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The council member and the firefighter, separated but tied together amid an epidemic
Courtesy of Natasha Harper-Madison

Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, her husband Tom Madison and their two girls, ages 9 and 11, take a few minutes to visit with each other—at a safe distance—from the porch of their home in Austin. (Courtesy of Natasha Harper-Madison)

When Tom Madison strode into his college Spanish class wearing his firefighter uniform nearly 20 years ago, fellow student Natasha Harper liked what she saw.

"He didn't know he was interested in me—I had to convince him," the Austin City Council member, who is now Natasha Harper-Madison, said as she laughed.

The two married three years later. And now their tightly knit home is divided by what can only be called an act of love.


Harper-Madison, 42, has lupus and is a breast cancer survivor, putting her at high risk of death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Madison, also 42, is a lieutenant in the Austin Fire Department, and on every shift he runs calls that could expose him to COVID-19.

Nearly two weeks ago, he moved out. "It was too nerve-wracking," Madison said.

Harper-Madison and their two youngest children, ages 9 and 11, continue to stay at home. Madison lives alone nearby.

When he's not working, Madison strolls over to stand on the sidewalk and talks with his family on the porch. Sometimes they'll ride bikes together, maintaining a safe distance.

Their younger child asks every day when he's coming home.

"I wish I could hug my dad," she tells her mother.

Emergency responders across Austin have been making similar decisions to move into family property, friends' homes and campers in order to limit their family's exposure.

In the Harper-Madison house, the conversations about risk started in February, when COVID-related 911 calls at Madison's job began to ramp up.

Weeks of elaborate measures to limit his family's exposure did little to stem their fears. By mid-March, the virus had spread throughout the community. Testing was scarce. Carriers can show no symptoms. Every call was a risk.

One night, Madison's crew responded to a nursing home where patients were later diagnosed with the disease, his wife said. Another shift's crew was exposed elsewhere and had to be quarantined.

The next morning, in a phone call from the firehouse, the couple decided it was time to separate entirely.

Harper-Madison and the kids packed up Dad's suitcases and left them in the garage. They waved an emotional goodbye from the front door.

"We both decided we would feel like fools if I got her sick and it killed her," Madison said.

Natasha Harper-Madison, busy with City Council, now also finds herself, for the first time, the full-time solo caretaker of two kids.

Madison, for his part, is used to cooking and kid-wrangling. This week, his wife left homemade meatloaf and mashed potatoes for him on the porch, a welcome break from cooking for one. He's learning Tik Tok. They're watching movies together with Zoom.

But they feel lucky because, unlike many other families, he had a place to go when he needed to distance. And in addition to knowing that their actions are helping contain the virus' spread, the couple said, one other thing is keeping them going.

Hope.

"There's got to be an end to it," Madison said. "This can't last forever."

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