‘HOOSIERS WE’VE LOST’: For the Neighbors family, the deadly virus has a face

Editor’s note: This is one of a continuing online series of profiles of the more than 12,000 Hoosiers who have died from COVID-19. The stories are from 12 Indiana newspapers, including The Republic, who collaborated to create the collection to highlight the tremendous loss that the pandemic has created. The series appears daily at therepublic.com.

Name: Gary Neighbors

City/Town: Morgantown

Age: 57

Died: Nov. 28

For some, COVID-19 deaths are merely numbers.

For the Neighbors family, the deadly virus has a face.

Gary Lee Neighbors, 57, a long-time firefighter and volunteer, died a tragic, preventable death, his family said.

If more people who were around Neighbors on a regular basis had worn masks, he may still be alive, said Kyra Neighbors, his wife, now a widow.

Neighbors tested positive Nov. 8. It was mild at the outset, but took a turn for the worst about two weeks in. She had thought her husband was getting better, and she was hopeful after both she and her daughter recovered, she said.

But on Nov. 20, things took a turn. They took him to a southside hospital, but staff discharged him because they did not believe he was sick enough to be admitted at the time, Kyra Neighbors said.

For eight days after that, he complained of breathing problems, but the family couldn’t find an at-home oximeter in stock anywhere to monitor his levels accurately. Then, they measured his oxygen levels using the Samsung Health smartphone app and discovered that it was only 84% — about 10 points below normal.

They knew they had to get him back to the hospital. But by then, he was so weak he couldn’t make it to the car, Kyra Neighbors said. He didn’t have the heart and lung capacity left to get there. Gary Neighbors died on the family’s couch from heart and lung failure caused by COVID-19, she said.

Neighbors, of Morgantown, left behind his wife and four children, Johnny, Lynsie, Katie and Kristie, and two grandchildren. But his impact extended far beyond his family, Kyra Neighbors said.

He was a 24-year volunteer firefighter, who served with the Warren Township, New Whiteland and Whiteland fire departments. He brought the now-beloved tradition of the Santa Parade to the local towns, and loved seeing the kids’ faces light up, she said.

As his children grew up, he gave back to the community by volunteering with their activities, helping out with Franklin-area 4-H, Future Farmers of America, Girl Scouts and little league.

He would do anything for his children, his daughter Lynsie Neighbors said. At the start of the pandemic, Gary dropped off a box of N95 masks for Lynsie, a nursing student in her last semester, to protect her while she works. At the time, she was touched by her father’s generosity and hoped he saved some for himself, she said.

As a mentor, he loved to teach kids about agriculture and make sure those who were new to 4-H and FFA had all the information they needed to succeed, Lynsie Neighbors said.

Gary Neighbors loved the spotlight and would do anything to put a smile on someone’s face, whether cracking jokes, singing karaoke or doing a good deed. The family joked about burying him with a microphone, Kyra Neighbors said.

Despite his health problems, the family knew he had a lot of life left in him. If not for the virus, he would still be alive today, they said.

The Neighbors hope their Patriarch’s story will help people understand the true impact of COVID-19.

“I don’t want more people to have to go through this,” Lynsie Neighbors said. “I hope this comes to an end soon.”

— Contributed by the Daily Journal, Franklin