GOSHEN — Grandma Petie, reclining in a medical bed, watching the sun shine through nearby windows, sucks on an oral swab while her daughter and grandson tend to her wishes Friday. The oral swabs are to keep her mouth, which had been covered in sores just a few days before, moist with water, not the beer she prefers.
Although ill and incapacitated, Grandma Petie, also known as Charlotte Lantz, smiled and chatted that day in spurts about her battle with COVID-19, telling everyone they should take the virus seriously and wear a mask everywhere.
She died two days later.
Daughter Debbie Brown explained the serious impact of the virus on her mother, from a nonfunctioning liver, inability to walk, infections throughout her body and more. The 86-year-old was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Oct. 14. Petie said she felt awful, but didn’t know she had it until then.
“I called her and she didn’t answer,” Debbie explained. “So, I came over and looked through the windows. … I thought, I’m going to go look. I’m going to check.”
Debbie could see Grandma Petie’s walker, so she knew her mom had to be in the house. “I came in the house and found her,” she says. An ambulance was called. That was the 14th.
“And then on the 16th, I took Joe in.”
Joe is Joe Brown, Debbie’s husband of 38 years.
Debbie, Joe and nearly all of their family had COVID.
The couple had been in Missouri when Grandma Petie called to let them know their family had contracted the virus. Debbie started feeling sick while in Missouri. They came home and got tested Oct. 9, the day after Joe’s 66th birthday.
“You get really achy,” Debbie said. “My legs hurt so bad. I ran a fever for three or four days and the most it was was 104. And my husband was just two days behind me and started feeling sick. And he kept going until he couldn’t.”
Taking Joe to the hospital on the 16th, “that was hard,” Debbie said, her voice breaking from emotion. “I would like people to know this. When he started getting sick, he was OK. He was like me, we rested; we took care of each other. But then on the last day, which would have been on the 16th, he got up and was walking past me and fell over the top of me. And I had noticed he had been dizzy. … So when he fell over me, onto the floor … when we walked into the bedroom I said, ‘You’re going to go the hospital.’ He said he didn’t want to go.”
But she insisted. The Browns really thought it would be just a matter of having IV fluid run into his system and then he would feel better.
‘THE HARDEST DAY’
Debbie called the ER and told them they were coming and they were COVID positive. “That Friday, it was the hardest day.”
Grandma Petie was already being treated in the hospital and now so was Debbie’s husband.
The security guard talked to Debbie through the intercom and asked if she could use a wheelchair to bring Joe in. She took the wheelchair, managed to get Joe in and wheeled him to the little waiting room, where she left him. Debbie could go no farther.
“That was the last time we saw him alive — other than when they called us and said you need to make a decision whether or not to take him off the respirator,” she said.
Joe, a retired Goshen police officer who enjoyed fishing and spending time with his family, died Oct. 26.
“We hadn’t had any contact other than calling to talk to him on the phone, and I talked to him twice,” Debbie said. “And with the (oxygen) mask and everything on, it was hard to understand him.”
But while he was in there, alone except for medical staff, she wanted to let him know he was loved and his family was waiting for him at home.
“I thought, how can we perk him up? We can’t see him,” she said.
So, she took a photo of two of his grandchildren, Carter Guild and Arwyn Miller, their thumbs up and holding a sign that reads: “You got this paw paw!” with all of their signatures. She enlarged the photo and sent it to Joe at the hospital Thursday.
It was taped to his wall so he could look at it every day. “He calls me and he says, ‘This is so good. I really, really like this. It even made me cry,’” Debbie said.
That day, the doctor called Debbie and said he couldn’t believe how good Joe was doing.
“I said, ‘Did the picture do some good? He said, ‘Yeah it perked him up.’ And then that night is when they called and said they were sending him to ICU.”
Joe had agreed to go on a ventilator and the doctor got Debbie’s permission as well.
By Sunday, though, an even tougher decision needed to be made.
COVID is known to cause blood clots. Although it appeared Joe’s lungs were starting to clear up, a CT scan of his brain showed that he’d had two massive strokes from those blood clots. Both sides of his brain were damaged. The CT scan revealed he would have been blind.
“I could deal with that,” Debbie said.
But a third CT scan showed little brain activity, she said.
