When Debbie Taylor died June 23 from complications of COVID-19, the disease had been part of her family for almost a month.
After learning in early June that her mother had contracted the virus, Taylor’s daughter, Mary Moore, avoided entering her parents’ Bickmore home in southern Clay County, where Taylor lived with her husband, Carl, and stepfather, Clarence “Kelly” Ramsey. Taylor was admitted June 14 to Charleston Area Medical Center General Hospital. Carl Taylor tested positive the following day.
“After mom went to the hospital, I would go take my dad and grandpa food and stuff,” Moore said. “I would take it and leave it on the porch, and they would come to the porch. I would stand at my car and talk to them.”
Taylor was 66 when she died. Her daughter, covered by a mask and other personal protective gear, was by her side.
As part of its “100 Lives” project, aimed at learning more about the virus and its effects, HD Media is profiling those among the first 100 people to die in the pandemic. Taylor was the 92nd West Virginian claimed by the virus.
Her husband, Carl, didn’t make it to the hospital in time to see her before she died. He since has recovered. He and his wife were among nearly a dozen relatives who contracted the virus.
A trip to Charlotte
The family’s COVID-19 odyssey began with a May 22 trip to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Taylor’s sisters, Addie Cole, 58, and Grithel Burns, 52, traveled there to visit Cole’s youngest daughter, Kelli Scott, 28, an intensive care nurse, and her husband, Derek. Cole’s son Stephen, 23, and oldest daughter, Meghan Grant, 31, and her husband, Josh, and their 3-year-old son also made the trip.
They took the virus seriously and they followed the guidelines.
“I’m telling you, I had hand sanitizers everywhere,” Cole said. “If I pumped gas, I used hand sanitizer. I didn’t go in anywhere without a mask.”
Cole continued daily 5-mile walks and traveled to the grocery store. They avoided restaurants and bars. They spent the weekend on Kelli and Derek’s boat, interacting with no one outside the family.
“That was a safe thing they said you could do,” Cole said.
After the family returned May 25 to Clay County, Derek Scott told his wife he felt tired. Three days later, Kelli Scott called her mother to say he’d tested positive for COVID-19 and they were under a two-week quarantine.
“I just laughed and said, ‘Kel, I don’t have it because I walked 5 miles this morning,’” Cole recalled telling her daughter. “By that evening, I wasn’t moving really well.”
Stephen Cole stopped to get tested on his way home from a visit with his father, Eric. A day later, Stephen learned he’d tested positive. Eric Cole later learned he’d also contracted the virus.
Eleven members of Cole’s immediate and extended family — including everyone on the trip — contracted COVID-19. They spent June caring for one another while trying to prevent further spread.
Cole endured aches, exhaustion and a loss of appetite that resulted in her shedding 8 pounds during the week she battled the virus. One of her legs still aches at night. Sometimes, she can’t muster the energy to leave her home, not even for part of her 5-mile walks.
Her children, she said, experienced what she called severe allergy-like symptoms, including runny noses, headaches and coughing.
After the family’s return from the Charlotte trip — but before they’d learned of exposure to the virus — Burns took her stepfather to a regular check-up with his cardiologist. Three days later, he said he didn’t feel well.
He also contracted the virus.
‘It’s a very serious thing’
The family worried about Moore’s father, she said.
“When he tested positive, it really scared us,” she said. “We thought, if anybody’s going to get it, he would be the one, and he didn’t have any symptoms whatsoever.”
Taylor felt “a little bad” for about three days. Then, the virus hit hard, Moore said.
After retiring from the West Virginia Tax Department, Taylor sometimes delivered mail for the U.S. Postal Service, handing out suckers to children on her routes. She had had three grown children and was known as “Granny” to her five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They were the apples of her eye, Moore said.
The second oldest of nine children, Taylor was a caretaker to her siblings. She organized family reunions and took care of “all of the hard stuff,” such as making funeral arrangements, Moore said. She did that for her son, Harlan, in 2015, when he died at age 44.
The Taylors raised livestock and processed their own pigs. The couple suffered from asthma. Taylor had one kidney. She also had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly referred to as COPD, which affects the lungs and makes it hard to breathe, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
In June, Taylor remained in bed, barely able to get up for a week before she went to the hospital on a Sunday afternoon.
Doctors found that she not only had contracted the coronavirus, she’d developed pneumonia and later contracted MRSA. Her kidney began to fail about a week after she was admitted.
“On the 22nd, they told me that she was not going to live, that her kidney had shut down and she needed dialysis,” said Moore, who spoke with a nurse every day her mother was in the hospital. “If they did dialysis, it would be too hard on her heart. Her potassium was so high that, if they didn’t put her on dialysis, her heart was going to stop anyway.”
Hospital staff equipped Moore with layers of personal protective gear and allowed her to sit with her mother for about two hours on the day Taylor died.
“I know people don’t take this seriously, but it’s a very serious thing,” Moore said.
‘She didn’t have any energy’
A Clay County schoolteacher, Burns spent 11 days in the intensive care unit at CAMC General, overlapping her sister’s stay by three days.
She used an oxygen tank after her hospital stay and began regaining her strength. In her first few days of recovery, she could walk only from Cole’s couch to the dinner table.
“She didn’t have any energy,” Cole said.
While caring for her sister, Cole also helped with her brother-in-law and stepfather.
Like her niece, Cole left home-cooked meals on the front porch.
She was released from quarantine June 8, after testing positive June 1.
‘We brought it back to her’
Many relatives were unable to attend Taylor’s funeral at the family’s mountaintop cemetery along Beechy Ridge in Bickmore because of fears they’d expose one another to the virus.
A retired schoolteacher who still substitutes in Clay County, Cole lives with regret over the loss of her sister.
“I’m angry, because, of all that I did, it was really me who brought it back,” Cole said. “Debbie didn’t really have anything in it. We brought it back to her. She would never want us to feel guilty or anything, but you still do.”