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  • Tracy N. Coley

A Precious Life Cut Short by a Virus



I held the phone closer to my ear to discern my ex-husband's words through his muddled sobs.


“She’s not breathing! They can’t resuscitate her!”


There was no mistaking what he said. I felt a boulder turning in my stomach. My body went heavy against the seat of the car as I listened to John—a 220-pound soldier, police officer and father to my child—cry. The EMTs had been pounding her chest and suctioning her esophagus for several minutes, with no signs of life. They were en route to the hospital. I struggled to make sense of what was happening. There had to be some mistake.


My only daughter Bekkah was born in 1998 with Down syndrome, a cleft palate and no uvula. In 2012, she developed chronic sleep apnea. Scar tissue from surgery to correct her speech defect ten years prior had grown into her airway, causing irregular breathing at night, daytime lethargy, and diminished energy. That December, her craniofacial doctor performed radical surgery to restructure the back of her mouth and her nasal cavity, and extended her jaw to bring her tongue forward, all to give her a chance of breathing normally again. Four months after surgery, in April 2013, she was breathing much better and no longer needed oxygen at night.


I tried to rationalize the phone call with what little information I had. Was it sleep apnea again? Maybe they were just having a hard time waking her. Until I saw her, I couldn’t fully accept that she was gone. I prayed for a miracle and stepped on the gas to the hospital. I wanted so desperately to be near my daughter, but I was terribly frightened of what I would find.


As soon as my mother and I entered the ER of the small community hospital, the nurse whisked us through the double doors and down the corridor to the trauma room. My daughter’s still body lay on the gurney, eyes closed. Her pajamas that I’d packed in her suitcase just a couple of days before were torn from her chest, a single sheet modestly draped over her torso. Bekkah was two days shy of 15 years and would never open the birthday presents that awaited her at home. My baby girl was gone.


What happened? To understand how my daughter died at such a young age, let’s rewind the clock six weeks from April 5 to mid-February 2013.


I was working at my desk when a co-worker, pressured with deadlines, came coughing into my office. I should have told her to leave, to come back another day or just call or email me. But she was already there, and I let her stay. She picked up one of two pencils laying on my desk to make a few notes as she told me she was recovering from the flu and bronchitis. She coughed into her arm and then put the pencil into her mouth before laying it back on my desk. I made a mental note to toss the pencil in the trash after she left. I should have. But I forgot, too caught up with my own deadlines. I picked up what I thought was the clean pencil and put it in my mouth to type. It only took two seconds to feel a sick dread rise from my stomach.


A few days later I got her flu, and I tried to quarantine myself at home to get better. I should have let someone else help with Bekkah’s homework and bath. But it was too late. The flu hit her hard, very quickly turning to bronchitis, just short of pneumonia. I kept both of us home to recuperate, trying to be careful not to spread this awful virus. After a few weeks she was better, but not entirely well.


By the time spring break rolled around the first week in April, I’d finally unplugged the oxygen tank and pushed it to the corner of her room. Even though she was still weakened by the flu and her immune system was low, her night breathing seemed regulated. The last day before spring break, as we were headed out of town Easter weekend to visit family, she brought home a cold. I medicated her and kept us moving. I should have stayed at home with her to rest.


Later that week, I dropped her at her paternal grandmother’s house for a visit with her dad whom she'd not seen since his National Guard deployment to Afghanistan two years before. They were going to throw her a birthday party that Saturday. Bekkah was still congested, but seemed to be getting better. So I left her meds and instructions, trusting all would be well. My gut told me to keep her at home with me. But I ignored it. I'll never forget how she clung to me before I left, not wanting me to leave. I kissed her on her head, gave her a hug, and told her I would see her Saturday.


Two days later, nauseated by the new virus, she threw up in her sleep as she lay on her back. The fluid moved swiftly from her stomach to her esophagus and into her lungs. The aspiration was immediate, and the EMT’s who tried to resuscitate her told us there was nothing anyone could have done to save Bekkah, even if her dad heard her quiet gasp from the next room. Her death was silent, relentless. Senseless.


This is the nightmare that I relive every day. And this is why the Coronavirus absolutely terrifies me. I think about all the things I could have done to prevent my daughter’s death, but it all comes back to the ill co-worker who intruded my workspace. My story perfectly illustrates what one virus—even just a regular flu virus—can do to start a chain reaction that can ultimately kill someone with a compromised immune system.


Since April 5, 2013, I have adopted a drastic modus operandi for maintaining my health. I cleanse my hands after filling my car with gas, shaking hands with others, shopping, handling money, or touching handrails, walls or anything others might have touched. I press elevator buttons with my elbow, open doors with my shirt sleeve, and run from sneezers and coughers and people who ignore basic social cues by getting in my space.


As the panic over COVID-19 has escalated, so has my anxiety over the possibility of contracting the virus and giving it to my 80-year-old mother or to one of the girls in my youth group who has a younger brother with special needs. Before Georgia public schools, universities and local government enacted social distancing and voluntary sheltering-in-place, I had already cancelled my weekly small youth group meetings, declined a baby shower, set up Skype meeting, and postponed a doctor checkup. I halted shopping for non-essentials and utilized Kroger’s ClickList app for groceries. Pet supplies and personal care items come from Amazon.


This seems to be the norm for everyone now, at least in Athens, Ga., which has three confirmed COVID-19 cases so far. I am fortunate to be able to take advantage of the businesses adapting their enterprise models, including restaurants offering curbside pickup and delivery options, as well as local businesses setting up online markets. We are in a time of adapting to this new normal. And if you think COVID-19 won't come to your rural area, and I pray that it doesn't, at least see what one tiny Georgia community is doing to help.


I view these drastic measures as absolutely necessary. I don’t want my selfishness to be the reason COVID-19 has an opportunity to infiltrate our families. There is nothing so urgent to meet about or to do that I risk my life or the lives of others through contact with those who may inadvertently carry the virus.


I know many of us may go stir crazy at home and have the temptation to do some of our normal activities. But these are extraordinary times, and we need to think of the vulnerable populations who depend on caregivers to keep them healthy. Your most compassionate act of humanity is staying home to take care of yourself and your family.


Our lives depend on it.


 

If you need assistance because of the economic impact of COVID-19, the United Way has set up a fund to help. United Way Worldwide helps local United Way agencies provide emergency food supplies, help people cover rent or utilities after losing wages or jobs, and work with schools to ensure children from low-wage families have enough to eat when schools are closed. Some local United Ways, like those in Seattle and Los Angeles, have already set up local pandemic funds. But for many communities, the national fund will be the only such support. It will be administered by United Way Worldwide. Learn more »


If you need immediate food assistance for you or your family, get in touch with your local food bank. Many thanks to our Northeast Georgia Food Bank, which is taking a proactive role in helping feed our community.

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