Because they were such a close-knit family, Debbie told them they needed to make a decision about Joe’s future as a team.
All of the children and grandchildren assembled at Debbie’s home, and she called the doctor on speaker phone. He explained the dire situation.
They hung up to make their decision. A couple of hours later, just before 6 p.m., Debbie said, “we made a decision. Everybody that was there, including the grandkids, everybody gave their opinion, and everybody had to agree. … Everybody felt that he would not want to live like that. So I called the doctor back and the doctor said OK, you need to be at the hospital at 6.”
She was able to take one person with her. “His two favorite grandkids couldn’t be there,” she said. One of her daughters went with her and the other one had to stay home.
“So we walked in. They gowned us up. We went in and saw him and he was really highly sedated. They wanted to keep him that way because of the ventilator because people struggle with it. … So we went in to say our goodbyes to him. He never moved except one time. We told him we loved him and get better, we want you to come home — and I never gave up. Even then, I said, God’s got this. Whatever way, God’s got this. So we went inside, and that last thing I said to him was, “You know you need to get better so you come home and drive the tractor, and he moved his head,” she laughed. “Only time he did that.”
They then left and were told they could stay in the waiting room until he took his last breath or they could go home. So, since they couldn’t be in there with him for his final moments, they went home and waited.
He took his last breath at 3:31 a.m. the 26th.
“We had so many people praying, so many,” she said. Not just her home church, but other churches, and people were sending them messages, Debbie added.
“And when they took him off the ventilator, I said I will not give up on him,” she said. “For some reason I kept thinking, ‘I’m not giving up until he takes his last breath.’ And when he did, I called everybody and said, ‘It’s over.’”
It was over for Joe, but not for the Brown family and Grandma Petie. Grandma Petie was still fighting her own battle at a hospital and then at a rehabilitation center.
Debbie said she was at Joe’s visitation trying to cope with his death and at the same time trying to cope with her mother’s illness. “So I thought OK, let’s just do this and we got it done.”
At some point after services, her son-in-law came up to Debbie, who was working with some donated food in the kitchen. He remarked he had never been to a funeral that was so peaceful.
“I said, ‘You’re feeling the presence of God at that point. That’s what you’re feeling,’” Debbie recounted. “He said, ‘Oh I’ve never felt like this.’”
She felt God was with her and her family, giving them peace and his presence.
At his funeral, Joe had a couple of requests that Debbie was determined to give him. He wanted “Happy Trails to You” to be played and he wanted a bagpiper. He got both.
And now she is planning her mom’s services, which will be Dec. 10 for visitation and Dec. 11 for the funeral.
Debbie’s grandson, Carter Guild, who was helping tend to Petie on Friday, said, “It takes one of their loved ones dying for them to understand it. This virus isn’t something to play with. It’s actually serious.”
Debbie’s son, Wayne Lambert, who was also there, said of dealing with COVID firsthand and watching loved ones die, “It’s made me more alert. Because I was one of those people who was like, ‘Screw that mask,’ you know? But I’m wearing them now. … When it hits home like this. Too bad it took that.”
“People need to be aware of what’s going on,” Debbie said. “To me it’s people that are being selfish, for one; two, they’re acting like spoiled brats because they don’t want to wear a mask because they don’t want to, and that’s not the purpose for all of this. I wear a mask to protect you; you wear a mask to protect me. You know, I lost a husband; she’s not good,” and looking over to her mom she asked, “Is there anything you’d like to tell these people out there …?”
“Wear your mask,” Grandma Petie said.
The Browns are not alone in loved ones being taken by COVID. As of Tuesday, 219 people had died of COVID just in Elkhart County.
This year, as people around America sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, not everyone will be there.
Normally, the Brown family — Debbie and Joe, Grandma Petie, daughters Cindy Miller and Stephanie Guild and their families, and son Wayne Lambert and his family — would gather for the holidays.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Brown clan would go to Eby’s Pines and cut down a Christmas tree, decorate it and have a taco party, Debbie said.
“I’m not sure what we’ll do this year,” she said.
For Lori Yoder and her family, they will be remembering mom Judy Rietgraf.
Judith, 79, died Nov. 10 of COVID after having been hospitalized for a week.
