PANDEMIC LIFE: Big city draws include risks and a reason to check out


AURORA | Michele Sullivan isn’t sure she could survive COVID-19 while living in Aurora. So she’s moving to rural Alabama. 

At least, for a while. 

Sullivan is leaving behind her home in east Aurora and heading for the hills until winter to stay with family and socially distance from everyone else. 

And, actually, it’s just one hill, she says. Sullivan will soon be relocating to her niece’s home on top of a rise in Bremen, an unincorporated town in Cullman County, Alabama, which is about 35 miles overland from Birmingham.

After surviving the pandemic so far with a heart condition, Michele Sullivan moved from Aurora to live with her niece in rural Alabama, on a family farm, in hopes of getting away from unnecessary exposure, given her pre-existing conditions.
Portrait by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

She says she’s spooked after a recent brush with the novel coronavirus and two heart surgeries that have rendered her fragile and gasping for air, at risk of succumbing to the virus if she’s exposed at the grocery store or a doctor’s waiting room. 

“If I was to get sick with my heart not working the way it is supposed to be working — I would die. There is no doubt in my mind,” Sullivan, 67, told the Sentinel. 

The draw of Bremen? Less people and more space between them. The 2010 Census estimated part of Cullman County including Bremen was inhabited by about 9,000 people. 

Sullivan thinks the isolation will give her better chances of surviving the pandemic. 

As of June 17, Alabama Public Health reported 282 positive cases and one death because of the virus in Cullman County, and cases are generally declining. 

“That’s the reason I’m going to Alabama,” Sullivan said of the low population. “Where my niece lives, she lives on top of a mountain. She only goes down into town when she needs to go to the grocery store. And the town doesn’t have the COVID-19.”

It’s a region that hasn’t shared in a concerning, recent surge in novel coronavirus cases slamming other parts of Alabama. 

Bremen’s numbers are much more reassuring to Sullivan than the current picture in Aurora, which is a near 400,000-person sprawl. Arapahoe County, Aurora’s largest jurisdiction, was second only to Denver in the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at 4,818 as of June 15. 

No matter where she lives, Sullivan will be at risk of succumbing to the virus simply because of her age — let alone her heart conditions. 

She said she has suffered from a slew of issues stemming from a heart valve, including low oxygen levels in her blood. COVID-19 is even more dangerous for patients with underlying heart conditions, according to the American Heart Association.

Sullivan said she was exposed to the novel virus in April while working at an area nursing home. Sullivan was a home health provider working with the elderly and patients at home or in nursing homes who quickly went into lockdown during the early days of the pandemic. 

The fear helped create heart problems, she said. 

But April 21, Sullivan says she underwent two surgeries: the first to fix her faulty valve, and the other to install a pacemaker because of complications from the first operation. For those weeks in a hospital bed, she was terrified of contracting the virus in a hospital environment she said was chock-full of patients in serious condition. She still has serious complications from the procedures. 

But once discharged and back in public, Sullivan found she had to once again make the odd trip to the grocery store or visit doctors. These became tasks involving braving the virus and moving gingerly because of her fragile heart. 

Trips to her local Safeway demanded some serious tactics, she says. She’d don gloves and a mask, armed with sanitizer, and deliberately avoid going near other people in the aisles. 

“I would scurry around, literally, like a mouse,” she said. 

No longer. 

Sullivan hopes to find more space, and some breathing room, in rural Alabama with family who are also social-distancing. She said she’ll likely be back in Aurora in about six months to make a much-needed doctor’s appointment. 

She said her generational cohorts, unfortunately, don’t all have the ability to scurry to a rural area. In lieu of a move to Alabama — or Cortez, for that matter — she’s firm that older Aurorans should stay inside as much as possible and drink lots of water to stay healthy.