One family’s story of battling COVID-19
Christine Seemann was sitting outside with her sister in their lawn chairs when they got the phone call about their mother.
A nurse from the nursing home where their 81-year-old mother, Jackie Spitale, had been living for the past three years said Jackie had spiked a fever again and they couldn’t get it down with medicine.
The sisters knew this could be bad. Their mother’s advanced Alzheimer’s already had weakened her body to where she needed help to eat and walk. They agreed they needed to tell their 84-year-old father, Mike Spitale, even though he still was recovering from COVID-19.
Mike had spent a week in a Canton hospital being treated for the disease and had moved the day before, July 24, to one of the only two rehabilitation care facilities in the area that would accept COVID-19 patients.
The sisters had been sitting in their lawn chairs outside his ground-level window of the rehabilitation facility in Dover, so he wouldn’t feel alone like he did in the hospital. The facility’s COVID-19 protocols prevent him from having visitors inside.
Through the window, they could see their father lying in his bed.
Christine’s sister, Angela Begert, called his cellphone and put him on speakerphone.
“Hi Dad, we hate to tell you this, but … we’ve got to tell you that mom is sick,” Angela said, “and she does have a temperature.”
Mike didn’t react. His stoic demeanor never showed much emotion.
His daughters quickly filled the silent pause, assuring him they were getting an exception so Christine could get inside their mother’s nursing home so she wouldn’t be alone. They knew he worried about her dying alone.
They told him they had signed her up for hospice that day so she could be more comfortable, hoping to ease his fears that she wouldn’t suffer as he had for the past week.
They apologized for not being there to hold his hand. They told him the nurses were willing to hold his hand if he needed somebody. All he needed to do was ring the bell. They reassured him that one of them would be nearby at all times.
“I’m right outside the window,” Angela repeated. “I’m not leaving.”
The sisters agreed that Angela would stay with dad and Christine would tend to mom. Angela slept in her car outside the rehabilitation facility in Dover that night. If her mother died, she wanted to be able to tell her father right away. Her parents had been married 59 years. He deserved to know immediately.
Christine sobbed and prayed during the entire 33-mile drive to her mother’s nursing home in Louisville.
She prayed that she would get there before her mother died. She prayed for strength.
The coronavirus pandemic already had robbed Christine of so much happiness. For the past month, she helplessly watched as her dad, husband and both daughters became ill and tested positive for COVID-19.
She wondered how much more she could take.
How it started
Christine and her family took the coronavirus pandemic seriously from the beginning. Her oldest daughter, Carly Whitsett, a self-professed hypochondriac, began warning the family about the novel coronavirus long before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.
They stayed home, unless it was essential. Christine, an activity assistant for Catholic Charities Adult Day Services, was sent home in March after the state health department ordered congregate settings to close as part of its effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Her youngest daughter, Angelina Seemann, already was working from their East Canton home.
Christine’s husband, Bruce Seemann, still was working as a part-time janitor at Jackie’s nursing home in Louisville but only worked a few days a week.
They suspended their weekly family dinners, fearful of potentially spreading the virus to Mike, who already had multiple health ailments, or to Carly, who learned in late March that she was pregnant with her second child. They celebrated birthdays over Zoom.
As the summer came and the state continued to ease the pandemic restrictions, the family reunited to celebrate the Fourth of July. It was their first time together in five months.
They met in East Canton where Carly lives with her husband, Kyle Whitsett, and their 2-year-old son, Killian. Besides Christine, Bruce and Angelina, the gathering also included Mike and Kyle’s father and step-mother.
Carly and Kyle had purchased extra folding chairs so everyone could catch up while remaining outside and physically distanced. Their 2-year-old son, Killian, was the main entertainment, but they also bought s’mores to roast over the fire pit.
The family left that night feeling happy and relieved they all could be together again.
Less than a week later, Carly, Angelina, Bruce and Mike began feeling sick—each experiencing different symptoms.
