When Kat Downer shared the story of her father and his condition in a 60-second TikTok video in the hopes of raising enough funds to give him a better life, she had no idea it’d go viral. She’s still shocked it led her to raise nearly $30,000, three times her original goal, for her GoFundMe fundraiser.
“I really didn’t expect the video to blow up like it did. When it hit 20 million [views], I was like, ‘What the hell!’ I couldn’t comprehend,” Downer, an Astoria resident, told QNS. “I said, ‘Humanity, is that you?’ I didn’t think so many people would relate as they did.”
Downer first shared the heartfelt story of her father, Mike, on TikTok on Jan. 13. Her father, 79, suffered a massive stroke in 2017, leaving him unable to walk, talk or eat, she explained in her GoFundMe page. After being in a coma for two weeks, her father was moved to a rehab center where doctors attempted to help him regain his ability to swallow and some other motor abilities.
But his health insurance only covered rehab for a short period of time and he was moved to a nursing home on Long Island, where her family resides, for long-term care.
Downer and her mother, Darlene, were at his side every day for three years, performing care themselves to try to maintain his physical and occupational therapy in order to prevent him from further decline.
“It’s a lot of his family having to advocate for him,” Downer said. “Even in best health care situation, where insurance and doctors and everyone is on your side, it’s hard to tackle.”
At the beginning of 2020, they found a nearby treatment facility offering hyperbaric oxygen therapy five days a week. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a non-invasive treatment for stroke patients meant to enhance the body’s natural ability to heal, Downer explained. The alternative treatment costs $225 per session, with the recommended amount of sessions at 40.
Now 28 years old, Downer is studying to become a nurse. She would use her student loans to pay for her father’s alternative treatment, while working as a a pharmacy tech, dog walker and even an Uber driver in order to pay for her own bills.
“Living here, it’s no cake walk,” Downer said, who lives with roommates in order to split rent.
But Downer said things were looking promising for her father, thanks to the treatments.
Then, COVID-19 happened. They were forced to end the treatment and were not allowed to visit him at the nursing home. This was especially devastating for her mother, who was struggling to be apart from her husband and “best friend” for the first time in 40 years.
Downer’s father then caught the virus.
“I was scared when he caught COVID because of everything we were hearing in the news. I was so sure he would die,” Downer said. “We were really scared because people in his facility were dying. I was really scared because he can’t speak, he cant ask for help.”
Downer was coordinating with her father’s doctors about his treatment over the phone. She didn’t tell her mother her father caught the virus, afraid for her own health as she’d often get sick when he would. But, her mother eventually found out two weeks later, when her father was already recovering.
“She was upset but it’s OK. He had passed the mark of danger,” Downer said, noting that after 10 days is when doctors know if someone needs to be intubated.
While their family is relieved their father survived the virus, Downer has noticed a decline in his motor abilities. She thinks part of the decline has to do with her family not being able to visit him since March nor give him alternative treatment.
Downer added that father doesn’t respond well to FaceTime or virtual chatting like others would.
“He needs more than medicine and food. He needs brain stimulation,” she said. “It’s sad and difficult to watch.”
But Downer sees he’s trying and has the motivation to get better.
And now, thanks to TikTok and the generous people who have donated — some donations have been for hundreds of dollars — Downer not only has enough to pay the debt of previous treatments, but is confident she can offer her father a better quality of life.
“Me and my mom always wanted to bring him home, but we don’t have a lot of money,” Downer said, adding that her mother rents a home and that the equipment they’d need to support him is costly.
But with the money raised, Downer said they can think about using it for a down payment for a house.
“I can just put it away and add to it when I get a job as a nurse,” Downer said.
Downer described her father as “an absolutely brilliant man, an avid book reader and lover of classical music,” as well as a “master bird watcher.”
In one of her videos, Downer tells her father how thankful she is to have him.
“You’re really my best friend, dad. I tell my therapist all the time. I’m so lucky to have a dad who made me feel safe and happy,” she tearfully tells her father in the video. “A lot of people don’t have that. That’s why I’m so thankful for you, dad.”
Downer said she’ll do her best to keep the thousand of people who newly followed her updated on his recovery. She only had about 70 followers prior to going viral, and is now at nearly 170,000.
“There’s no real happy ending for my dad; he’s 79. But I did not want him to go alone,” Downer added, noting that there is no clear timeline for when the pandemic will end. “The best thing would be to bring him home so he can be with his family, his children, his grandkids.”
Downer, a first-generation child of immigrant parents (her father is English and her mother is Filipino), said she almost felt desensitized as she focused her efforts on helping her family get through it all.
“This whole experience has been really lonely. I’m relatively young … although people can empathize I struggle to find people who can really understand,” she said. “I’ve been dealing with this for four years … but for everyone else, it’s not normal — it’s tragic and devastating. I was really moved it meant a lot to people.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of the experience for Downer has been the outpouring of messages from strangers, some of whom had similar experiences and others who took her story as a chance to reach out to their own family.
“That support alone, I can’t put in to words. I read every single message. I’ve been telling my dad the messages,” she said. “It’s that human interaction we’ve been lacking. TikTok literally changed my life. Every day I wake up, trying to wrap my head around it.”