In December 2020, Knoxville nurse Travis Exum had a few weeks between jobs, so he volunteered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to treat COVID-19 patients. “I thought that it was the right thing to do,” says Exum. “I felt I needed to do it for mankind.”
He was sent him to Amarillo, Texas, where he worked 14-hour days for a month or so, then came up with a 103-degree fever. After a positive COVID-19 test, he was quarantined in his hotel room for 10 days. “I got worse by the day,” he says. “I knew I had to get back to Knoxville.”
Exum’s wife, Shannon, a teacher at Farragut High School, flew to Amarillo, rented a car, and drove Exum 18 straight hours back to Knoxville. “My wife is my angel,” he says. “Less than 24 hours after we got home, I had to go to the ER because I couldn’t breathe.”
Exum is 47 and was a right-handed pitcher with a 6–0 record on the 1995 College World Series Volunteers team with Todd Helton and R. A. Dickey. “I eat a plant-based diet. I run. I’m a healthy guy,” he says. “I’ve never been sick a day in my life. My message to everyone is if this can happen to me at my age, it can happen to anybody else.”
Exum grew up in Ocala, Florida, and came to Knoxville to pitch for the Vols. He remembers the first time he saw Todd Helton take batting practice: “He hit every single ball on a line drive into left center. I’d never seen anyone do that, and the sound of the aluminum of his bat hitting the ball was different from anyone else’s. I thought, ‘Who is that guy?’”
After two seasons with the Volunteers, including trips to the regionals in 1994 and the College World Series in 1995, Exum finished his undergraduate degree at UT Chattanooga. He moved back to Ocala, where he coached football and baseball and substitute taught at Lake Weir High School, his alma mater. He also met Shannon, who was coaching the cheerleaders.
Exum went on to earn a nursing degree at Central Florida College because he wanted to help people. He and Shannon lived in Hawaii and Denver, had two kids, and moved back to Knoxville. “This is the only place I would want to be,” he explains. “I love Knoxville and I bleed orange.”
Exum credits his family and the Volunteer spirit for encouraging him to step up to treat COVID-19 patients.
“If I had to do it again, I would,” he says. “It reminds me what it means to be a Tennessee Volunteer. It means we take care of each other. The word hero makes me very uncomfortable, because other nurses have been doing this for a year. I’m thankful to be alive, and so thankful to be home with my family.”
The Volunteer spirit has also helped Exum on his long road back to health. “I have a lot of recovery to go,” he says. “I still need oxygen, and I’m doing physical rehab. I have cognition issues in memory and in coming up with words sometimes. I’ll be getting speech therapy.
“I refuse to let COVID-19 define who I am. I intend to get better than I was.”