Carly, 28, had a headache and cold-like symptoms that she thought could be from being 17 weeks pregnant or seasonal allergies. Angelina, 25, thought her cold-like symptoms could be a sinus infection. Bruce, 64, who rarely sits still, found himself so lethargic that he had to rest in between holes at the golf course and called off work.
Mike, 84, felt more tired than usual. He also had a cough and a slight fever that the family attributed to sinus drainage or possibly a side effect from his medications.
The thought of COVID-19 certainly crossed their minds, but at that point, only Mike had a fever and cough, considered the two telltale signs of COVID-19. And none of their doctors tested them for COVID-19—not even Mike when he arrived in the hospital emergency room.
Carly’s doctor chalked it up to seasonal allergies and recommended an over-the-counter medicine. The doctor Angelina saw at an urgent care gave her a Z-Pak. Bruce’s doctor ordered a sleep apnea test.
The hospital told Mike he had a virus—not the coronavirus—and gave him some fluids and sent him home.
Carly, a preschool teacher still working in the classroom at Kid Watch in Louisville, decided to get her own test. Her symptoms continued to get worse. She was more tired, coughing more and began to feel heart palpitations. She still didn’t have a fever, but she began to feel short of breath.
She found an urgent care center in Alliance that would allow her to get a test without a doctor’s approval. The staff tested her on July 12. The results came back on July 15, confirming what she suspected: She had COVID-19.
Angelina, Bruce and Mike all received positive COVID-19 test results within the week. Christine, 57, tested negative and had no symptoms.
A day after Carly’s positive test result, a health department worker called her with a list of instructions: She needed to quarantine for at least 10 days after the onset of her symptoms. Kyle and Killian also would need to quarantine for 14 days from the date of the positive test. If they developed symptoms, they would need to continue to quarantine for an additional 10 days after that. Kyle also would need to track their temperatures at least twice a day.
Not knowing how the virus affects children, Carly and Kyle decided they would quarantine for two full weeks and that they would live separately in the house during quarantine.
Carly spent the first 10 days of the quarantine isolated in their bedroom. Kyle slept in the spare bedroom or in Killian’s room.
Carly spent most of the first week in quarantine sleeping. She felt as though she had the Type A flu, along with shortness of breath. She lost her appetite, sense of smell and taste. She spiked a fever only once, but it was so high that it brought on hallucinations and frightening nightmares.
Even worse was the isolation, being away from her 2-year-old and husband.
Every now and then, she could see Killian’s tiny fingers reaching from under the bedroom door, searching for his mommy. She could hear his footsteps fast approaching the moment she opened the bedroom door to go to the bathroom.
She tried to keep a positive attitude, but some days she felt so sad about everything that was happening to her family. She then felt guilty for feeling so sad. She always believed that happy moms made happy babies, and she didn’t want her baby, due December 18, to feel sad because she was so miserable.
Carly moved to the basement when her 10 days were over, and her symptoms began to ease. Kyle and Killian still had four days left for their quarantine, even though neither of them had developed any symptoms.
Kyle broke quarantine a day early. He slept in the basement with Carly after they learned that her grandmother, Jackie, was sick with a high fever.
Kyle didn’t want Carly to be alone, much like Christine didn’t want her mother to be alone.
At the nursing home
When Jackie entered the nursing home on March 1, 2017, Alzheimer’s already had robbed her of her memory and caused her to become easily confused about where she was. But physically, she still could walk and function.
Three years later, the disease had weakened her body so much that she was bound to a wheelchair, unable to feed herself and couldn’t speak a coherent sentence.
Christine wasn’t sure what to expect when she arrived at the nursing home July 25. She hadn’t seen her mother since February because the state closed nursing homes to visitors in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
She donned an N-95 mask, face shield, gloves, gown and shoe coverings. Her mother was lying in an isolation room, in and out of sleep. Jackie’s fever was so high that Christine could feel the warmth of her skin through the gloves as she held her mother’s hand.
Christine knew immediately that her mother wasn’t going to recover. It was the worst she had ever seen her.
Over the next several hours, she held her cellphone next to Jackie’s ear so that each family member could say goodbye.
