DENHAM SPRINGS -- Sitting in his office on a recent Thursday morning, City Marshal Joe Shumate reached across his desk and turned over his phone, which displayed one of his favorite pictures.
It was a simple picture he held in his hand, showing one person smiling for the camera. The man in the photo was surrounded by water, wearing a camouflage life vest and a dark-colored hat.
The picture showed Matt Shumate doing one of the things he loved most — being outside. An avid outdoorsman, the picture of Joe Shumate’s son was taken during one of Matt’s fishing or duck hunting trips, though Joe isn’t sure which.
“”He loved to fish and duck hunt, so it could’ve been either one,” the City Marshal said before pausing to gather his emotions. “We did them both together many times.”
Those father-son trips tragically came to an end on Sept. 27, when Matt Shumate died following a debilitating, weeks-long battle with COVID-19.
Described as “a good man” who loved his family above all else, Matt was 37 years old when he passed away.
His death sent shockwaves through the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, where he had worked for 17 years, and his home parish of Livingston, where he grew up and where much of his family, including his father, still resides.
Many took to social media to send their well-wishes to Matt’s family and friends after his passing. Many have also shared memories of the man everyone agreed was well-liked, loved being with family, spent time outdoors, and enjoyed teaching future deputies as a lieutenant in the EBRSO training division.
“I’m very proud of him,” Joe Shumate said. “I’m very proud of his accomplishments and proud of where he’s at today. I’m proud he’s with the Lord. I still have weak times, but it gives me peace to know where he’s at.”
Matt, who lived in Pride with his wife and two children, became one of more than 14,000 Louisiana residents suspected of dying from the disease that has ravaged the state for the last 20 months.
He was also one of around 2.1 million residents who have yet to receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which health experts have touted as a way to prevent death and serious illness from the disease.
That has prompted Joe Shumate, whose career in law enforcement spans 43 years, to begin the most important mission of his life: He is out to encourage more people to consider getting the COVID-19 vaccine to help them avoid the same experience his family and thousands of others are going through.
“I’m on a mission,” Joe Shumate said in a recent interview with The News. “I know a lot of people are anti-vaccine, and I’m not trying to shove it down on them. I just want them to please think about it and to not be completely turned off.
“Think about how it affects your family, not just you. Your kids, your wife or husband, your grandkids. Think about this, because a lot of people are not.”
This isn’t Joe Shumate’s first experience with the disease. In fact, he was one of the first local public figures to test positive for COVID-19, receiving his diagnosis back in March 2020 shortly after the pandemic began.
His symptoms began with a small fever and dry cough before gradually getting more serious — and painful. Joe spent 11 days in quarantine with a fever and other symptoms, including loss of taste and appetite, and dropped 15 pounds before his doctor ordered him to go to the hospital.
Though he was ultimately cleared of pneumonia, Joe’s doctor decided to keep him in the hospital, a stay that included daily x-rays and blood work. He needed a persistent oxygen feed for the first two days he was in the hospital, but was eventually relieved.
All told, Joe spent about four days in the hospital before being released.
His son, around half his father’s age, was there for six weeks.
“COVID kicked him pretty hard,” Joe said.
On a Saturday night late this summer, Joe said his son was brought to a nearby urgent care, where he was told he had pneumonia and given prescription medications.
Two days later, Matt’s oxygen levels dropped so low that “he could hardly breathe,” Joe said, prompting doctors at Lane Regional Medical Center to place him on an oxygen machine.
Matt was eventually transferred to Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge, but he continued to struggle with his breathing. Because his lungs were heavily damaged, he wasn’t able to get the blood transfusions that others have received.
“The damage in his lungs from COVID was just too much,” Joe said.
One day, doctors called Joe to tell him Matt wanted to speak with him before being placed on a ventilator. It was a conversation Joe said he’ll never forget.
“We had a good talk,” Joe said, holding back tears. “I said, ‘Put your faith in the Lord.’ He went to sleep after that, and I think it helped him. He improved to a certain extent. The doctor called it a ‘plateau.’ He didn’t get any better, but he didn’t get any worse for a while.
“Then he started slipping.”
According to Joe, Matt’s lungs were so severely damaged at this point that “the oxygen wouldn’t transfer to the blood as much as it needed to.” This was despite the doctor putting the ventilator on the highest setting possible.
Eventually, doctors allowed Matt’s mother and sister to visit him. Later, his kids got to see him.
“A couple hours after his kids visited him, the good Lord took him,” Joe said.
An outpouring of support has flooded toward Joe and his family after Matt’s passing. One friend said Matt was, “one of the good ones….truly, with a heart of gold.” Another said, “Our community has lost one of the best in law enforcement and God has gained another soldier.”
A co-worker took to social media and recalled the “jokes, criticizing, laughter, and above all, genuine friendship and love” that was always felt in the office with Matt.
“When he was with us, his nickname became ‘Nephew’ as we all adopted him as someone that always needed our guidance,” the post said.
Joe thanked everyone for their constant prayers during the last few months, especially those from his church family of First United Methodist in Denham Springs and the Denham Springs Police Department, where he served for 33 years.
“We have a great community here,” Joe said.
Since his son’s passing, Joe has made the rounds with local media outlets and those with social media platforms hoping to inspire more people to take the COVID-19 vaccine, which he received back in January. He’s careful in the way he makes his plea, saying he detests the way the government “has made this a political issue.”
A staunch Republican who even serves on the parish’s Republican Executive Committee, Joe said he understands people’s trepidations with the COVID-19 vaccine. His only request is that they “have the conversation.”
“I understand people getting turned off because the government has made this very political, and I’m really against that,” he said. “I like to see people make their own decisions with their own doctors and families. That’s how it should be done, not with the government cramming it down people’s throat.
“My message to people is for them to talk about it with their family. My son was reactive and it didn’t work out for him. If he would’ve been proactive, he’d probably still be here with us.”
Joe Shumate got choked up at several points during the interview with The News. Joe talked about how proud he was of his son, who graduated from French Settlement High and got a welding certification before beginning a career in law enforcement at 20 — just like he did.
He also recalled his son “tagging along” with him on Halloween during his trick-or-treating patrols years ago.
“I’d park my police car, and we’d get out and go in the subdivisions and make the rounds at the houses,” Joe said. “He was trick or treating while I was patrolling.”
Joe Shumate said he is open to speaking with anyone about his family’s experience with COVID-19, especially those who are unsure about whether or not to get vaccinated. In the meantime, he intends to keep spreading his message to anyone who will listen.
He believes it’s what his son would’ve wanted.
“I’m always open to talk to somebody about this and tell them my story and how it affected my family and how they can prevent this from happening to their family,” Joe said. “Matt would want people to learn from this and to not put themselves in the position he found himself in. I know he would.”