Bobby and Billy Ford hung out together even before they were born one after the other Jan. 21, 1962.
The identical twins were inseparable as youngsters growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia, where their father started an auto repair shop after fixing helicopters for 20-plus years in the Army.
Bobby Ford (right) looks under the hood of a vehicle with longtime employee Greg Snead on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, at Ford’s automotive shop, Bobby’s Auto Service Center, in Vero Beach. Several employees at the shop became infected with COVID-19, including Ford, who was vaccinated, and his twin brother, Billy Ford, who was not vaccinated. Eventually, Billy Ford had to be admitted to the hospital, sedated and put on a ventilator. Billy Ford died Aug. 14, leaving behind a wife, three children, his mother and three brothers.
The twins were separated temporarily in 1987, when Bobby followed his wife, the former Jane Griffin, to her hometown of Vero Beach. The brothers spoke regularly and vacationed together on their motorcycles, Bobby said. In 1993, he opened Bobby’s Auto Service Center, where Billy eventually joined him.
The twins’ workday camaraderie and banter lasted until July 22.
Was it flu or COVID-19?
That was maybe a week after one of Bobby’s employees learned he had COVID-19.
Meantime, Bobby said, Billy wasn’t feeling well, so he went to a medical provider, where he was told he had the flu. The next day, Billy was so ill he went to the Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital emergency room and was admitted — with COVID-19.
“It was one employee after another going down,” Bobby said, noting employees under age 30 got COVID-19 badly and were on their backs for eight days, texting him “they’d never been so sick in their lives.”
Bobby Ford (center) looks after the work being done on a truck in his shop, Bobby’s Auto Service Center, on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in Vero Beach. Many of the employees at the shop became infected with COVID-19, including Ford’s twin brother, Billy, who died Aug. 14 from the illness.
The group of 10 employees had been careful throughout the pandemic, Bobby said. Folks were given time off to visit physicians and get tested for COVID-19. Four were vaccinated.
Eventually, the repair shop was shut down for nine days while employees recovered.
Bobby was the last one to have symptoms: three days of fever.
Connie Schultz: How are our kids doing with COVID? Lean in and listen.
Bobby and Billy Ford pose in this undated picture.
J&J, other vaccines praised
As a big man, 6-feet-3, 320 pounds, Bobby Ford might have been a prime candidate for hospitalization. But he, like other employees who had relatively minor symptoms, had been vaccinated: Bobby with Johnson & Johnson.
Even the twins’ mother, 83, was infected and had a minor fever. But, Bobby said, she was protected by the Moderna vaccine.
Billy was not vaccinated.
“We had many heated discussions about this vaccine,” Bobby told me the other day, lamenting that he could not persuade his brother to dismiss conspiracy theories and get one.
“Now I have to pick up most of the office work that my brother used to do,” said Bobby Ford as he makes phone calls on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021 at Bobby’s Auto Service Center in Vero Beach. Ford’s twin brother, Billy, did most of the office work, but was infected with COVID-19 and died Aug. 14, Bobby Ford said. Billy Ford was unvaccinated.
“DNA-wise, we’re pretty much identical,” Bobby said, noting Billy started to take medication to control diabetes several years ago after hitting about 400 pounds. More recently, though, the 6-foot-3 Billy had cut down to about 240 pounds. Bobby hasn’t had diabetes.
When his brother was hospitalized, Bobby said, the two regularly spoke on the phone, though Billy often would lose his breath quickly. Via phone from his hospital bed, Billy persuaded others in his family to get a vaccine.
In this undated photo from the 1960s, Billy and Bobby Ford smile during a meal.
Vaccine decision was too late
“He changed his mind on that,” Bobby said, noting the two eventually had to text each other. “It was too late for him.”
After seeing how much his brother suffered, and he didn’t, Bobby has been trying to persuade people to get vaccinated.
“We have a whole lot of friends that were not vaccinated … a whole lot,” he said. “We know that a lot of people are looking at Bill and saying, ‘I need to do something.’ They’re finally changing their minds.”
Bobby Ford (right) talks with longtime employee Dickey Millard in the service bay of Ford’s shop, Bobby’s Auto Service Center, on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in Vero Beach. Both Ford and his twin brother, Billy, became sick with coronavirus. But Ford was vaccinated while his brother was not. Billy Ford died Aug. 14, leaving behind a wife, three children, his mother and three brothers.
Bobby’s troubled by misinformation spread about the vaccine. The other day, he said, someone came into the shop saying she was sorry Billy died. She then told Bobby her girlfriend’s boyfriend said the vaccines have tracking devices.
Bobby said he told the woman to leave and did not mince words.
“It’s people like you, repeating stupid (crap) from stupid people that keeps people from getting vaccines,” Bobby said he told her. “And she probably tells 20 people a day the same (stuff).”
‘We’re all praying for you’
Bobby said the first employee to get COVID-19 in the repair shop was admitted to Lawnwood Regional Medical Center in Fort Pierce, eventually spending four weeks on a ventilator. He’s back at work.
Billy ended up on a ventilator, too.
In his last significant text exchange with his brother, Bobby expressed hope.
“We’re all praying for you,” Bobby texted.
“Are you sure, because I’m a terrible pain,” Billy replied. “I was expecting hospice.”
“You’re gonna get through this,” Bobby texted. “Keep breathing.”
Bobby said his brother’s pain got worse. That’s when Billy was sedated and put on the ventilator.
“He wasn’t a wimpy guy so he must have really been hurting,” Bobby said, suggesting videotaping people suffering with COVID-19 would be a great way to persuade people to get vaccines.
After all, we discussed, scared-straight-type videos were shown years ago in our schools when we learned to drive or use electric saws in shop class.
Also instructive would be images of what Bobby saw in the hospital visiting his brother in his final days.
Like a ‘valley of death’
“There are so many sick people in the ICU,” Bobby said, noting he saw a shorthanded hospital staff, struggling with COVID-related absenteeism, “working their butts off” to take care of the ill. “I don’t know how the health care people are holding up.”
Just to get upstairs at the hospital after hours is like running a COVID gantlet, he said.
“You have to go through the valley of death in the emergency room,” he said, noting people were all over coughing and hacking. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God, this place is a disaster.’ ”
It’s reality amid Indian River County’s worst surge of COVID-19.
William H. “Billy” Ford, 59, died Aug. 14 in the hospital. He left behind a wife, three children, his mother and three brothers.
“A twin is your best friend and your worst enemy,” Bobby said, remembering Billy. “You have someone that looks just like you competing for the same friends, the same girls, the same everything. You know, it’s fine for me to punch you, but nobody else.
“We’re twin brothers,” Bobby said. “We did everything together.”
This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Support his work by subscribing to TCPalm. Contact him via email at [email protected], phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman
This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Vaccine? What happened when identical twins got COVID?
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