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When Family Carries You Through The Unknown

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Courtesy of Marcie Shealy
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Marcie Shealy's family decided to get dressed up for her birthday last year even though they knew they wouldn't be leaving the house because of the pandemic.

Marcie Shealy will always remember her 62nd birthday. It was April 8, 2020, near the beginning of the pandemic. Her immediate family was there — her husband and their two kids. They knew they wouldn’t be leaving the house but decided to get dressed up anyway; she wore a bright orange dress with black sandals. She remembers the flavor of her birthday cake: almond.

She knew the cake was almond, but not by taste or smell. In the weeks leading up to her birthday, she had contracted COVID-19 and temporarily lost those senses. She was sick for 16 days.

This was a significant birthday of Shealy. In the weeks leading up to it, she had moments when she wasn't sure if she was going to make it.

The small group of family that gathered for her birthday that year wasn’t just her support system, they had been her caretakers.

Shealy's not sure how she came into contact with the virus, but her symptoms came on quickly and were severe. She was tired and could feel pressure in her lungs. Her doctor told her to try and get a COVID-19 test at a nearby urgent care.

"So I drove over there and they wouldn't see me because I was coughing so much," she said. "They wouldn't let me in the door."

She eventually was able to get a COVID-19 test, but wouldn’t get her results for 11 days. Her doctor told her something that would seem counterintuitive under normal circumstances — even though she was sick, she needed to stay out of the hospital. Shealy has asthma and he worried she would be placed on a ventilator.

"His reaction to me was, 'We need to keep you out of the hospital and off a ventilator,'" she said.

Along with the drugs he prescribed her, he added one other treatment: family. If her family could be her caretakers and keep her out of the hospital, that would be the goal.

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Courtesy of Marcie Shealy
Marcie's dog was by her side during her COVID-19 battle.

Her fever bounced from 102 to 104 for days. Her body ached in a way she had never known. The only relief she could get from a splitting headache was to put an icepack on her head and wait for it to pass.

"I had breast cancer 11 years ago and I had a double mastectomy and it was the worst pain I've ever had in my life," she said. "COVID was worse because it was so long. You know, with that you knew you were recovering. But with COVID, it was just such a long, painful sickness."

Her family became her nursing team. Her son talked to her doctor about medicines and made sure they were administering them correctly. Her daughter would check her temperature and oxygen level. Her husband made sure she was drinking enough water.

"They would take my oxygen level and my temperature every 30 minutes," she said. "They would come in in masks and gloves and check on me around the clock. That’s what they did."

At times, because of her high fever, she would hallucinate. Her daughter used to play the flute when she was a little girl. She’s now in her mid-20s and hasn’t played since she was a child.

"I still, to this day, remember hearing her," Shealy said. "It was pretty and soft and that’s what I remember. And I thought, 'Oh, I’m so glad she’s taken that up again.' It was just a beautiful sound and it was soothing. I would hallucinate other things. It was just I had a high fever."

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Courtesy of Marcie Shealy
Her family helped administer her medications and took constantly checked her oxygen levels and temperature.

There were several times when the pain was great, her fever was so high, her lungs felt so tight, that she thought she wasn’t going to make it. During those times, she relied on her childhood friend Nancy who lives in Colorado and is also a doctor.

"She was calling me and FaceTiming me, she said, 'I know you.' She said, 'I know you're anxious, you just have to go with this.' She said, 'It's a really long sickness and you're just starting out,'" Shealy said. "And I remember feeling so depressed and going, 'I can't do this for that much longer.'"

Nancy was the friend she could call at 2 a.m. from the bathroom floor, exhausted and dehydrated. Nancy was the friend who would then call her family and tell them they needed to pump her full of fluids, or she’d be heading to the hospital.

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Courtesy of Marcie Shealy
Over the 16 days she was in bed, the only way Marcie could tell time was passing was by watching a tree outside her bedroom change colors.

"So she would talk me through and then she would call my family and say, 'Make her drink, make her drink,' I don't think I would have gotten through without her," she said.

Those 16 days moved so slowly. She didn’t watch TV. She couldn’t look at her phone screen. The only way she knew time was passing was from a tree outside her bedroom window.

"And I took a picture and I was like, 'I can't believe I've been in bed that long to see this tree change colors,'" she said.

Time did eventually pass and she did get better. Thanks to her family’s care, she stayed out of the hospital and never had to worry about what would have happened if she had been put on a ventilator. She was able to be resilient and keep up her 16-day COVID-19 fight because of her family and friends who wouldn’t let her give up — that included a text chain of friends constantly checking in on her.

Even her dog, who is typically not allowed on the furniture, curled up next to her and refused to leave her side.

So when she headed downstairs for her pandemic birthday in April of last year, it was a big deal. It was only the second time she had been to the lower level of her house since she had gotten sick. And although her friends and other family members couldn’t be there to celebrate her birthday, her daughter Grace had collected videos of everyone wishing her a happy birthday — including a clip from her mother, Joyce, whom she hadn’t seen in months.

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Courtesy of Marcie Shealy
Marcie with her mom Joyce.

Hearing her mom’s voice meant a lot — they were incredibly close. As Shealy’s health began to bounce back, her mother’s slowly declined. She had Parkinson’s disease. In July, Joyce was admitted into the hospital. When it was clear Joyce was dying at the age of 95, the family moved her back to Aldersgate, where Shealy’s father was, so the couple who had been married more than 70 years could be together.

"So she spent her last couple of weeks in a room next to my father, which was great," Shealy said. "And he really wanted her to be there for his 99th birthday. So she lived till his 99th birthday and she died the next morning."

A few weeks ago, Shealy turned 63, and this most recent birthday couldn’t have been more different than her last one. For one, she was fully vaccinated. She was able to leave her house. She traveled. She spent her birthday with her husband in Turks and Caicos.

While she sat on the beach this year and enjoyed the sun, she knew she was lucky, she said. She kept thinking back to how sick she had been and how fortunate she was to have a family that let her lean entirely on them. She was so thankful for those family members and those friends who helped her put one foot in front of the other so she could see yet another year around the sun.

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Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.