KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Mom was in intensive care, and one of her doctors was calling.
The news wasn't good.
If her oxygen level doesn't improve, he said, and if she requires a ventilator, her prospects would be dire. "We haven't had anyone older than their mid-60s survive."
Just two weeks earlier, my 83-year-old mother had come to Kansas City to celebrate summer birthdays and watch my daughter graduate from high school.
COVID-19 had other plans.
Shortly after her arrival and despite the fact that we've all been wearing masks for months, our whole house – thankfully, minus our teenager – was sick. It was no surprise when the clinic called on a Saturday morning in mid-July to let us know we had all tested positive.
By then, the symptoms we'd been hearing about for six months had shown up in force. They wouldn't leave for weeks.
A vise-grip pounding headache that proved impervious to over-the-counter medication. Aches that roamed head to toe. Sore throat, sore lungs. The telltale loss of taste and smell, exacerbated by constant nausea and stomach distress. The fog that descends on your brain, paired with crippling fatigue and lower back pain. Fever and chills that visited often. It seemed like I could feel my organs hurting.
For Mom, one symptom trumped all others: shortness of breath. The day after our diagnosis, her pulse oximeter reading dropped to 85, and we were off to the emergency room.
We were ushered in only long enough to learn that Mom would be staying. Understandably but sadly, it was then time to go. (Later, when I was in the ER myself after a particularly brutal day, it was crushing yet also comforting to think about Mom being somewhere six floors above me.)
Back home and officially in quarantine, my wife and I rode a crooked wave that mostly trended downward. The first week was awful. Week 2 was way worse.
This particular coronavirus doesn't allow you to trust progress. Any brief respite would be followed by, for instance, hands and feet going completely numb – and hours of suffering that felt like punishment for the temerity of actually feeling better for a moment.
Every day, we talked to Mom and our worried family and friends. Within a week of her being admitted, her oxygen level had declined and become critical, her voice growing weaker and more unsteady. She was moved to ICU on a Friday night. The next day, her granddaughter graduated from high school – an event we could watch only on YouTube.
My two older brothers and I were trying to stay strong for our mother and for each other. She had been so strong for us her whole life, her sons being – in her own words – the greatest blessing and accomplishment of her life.
But emotions and regrets and hopes for the future were spilling out.
We still have so many things we want to do with Mom. Back to New York for another Broadway show. Back to the beach in South Carolina for a big family reunion that would be so much sweeter after all this. Or just simply taking time, no matter how busy, when she calls.
That weekend, the prognosis looked bleak. It didn't help that one of Mom's ICU doctors walked in every day and told her, essentially, that she wasn't likely to make it. One angry phone call later, he was off the team.
But they were missing something in the equation, and here's where the story turns: They don't know my mother. She's tough. (I can attest.) She's a fighter, going back to the days of beating up boys who tried to bully her brothers on the west side of San Antonio.
Actually, she had five brothers – and grew up playing by their rules – and then three sons. She's a strong woman of faith who has clawed her way through many life crises.
When I was a child, she was the only Mexican American woman in the rural Kentucky town where we lived. While many people were genuinely kind, prejudice in the area and in my family was a harsh reality. She never seemed to notice.
She has also survived several difficult surgeries, including the time she broke her back stepping off a treadmill. She would throw all her prayers, faith and energy into beating this disease.
And we would do everything we could from the sidelines, checking with doctors on every possible treatment. Mom got a five-day dose of the powerful antiviral remdesivir, blood plasma with virus-fighting antibodies, high-flow oxygen therapy, steroids and blood thinners. She practiced proning, lying on her stomach for hours to strengthen her lungs.
Every day she told me, "Honey, I'm doing the best I can." Those five days in ICU were agonizing. But by Day 4, her voice became stronger and the treatments took hold and the prayers continued pouring in from across the country.
The next conversation I had with a doctor was the most encouraging yet: "She's doing remarkably well. We don't think she'll need to be on a ventilator."
She would need more recovery time – 19 days total in the hospital – but on a sunny Friday afternoon, we picked up Mom and brought her home. Her lungs are scarred and she's still on oxygen, still struggling to negotiate stairs, still fighting some aftereffects, but she's home.
Last night, for the first time in five weeks, she was able to hug her granddaughter and wish her a (belated) happy birthday, while my wife and I – mostly recovered – soaked up the moment.
COVID-19 took a month of our lives. It tried to take more, because it's a relentless and powerful infectious disease the likes of which we haven't seen in a century.
But all that was lost has been forgotten. And Mom's three sons are so looking forward to the extra time we've been given.
(c)2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)
Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.