There was a question of if their family should get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas, “but with what happened,” Yoder said, a sob breaking her words, “we need to — and it’s just going to be with immediate family — because we need each other. I couldn’t image not being with my family. To be isolated is just, I mean … (we) just need that interaction with her loved ones.”
Obviously, those who are ill will stay home, she said, “but we need each other now more than ever to help get through.”
And there will be turkey and lots of food. “My mom would always go all out with food,” Yoder said, adding especially desserts.
“She’d always want to bring dessert at our weekly meals,” she said.
So they will continue on with having more than enough food like Mom would have wanted and they will reminisce and share all of their wonderful stores, plus they will be thankful for all of the many years they had with her.
According to Yoder, her stepdad Mike, who she calls Dad, had gotten sick Oct. 22. He started feeling better that Sunday, the 25th. But then Judy starting feeling ill.
Her first doctor’s visit was a virtual one on Wednesday with her regular doctor, Yoder explained. He told the couple to go get tested for COVID, so they did that day.
Judy was sick that week with a fever of 100 to 102, but on Nov. 1, her temperature spiked to 103, Yoder said. She was taken to the ER, where she got an IV and fluids. She was then sent home with antibiotics. On Nov. 3, Judy began experiencing difficulty breathing and was then admitted to the hospital. She had pneumonia in both lungs.
Yoder didn’t expect her mom to die of COVID.
“They were in good shape,” she said of her mom and dad. “They walked all the time.”
Judy had hip surgery last year and she would get colds every once in a while, but otherwise she was healthy, her daughter said.
“That’s why it kind of surprised us that it went so quickly,” Yoder said.
When Judy’s three kids — Yoder, Barb Beck and Joe Oswald — were younger, she worked in retail sales at Ziesel’s at Pierre Moran Mall. She was a physical therapist aide for a while, too, Yoder said.
“She just enjoyed being with us family,” Yoder said. “We’d always get together at least once a week for supper and cards, or we’d go to their house. She loved playing cards. She used to be on a golf league back in the day. I know for a couple of years I was on it with her. She enjoyed gardening; she loved watching birds, and just being outside and walking. She’d have breakfast and lunches with her friends. She’d always meet Mondays and Saturdays every week. On Thursdays, her and my dad became addicted to Quentin Flagg and they became Quintin Flagg fan club (members). They’d go see him every Thursday when he’d play at the Red Barn, and when COVID hit, that threw everything for a loop.”
Fortunately, Flagg did online concerts and the couple could watch him there. “And if he performed anywhere, they would go and watch him,” she said. “She was active. She enjoyed being with people. Funny, because she used to be pretty shy, really wouldn’t speak her mind, and then probably like 15 to 20 years ago she really came out of her shell and just became a big-time social butterfly.”
Even though she was social, Yoder said her mom wore her mask and took precautions when she went out.
So when the virus caused their mom to be hospitalized and isolated from her family and friends, they were concerned. Yoder does not think isolation is helping people to heal and is instead making it worse for patients.
“When we went up to the hospital that day last Tuesday, we thought we were … lucky and they were allowing us to come see her to encourage her and to see her because to be isolated — for anybody, but when you’re sick and everything — to be isolated from your loved ones I think does more damage than it does good because you need that interaction,” Yoder said. “I mean, we couldn’t even talk to her or anything. So when we went there that Tuesday, we thought that we were going to get to see her and love on her and encourage her and tell her to fight, you know.
“We didn’t expect to be saying goodbye to her,” Yoder said, her voice cracking with emotion. “Um, that was a complete blow. I mean we were with her until she took her last breath and we knew she could hear us.”
There was a large mask covering most of Judy’s face, so she couldn’t talk, but she would nod her head in response, Yoder said.
They called all of the grandkids and put the phone up to her ear so she could hear them one last time. She would nod her head in response, “so we knew she heard,” Yoder said.
And then it was over.
“With the crazy world we are living in now, we’ve got to continue and live each day like it’s your last,” she said. “Be kind and trust God; have faith. We’ve got to hold on to that hope and knowing that we’re going to get through this.” She said God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear, so go about life but take the necessary precautions, and remember that hope is found in God.
And as a follower of Christ, Yoder said, “It wasn’t goodbye to my mom, it was see you later. I’m holding on to that.”