COVID Success Story at Baptist Health Louisville

April 29, 2020

When Debbie Whitehouse began to feel ill, she was sure it was probably just stress.

In addition to her full-time job as a forklift driver, she also takes care of her grandchildren, and now she was mourning the sudden, unexpected passing of her brother. She also grappled with the difficult task of delivering the news of this heartbreaking loss to her elderly mother. Unable to visit the assisted living facility where her mother resides due to visitation restrictions in place because of COVID-19, she planned to bring her mother back to the family home. She would also need to plan her mother’s return, which would involve a negative COVID-19 test as a necessary precaution.

Life had been hectic and busy, so when COVID-19 got a grip on Debbie, she initially dismissed the symptoms, chalking them up to anxiety. She said, “I felt like I had an elephant sitting on my chest, but I was sure it may have just been stress with everything that was going on.” With the onset of fever and weakness, she and her family began to worry.  When her temperature reached 102.8, her husband encouraged her to seek emergency care.

The day before Easter, she came to Baptist Health Louisville’s Emergency Department, and by Easter Sunday, she was confirmed positive for COVID-19. She was admitted for what would be a two-week stay. Her oxygen levels were not good. The tubes placed in her nose caused nosebleeds. She was required to wear a mask. When her condition refused to improve, she was transferred to the ICU for specialized care.

For someone who had never experienced a major hospital stay, it was a shock.

Debbie could not receive visitors due to restricted visitation policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Suffering and sick, being alone day after day was difficult. Debbie missed her family – and they missed her. She received phone calls and texts. Her granddaughter set up a Zoom call with her immediate family so everyone could see each other, but electronic communications cannot convey the same warmth and emotion felt in the touch of a hand or a hug.

Debbie had already been in the hospital nearly a week when Jessica Greer RN, BSN, CMS-RN, began the first night of five consecutive nights that she was scheduled to work. She noted that Debbie was tired – exhausted, in fact. At that point, she had already been wearing a mask for two days. She was lonely and missed her family. She told Jessica she usually enjoyed some alone time, but this was just too much.

Jessica observed that Debbie’s long hair had become extremely tangled – a fact that hadn’t gone unnoticed by Debbie either. Debbie had asked for a brush, but Jessica couldn’t find one, and the brush provided by the hospital was not sturdy enough to untangle the mats that had collected in the back of her hair from being in bed for so long.

Jessica knew that in her weakened state, Debbie would not have the energy for the task at hand. She returned for her next shift with shampoo, a deep conditioner, and a good quality hairbrush – all purchased with her own money, and she declined to accept repayment. She spent an hour that night working through the knotted hair, while talking with Debbie as a friend.  “No one told her to do that,” said Debbie. “She’s very caring.”

Jessica also worked with Debbie to wean her off the oxygen since she was on a high level – the maximum before intubation would be required. “It was just going to take time with this disease for her lungs to heal.”

 Acting on those caring instincts that called her to her nursing career, she provided the emotional support Debbie missed with her family being unable to visit.  “I just tried to be there for her. I knew she was down, and I wanted to let her know she was going to be ok. At night, I would peek in and ask if she wanted to talk a little bit.”

Debbie caught glimpses of her peeking into the door. “She watched me all night. She wanted to make sure my oxygen was alright. It meant a lot to me. She knew how much I wanted to go home. She’s a very sweet girl. She didn’t have to do that. It’s so nice that someone is that worried about you.”

Mothers and daughters share a special relationship, and Debbie and her daughter Ashley are no exception. When Debbie shared with Ashley just how kind and caring Jessica had been, Ashley was touched – so much, that she began to put out the plea on social media to identify the caring nurse that had shown her mother so much compassion.

Ashley, who describes her mother as her best friend, said of Jessica, “Jessica helped her get better as quickly as she did.  Even for that little bit she spent brushing her hair, making her feel like a normal person – this made a huge difference. She had spent her own money and just for her to take time out of her own busy day to stop and get shampoo and a conditioner and a brush. In a time where I couldn’t see her, this was of the utmost importance to me. There are still good people in this world.”

While her mother continued treatment, Ashley became the protector of the family, asking her stepfather and niece to check their temperatures frequently and let her know how they were doing, especially during the first few days.

She brought their groceries and reinforced the importance of their quarantine. So far, the rest of the family has not shown any outward signs of being affected. “My heart goes out to healthcare personnel. They are risking their lives every day, and some people are still not taking it seriously,” she said.

For all three women – the patient, the daughter and the nurse – family is extremely important. Jessica said she has always enjoyed having patients’ families around. “It’s important for the patients, and I have an even greater appreciation for that now. It’s really been hard to see patients there when they are scared and need comfort. We do our best to provide that, but it’s not the same as having loved ones at the bedside.”

For Ashley, a professional photographer, capturing images of happy families is her passion – and her work. She runs her own photography business called Pickin’ Daisies. When the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, she hopes to capture some of those images for Jessica’s family, as a thank you for being there for her mother in a time when she couldn’t.

“That’s the first time I felt happy in weeks – when I found out Jessica was caring for my mother’s hair. My mother is very put-together. She always wears lipstick and eyeliner, and her hair is fixed. To know that someone took the time to do that – it means more than she will ever know.” The two women have since connected on social media.

With a two-week hospital stay now behind her, Debbie is still stunned that she became a victim of COVID-19. “I clean all the time. I never thought this could happen to me. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.” With her energy and health returning to normal, Debbie began waking early to clean her hospital room and get ready for the day, putting on her make-up and combing her hair. She is ready to take back her life.

The first item on her to-do list? “I miss my family. I want to see my family – and my dogs.” Zena and Vayda, an Alaskan Malamute and a Collie. “They don’t understand where I am – and they know I am the one who gives them all their treats.”

On Monday, on a beautiful April afternoon, Debbie Whitehouse left her room on 4 East, to the overhead tune of “Here Comes the Sun.” The sun was shining as big in the hearts of her and her loved ones as it was in the sky. While COVID-19 has divided families through quarantine, illness and even death, it is has also brought many families back together stronger than ever. It’s a fact that reminds us that the sun does always return eventually, that little things matter and that kindness goes a long way.