Mike, the man of few words who hadn’t seen his wife of 59 years since February, talked to her from the rehabilitation facility.
“I love you, honey,” he said.
In between the phone calls, Christine would try her best to recite a comforting prayer for her mother, a devout Catholic. She wished her aunt, who is a minister, could be there.
Jackie died around 2:30 p.m. on July 26.
Her death certificate lists her cause of death as complications of Alzheimer’s. The nurses said Jackie never tested positive for COVID-19, but Christine and her family know in their hearts that she had it.
The family planned to host a small funeral for Jackie at the beginning of August after Mike was released from the rehabilitation facility.
But five days later, on July 31, Christine started coughing.
Christine soon had every symptom listed on the health department’s COVID-19 symptom list: cough, extreme fatigue, loss of taste and smell, diarrhea, headache and a fever that began around 5 p.m. every night and rose to between 101 and 102 degrees.
“I got whammied,” she said.
On August 6, her test result came back positive for COVID-19.
By then, she was coughing so much that it became hard for her to breathe, and she had developed sharp pains in her chest and along her right side. Her doctors prescribed a strong cough medicine with codeine and an inhaler.
A chest X-ray on August 21—three weeks after she first began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms—revealed Christine had pneumonia and pleurisy, which is swelling of the lining of the chest cavity and lungs. She was given a heavy dose of steroids.
On August 28—a month after Jackie died—Christine, still weak from COVID-19, joined about 25 of her friends and family at St. Louis Cemetery to say a final goodbye to her mother. It was the first time the immediate family had been together since July 4.
Christine, while thankful the family could hold a service, believes her mother deserved so much more. Jackie had spent her life comforting others. She started the bereavement committee at St. Louis Catholic Church in Louisville with her best friend, Judy Edwards. They helped bring comfort to hundreds of grieving family members in their time of loss. Jackie always was the first to welcome guests and the last to eat because she was so busy tending to everyone else’s needs.
“We feel like she got robbed,” Christine said.
She hopes to hold a celebration of life service once the pandemic finally eases.
Until then, the family continues to honor Jackie’s memory by being together and making a fuss over the little celebrations of life.
In September, they resumed their weekly dinners. They try to focus on the happy things, such as Killian and his toddler antics or Carly’s pregnancy, but COVID-19 inevitably comes up. Sometimes they reflect on the two months that the disease kept them apart. Sometimes they vent after encountering someone who believes the virus is a hoax. They also will share about the little moments of panic they have when they feel the tinge of an illness. They also talk about the promise of the new vaccines being developed.
Most of the family has fully recovered. Angelina’s symptoms remained mild and disappeared after five days.
Bruce, whose symptoms also disappeared after a week, is back to being his very active self, busily completing house projects and honey-do lists. With only seven months to go before retirement, he never returned to his janitorial job at the nursing home after quarantine. He didn’t think it seemed worth it as more and more of his co-workers also contracted the virus. As of October 1, the nursing home reported that 37 of its residents and 29 employees contracted COVID-19.
Mike, who left the rehabilitation facility on August 7, is as healthy as he has been in years. The family isn’t sure whether his recovery is due to a plasma treatment he received while in the hospital for COVID-19 or knowing that his wife is at peace.
Carly and Christine still have lingering side effects. Carly still has bouts of sickness and unexpectedly will feel short of breath. She’s also still worried about whether the virus will affect her unborn daughter, whom she plans to name Stella. She doesn’t know whether the placenta served as a barrier or a conduit for the virus.
Christine, who returned to work on September 28 for the first time since March 23, still has sharp chest pain that was going to require more tests.
Despite the continued pain, Christine still feels thankful.
She said her time in quarantine—both when Angelina and Bruce were sick from COVID-19 in July and when she was sick in August—gave her plenty of time to reflect.
“I’ve always been a really positive person. I get that from my mom,” she said. “This whole thing really made me think about how blessed I am, how lucky I am, how it could be worse. Mom always said, ‘Quit complaining, there’s always somebody who’s had it worse.’ And she’s right.”