Family finds strength, joy despite a year of challenges
By Michael Gresham
The Texas Catholic
Pandemic. House fire. Burst pipes. Flooding. Renovation and relocation.
By February, 2021 had already thrown a lot at the Kula family.
And that’s when things grew worse.
“We were displaced from our home, living in our second hotel room and then my wife, my youngest daughter and I all tested positive for COVID-19,” said Bill Kula director of marketing and communications for The Catholic Foundation.
It was a trying time — a frightening experience — but through it all, the Kulas clung to the one thing the family knew would help them through it: their faith.
“Obviously, through all of this, we had some sense of fear, but at the same time, we knew we needed to cling to our faith,” said Bill, adding that throughout the ordeal, he often recalled John 16:33. “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.”
A tough start
Likening it to the children’s novel bearing a similar name, the Kula family’s series of unfortunate events began the night of Feb. 12 when at midnight an exterior fire ignited at their Plano home.
“It was caused by an exterior floodlight leaning upon a faucet cover which ignited a garden hose cover and garden hose,” said Bill, adding that Plano firefighters came, inspected the property and declared the house safe. “Thank the good Lord that the fire wasn’t worse knowing that it happened in the middle of the night. It could have been a far worse situation.”
Four days later, as North Texas found itself in the grips of an historic winter storm, tragedy struck again.
“The power kept going off and on and temperatures outside had dropped below zero,” Wendy Kula recalled. “I was thinking we need to make a fire because we need some heat. Then we started hearing this noise, and we were thinking, ‘What is that?’”
Multiple pipes burst in the attic of the Kula’s home, causing a portion of the garage ceiling to fall onto one of their vehicles while water poured into the living room, fireplace, hallways and kitchen.
“All of a sudden, with the fire going, water started shooting out of the fireplace,” Wendy said. “It was just chaos. We were just in shock.”
The Kulas’ home became a massive remediation project that included removal of damaged carpets and wood floors while trying to air out the water-soaked living room and garage walls. The efforts led to the house being saturated with a thick layer of dust, creating new challenges for the family.
“In late February, both Wendy and I were treated for asthma as all the dust and dirt from the renovation of a 20-year-old home began affecting us,” said Bill, adding that Wendy had been battling bronchitis since Christmas.
On March 3, the couple, their 17-year-old daughter Grace, and their dog relocated to an area hotel to escape the inhospitable breathing conditions in the home. Six days later, a fire broke out in the hotel.
“We were sitting there in the hotel room when the fire alarms and lights went off. At first, I thought it was just a fluke, but then I opened the door and I could not see the end of the hallway because of the amount of smoke,” said Bill, noting that the fire was started six doors down from theirs when an occupant burned metal on an in-room stove.
The next day, the family relocated to a Hilton hotel property just five minutes from their home.
A time of prayers
Living in close quarters in a hotel during a pandemic was not an optimal situation, but the Kulas continued to play it safe.
“With the pandemic, we were being so careful,” Bill said. “We were not going places. We were practicing social distancing. We were wearing our masks.”
Unfortunately, it was not enough.
In late March, Wendy began to feel ill. As her condition worsened, Bill drove her to the emergency room on March 27, where she was tested and diagnosed with COVID-19. Returning to their hotel room, Bill spent the night on the couch before relocating two doors down the next day. The following day, Bill visited the emergency room where he was tested for COVID-19 and began taking medicine. By March 31, Bill’s temperature had risen to 102.5 degrees and he found himself battling coronavirus. Grace tested positive on April 4, Easter Sunday.
“It’s a terrible feeling as a mom, having your child so sick, your husband so sick and you’re so sick you can’t do more to help,” Wendy said. “We all just tried to take care of each other as best we could.”
As the days wore on, Bill’s condition worsened. On April 8, he was taken by ambulance to Plano Presbyterian Hospital with shortness of breath and a blood oxygen level of 72, down substantially from the normal level of 95.
“When the COVID virus reaches your body, it comes in such a powerful way. Overall, I was feeling this sense of fatigue like I’d never felt in my life,” said Bill, who had been reluctant to leave his hotel room, but changed his mind when first responders arrived. “When I heard the word ‘serious’ coming from the first responders, the reality of the situation struck me.”
The couple’s older daughter, Bethany, 20, left Baylor University in April to assist the family, first staying with friends but eventually moving into the hotel. Meanwhile, Bill was moved into the intensive care unit as he developed pneumonia with his blood oxygen level dipping to 50.
“I remember there being three doctors in my room at one time. I was thinking to myself, if there are three white coats in here, something must be seriously wrong,” he recalled.
Bill would spend eight days in ICU and wouldn’t leave the hospital until April 27.
“I remember thinking, ‘Should I be fearful or should I be faithful?’ As a Christian, it was a time to cling to my faith,” he said.
While in ICU, a nurse asked him to remove his gold chain necklace, but Bill balked.
“It’s not the chain,” he told her, “it’s what’s on it. This is my cornerstone”
He then took that opportunity to talk about the crucifix, Miracle Medal and four saint medallions on his necklace.
“I remember her eyes opened big and she said, ‘OK,’” he said. “I remember Father Tom (Cloherty) always telling us to make the most of the opportunities we have to joyfully share our faith. God was presenting me with my opportunity.”
As Bill battled COVID-19 from an ICU bed, his faith presented itself in a more vivid way as he began to see sacred and meaningful images in his mind, offering him strength and hope.
“It was the equivalent of one of those old viewfinders you’d see as a kid,” he said, recalling seeing a picture of Mary looking at Jesus in the garden, an image of St. Veronica, and other images of Jesus as well as images of friends and family. “It was very tranquil, very peaceful.”
Bill said as their faces would pop up, he would not only see them but also hear them offering words of encouragement and prayers.
“God’s grace was placed right in front of me, letting me know not to be fearful, but to be faithful,” he said. “I was so comforted by it. I remember thinking, ‘God’s got this. I know I’m sick, but I’m going to be OK.’”
‘Blessings in the Mess’
As trying as times were for the Kula family, Wendy said their spirits remain lifted by the outpouring of support from family and friends.
“God blessed us with amazing friends and family. They took over taking care of us,” said Wendy, who along with her husband is a longtime parishioner of Prince of Peace Catholic Community in Plano. “Without them, I’m not sure what we would have done. They were our blessings in this mess.”
After more than 80 days away, the Kulas returned to their home. Their faith tested, but not diminished.
“We are so blessed to have weathered this storm against our home, against our bodies. There is no way we could have survived without being receptive to God’s will,” Bill said.
“God’s love is the greatest medicine.”