Young Texas couple die from unidentified illness in Fiji
It was early, and Marsha Paul was in a Pennsylvania hotel trying to figure out what she could say to her late son’s two young boys.
About one month has passed since David Paul, and his wife, Michelle Paul, died of a still-unexplained illness that quickly worsened on vacation in Fiji. David, who had a young son in Fort Worth with Michelle and three children in other parts of the country from previous marriages, had spoken to Marsha on the phone on May 25 to say Michelle had died. Two days later, he was dead.
No one — not the Centers for Disease Control or the Fiji Ministry of Health and Medical Services — has been able to say what happened to them. But, for family of the couple, life has had to go on amid the unknown.
This week, Marsha and her husband drove from West Virginia, where David was born, to Pennsylvania so they could pick up their grandsons — ages 12 and 13 — and drive back home to spend time together. It was to be the first time since the tragedy they would see each other.
As she waited to see them around 7 a.m. Thursday, she was excited to “make some good memories” — even if she was nervous.
“We have to be able to answer questions that, of course, they have,” Marsha said. “And we don’t have any answers, either. But hopefully answers will come soon.”
The CDC announced on June 21 there are no signs David, 38, and Michelle, 35, died of an infectious disease based on the results of the initial testing done on specimens from Fiji. That came as a surprise to Marsha as well as Michelle’s father, Marc Calanog, both of whom had thought an infection was a likely explanation.
A CDC representative also told Marsha they have begun looking into possible toxins that could have entered their bodies and caused the illness, she said.
The CDC said on Friday it had no updates.
For David’s family members, spread across the country, the lack of answers has added to the pain of losing someone whom they didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to.
David, who joined the Air Force in West Virginia after graduating from high school, was an engineer with Lockheed Martin, Marsha said. He met Michelle living in Hawaii, where he had been a member of the Air Force reserves and went on to work for the Federal Aviation Administration.
They were living in Fort Worth raising a daughter from a previous marriage, who also spent time with her mother in Hawaii, and a 2-year-old boy they had together. His two sons were living with their mother in Pennsylvania.
No one could have known David wouldn’t return home when he left for a long-planned vacation in Fiji with Michelle. He still hasn’t returned home a month later, as he and Michelle’s bodies have remained in Fiji for testing.
Family, meanwhile, have been left to grieve, and to wonder.
“Of course, the most difficult (thing) was just hearing that Michelle and David had died,” Marsha said. “The not knowing — that just prolongs everything.”
‘It just couldn’t be real’
Marsha knew nothing about Fiji when David told her they were heading to the island for a vacation. It’s a mother’s instinct to want to know where your children are, she said, so she felt a need to find out where they would be and how they could keep in contact.
But, at least at the beginning of the trip, she had no reason to be alarmed.
David had sent her photos from the first leg of their trip in San Francisco — of the trees of Redwood Forest, of the island of Alcatraz, of food from nice restaurants. She got a Facebook message from David when they landed in Fiji saying they had arrived and the flight had been calm.
She later got a few photos of David taken by Michelle, showing him standing by what looked like a pool. On May 23, he texted Marsha asking her to tell his 12-year-old son happy birthday if she spoke to him.
His birthday gift would be in the mail by the next day, he told her, and he would be able to speak to him over the phone by next week.
She didn’t see the message until May 24, and responded that she had already talked to his son.
David’s response to her was her first indication something was amiss.
“He said, ‘We’ve been to the clinic all morning,’” Marsha said. “He said, ‘I have never vomited so much my whole life. Still not feeling well.’”
David explained to her over text that they had picked up a “nasty virus,” she said. She didn’t think much of it — after all, it was just a virus, she thought.
She told him she was so sorry about that. She hoped he would feel better soon.
Then, on the morning of May 25, she got a phone call as she sat at home with one of her daughters.
“I knew as soon as I picked up the phone something was wrong,” she said, beginning to cry. “David was — it was like he was in shock.”
He told her they had gone back to the hotel after the clinic, but David said he noticed Michelle was sweating profusely and they had to go back. He was too weak to drive, Marsha said, so he called a car to take them.
Medical personnel tried to put an IV in her vein but were unable to do so, David told her. He saw worried looks on the faces of staff.
Forty-five minutes later, Michelle was dead, Marsha said.
“I felt like what he was saying — it just couldn’t be real,” she said. “My daughter is sitting there on the bed. She goes, ‘Mom, what’s wrong?’ And I handed her the phone.’”
Wanting to help, a world apart
At this point, David had been released from the clinic, Marsha said, and his sister told him over the phone he needed to go back. Marsha began thinking about who they could call, whether it be the American Red Cross or the U.S. Embassy in Fiji.
But a feeling of helplessness set in, she said.
“I didn’t know how to help,” she said. “His sister just kept telling him, ‘You need to get help, Dave.’”
Marsha said she and other family members would eventually track down the hotel where David was staying, and they spoke over the phone to an employee to say “you are the only one who can help us.” Hotel representatives told the family how to reach the clinic, and that David was getting IV drips.
They got in contact with the clinic, Marsha said. One of her daughters was able to speak to David briefly after demanding medical staff put him on the phone, and he told her he was about to see doctors.
She didn’t know it would be the last time she would talk to him.
The next day, family found out David was being transported to a hospital because he couldn’t breathe, possibly because of pneumonia, Marsha said. Medics performed an emergency tracheotomy to open his trachea to free up breathing.
During this time, one of Marsha’s daughters was in contact with Lockheed Martin, which was preparing to have a helicopter fly from Australia to the hospital.
“They had a medical team waiting to do everything about David’s medical care back in Australia. It would’ve taken four hours to get there, four hours to get back,” she said. “But he didn’t make it. They didn’t even get to take off.”
‘I try not to think about it every day’
After knowing nothing about Fiji, Marsha has come to be something of an expert on the South Pacific Island.
She hasn’t been able to think about much else.
Internet searches and medical articles have consumed much of her free time, she said. She’s learned about different plants and insects native to the island, as well as the sprays people use on insects. She’s researched the string of tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic, wondering if there’s a connection.
“I try not to think about it every day,” Marsha said. “But, of course, that’s what you always wake up to think about.”
It’s been tough for family to fully mourn David, she said, with his body still in Fiji. But they hope to have a funeral soon, where everyone can remember him, she said.
Her son, she said, was dedicated to service, entering the Air Force after high school inspired by his 93-year-old grandfather who fought in World War II. He was also known for his “huge smile,” barely becoming angry and jumping at the chance to help others, such as holding doors open, she said.
It still feels like this all happened yesterday, Marsha said.
“All my days, dates, months, years are just sort of running together,” she said.