have reported increased stress and opioid cravings since the beginning of this pandemic," said Kelly Dunn, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University who studies opioid use.
Fear but committed
Coddington grew up in Deerfield Beach with his mother, a health care executive assistant, after his parents divorced in 2001.
Coddington's family said he was addicted to opioids at a young age. It started with pain relievers that he received after leg surgery, Coddington told his friend Skye Alexander, whom he had met in the nursing school.
Coddington entered inpatient rehabilitation at the age of 21, his mother said. When he showed up, he joined 12-tier grants, support groups, and therapies.
He has always tried different things to find stability for interacting with the world, "said Marks, a Miami Beach resident who had known Coddington for 10 years.
When COVID-19 patients arrived at the north campus of JFK Medical Center in March, where Coddington worked for three months, he volunteered for the coronavirus department.
He did it because he was younger than some of his colleagues and therefore less likely to become seriously ill and because he was not a parent, said his friend Alexander.
"That was the kind of person who was Will," she said.
Still, Coddington was afraid, his friends said. He risked exposure and infected his 65-year-old mother, with whom he still lived.
Palm Beach County ranks third in Florida behind the Miami-Dade and Broward counties for confirmed coronavirus cases. Almost 300 people died of COVID-19 there.
Coddington said in a Facebook post on April 13 that his hospital lacked protective equipment, particularly key N95 respirators. He said he did not blame his employer because the problem was widespread.
"In my hospital, we ration 1 n95 mask for my entire shift," Coddington wrote. "We're running out of clothes. We're letting people make makeshift face shields that end up tearing."
Days before his death, his face shield fell off as he helped with an intubation that inserted tubing into the patient's airway to aid breathing, said his father Ronald, a Palm Beach harbor engineer.
"He literally felt things splash on his face," Ronald recalled his son, who told him.
Kathryn Walton, a spokeswoman for the JFK Medical Center, part of the HCA Healthcare hospital group, declined to comment on Coddington's death, except to express condolences to his family. She said the hospital's goal was always to protect employees.
The hospital has "adequate PSA supply" and "is taking steps to get PSA because we don't know what our future needs will be," said Walton.
She said the hospital offers psychological counseling over the phone and on video. Coddington's friends and family say they don't know if he used these services.
"Prepared for impact"
Coddington suffered from the social isolation caused by the pandemic, his family and friends said.
He loved being with people, said Marks, who first met Coddington in a diner. Coddington's "crazy" imitations of TV characters immediately made him popular with Marks.
"He was like a character in his own right," said Marks.
Coddington relied on 12-step meetings to stay sober, but after a virtual video meeting, he told his mother that it wasn't that helpful.
"He couldn't meet his sponsor," she said. "And his friends, nobody wanted to see him because he worked in a hospital, not even sitting a meter apart."
In his final weeks, Coddington came home from work, spoke little, and played video games in his room, Carolyn said. His imitations – including one of their southern accents that always made them laugh – stopped.
His girlfriend Alexander from Sunrise, Florida said she had noticed the change as well: "It was desperation … to sneak in."
Coddington had fallen behind earlier. According to Alexander, during a break from nursing school in 2017, he landed on a ventilator that said she visited him in the hospital. She said Coddington told her he had overdosed on the club's gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHb) drug.
With the pandemic in Coddington, his loved ones were preparing for the impact, Marks said. Carolyn kept checking him. His father and friends called and texted.
"They're used by others like this now. They can be great," Ronald Coddington said on April 1 in text messages to his son. "Please bury me one day. Don't let me bury you … I love you."
"I love you too," answered Coddington.
Desire for relief
On the night of April 24, Coddington argued with his mother, who feared a relapse. They made up, but he announced that he would go to a hotel to sleep well.
Coddington kissed Carolyn and assured her that she could track his location on her cell phone. That night he called Marks and expressed how trapped he was between the chaos at work and being involved at home.
"I couldn't stop thinking about him because he was so upset," said Marks. Sleepless at 1:24 p.m., Marks sent his friend $ 20 on Apple Pay to buy coffee before his shift.
Coddington never answered. Carolyn checked its location on the morning of April 25th. He wasn't in the hospital. She drove to the hotel and found him dead in his car.
Ronald Coddington said the police had told him they had received a video, probably hotel security material, that shows his son, who was sitting in his car in the car park that night when another car was driving close by. Ronald said there was "some kind of exchange" between his son and the driver of the other vehicle, which he suspected was a drug deal.
The sheriff's office in Broward County did not respond to Reuters' request for the video.
Family members believe the toxicology report expected in a few weeks will confirm an overdose – a temporary escape that went wrong.
"Do I think he wanted to die that night? 100% no," said his friend Marks. "I would bet every dollar I have that it was an effort to get some relief."
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and is generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)