'That Was The Hardest Part': Father Whose Son Died From Coronavirus Couldn't Be With Him In The Final Moments

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Michael J. O'Brien on his wedding day. (Photo courtesy Bill O'Brien)
Michael J. O'Brien on his wedding day. (Photo courtesy Bill O'Brien)

On March 10, Michael J. O'Brien of Wolcott, Connecticut, DJed an event in nearby Westchester, New York — one of the country's early COVID-19 hot spots.

The 35-year-old died of the disease 16 days later at St. Mary's Hospital in Waterbury, Connecticut.

Michael O'Brien worked as a flag-man at construction sites but had a side gig as a DJ. He was the youngest of four siblings.

His father, Bill O'Brien, speculates Michael caught the virus during his DJ gig in Westchester, though there’s no way to be certain.

“My wife did speak to him before he went down to Westchester that night and encouraged him not to go because we were starting to hear about things in New Rochelle,” Bill O'Brien says.

At first Michael thought he was experiencing allergies. But his sister was concerned for herself and her brother since each of them get bronchitis yearly. Plus, Bill O'Brien says his wife, Joan O'Brien, has lung problems and uses oxygen at night.

Days after Michael went to Westchester County, the state shut down bars and restaurants in New York.

“By that weekend, I guess, Mike was showing symptoms,” he says. “And over the weekend and then the next week, he got sicker. And, you know, the last we heard was his temperature was 104.5 [degrees].”

Eight days later, Michael's brother told him to go to the hospital.

Michael went to a walk-in clinic and waited in the car with his wife, Tara O'Brien, for four hours, Bill O'Brien says. The facility was crowded and only allowing one patient in at a time.

Since Michael had severe COVID-19 symptoms, he took a virus test and was admitted to the hospital — though he didn’t get the results for two days.

But Bill and Joan O'Brien couldn’t visit their son in the hospital because the virus is highly contagious.

“For us, that was the hardest part. Not being able to visit him and be with him, talk to him,” he says. “We couldn't talk to him on the phone after the first day. He was on a ventilator.”

A hospital chaplain performed the Catholic rite of apostolic pardon for his son from outside the room, he says, and a nurse blessed Michael with holy water every day.


Bill O'Brien visited the hospital twice, once with his wife Joan. The couple parked outside the hospital and prayed the rosary together.

When the family learned Michael was dying, they rushed to the hospital and arrived just in time. This time, they parked near the emergency room because they knew Michael was a few floors above it.

“That was as close as we could get,” he says, “probably a couple hundred feet away but a couple stories up.”

A day before his condition worsened, his wife had also been admitted to the intensive care unit for COVID-19.

Tara O'Brien didn’t witness the hours the doctors spent trying to keep Michael alive, but when doctors realized he wasn't going to make it, the nurses brought her in the room.

“As Mike died, she was holding Mike's hand,” Bill O'Brien says. “They did everything they possibly could. But she was there at the very end.”

Now, Tara O'Brien remains hospitalized with COVID-19 though she’s out of the ICU, he says — and Michael’s two business partners have also come down with the disease. This demonstrates how contagious it is, he says.

Michael and Tara O'Brien with family on their wedding day. (Courtesy)
Michael and Tara O'Brien with family on their wedding day. (Courtesy)

Though Michael was only 35, his father says he had diabetes. His son’s death shatters the myth that the coronavirus is impacting only elderly people, he says.

“Mike was his own kind of guy. He liked to do his own thing,” he says. “He was always one that would lend an ear to people.”

Bill O'Brien says his son was non-confrontational and had a close-knit circle of friends who trusted him. Michael enjoyed karaoke, astronomy, theater, Star Trek and entertaining people — especially at weddings, he says.

On top of his vast array of interests, Michael served as the family birthday cake artist. Bill O'Brien says his sister-in-law recently reminded him of a “Scooby-Doo” cake with all the characters on top that Michael had made for her.

Michael died on his sister’s birthday, which Bill O'Brien predicts will be difficult for her. But he hopes the family will keep up with making special cakes — like his son did year after year.

“You never knew what you were going to get,” he says. “That part I'm certainly sure is going to be missed on every birthday.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on March 31, 2020.


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