ER doctor moves into treehouse to protect his family from COVID-19

There are two ways to get into Dr. Jason Barnes' current digs: a trap door and a climbing wall.

Barnes, an emergency room physician who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, has moved into a treehouse in his backyard to protect his family from the coronavirus.

He started living there three weeks ago after treating a patient who had the symptoms of COVID-19 and who later tested positive for the disease.

"The biggest part of my decision to move out here was I could see in my wife's eyes that she was scared. I had to do something because I didn't want her to be frightened," Barnes, 39, told TODAY.

"While it is funny, I'm sure, to most people that he's living in a treehouse, he's doing it for a reason and that's for the safety of his family," Jenna Barnes, 36, added.

Dr. Jason Barnes lives in a treehouse during the coronavirus crisis.
Dr. Jason Barnes lives in a treehouse during the coronavirus crisis.

The couple bought the pre-fabricated treehouse two years ago for their two young sons. Barnes had electricity and lights installed to make it more fun. It's furnished with a bunk bed and a little table.

When COVID-19 started spreading, the family started to think about options to stay safe as the doctor's job raised the risk of being exposed to the illness. The area is not a hot spot for coronavirus, but Barnes still sees potential cases more than once a shift, he said.

Barnes considered renting an RV or staying in a hotel, but neither of those options seemed appealing or practical. He still wanted to be close to his wife and kids and be able to interact with them.

They started joking: Maybe he could live in the treehouse.

"The more we thought about it, we were like well, we could do this," Mrs. Barnes recalled.

The doctor called it the most convenient, if not the most comfortable option. He sleeps on the bottom of the small narrow bunk bed and uses the top for storage. There's no running water so he keeps a supply of bottled water. He can enter the treehouse by going up a ladder to a trap door or by using a climbing wall on the back.

A bucket initially served as the bathroom, but Mrs. Barnes bought him a camping toilet, which has been "a great upgrade," he said.

An electrician installed a small air conditioning unit to offer relief from the warm south Texas weather.

Still, the creature comforts don't keep out the creatures. Barnes "definitely" sees many bugs, so he's armed with bug spray and an insect zapper, and he sleeps with a mosquito net around the bed. He caught a mouse last week and often hears squirrels and possums crawling on the tin roof at night.

Mrs. Barnes cooks his meals and leaves them on a table outside. He comes down to grab the food "before the dogs can" and often eats it on the treehouse's porch where he can talk with his wife and kids from a distance. He keeps trail mix, granola and apples in the treehouse for snacking.

"It's not the most comfortable — I would much rather be in my house, but it is comfortable enough that I can get by," Barnes said. He loves that he can talk with sons, ages 6 and 9, and keep an eye on them when they play outside.

"It's difficult because I have two little boys doing home schooling now. It's not easy without him and they miss him and I miss him. We're just trying to get through it the best we can and not be exposed," Mrs. Barnes added.

The family's story received national attention after Mrs. Barnes posted a video explaining the arrangement, titled "Cribs: Quarantine Edition," on YouTube this month.

The doctor will stay in the treehouse for the foreseeable future. The family is monitoring guidance from local health officials about the number of cases and social distancing rules to decide when it may be safe for him to return home.

"The final decision comes to the boss — of course, that's the wife," Barnes said. "She's the CEO of the Barnes company."