‘Fiesty’ 91-year-old beats COVID-19

By KAREN FIORETTI,

McCool’s Betty Jean Whittington looking forward to return home

Sixty-four days in the hospital — 12 of which were spent on a ventilator — and three weeks of rehabilitation. That is what 91-year-old Betty Jean Whittington of McCool will have endured by the time she hopefully returns home in early June following her battle with COVID-19.

A group of Betty’s family members gathered outside Choctaw Regional Medical Center last Thursday to see her in person for the first time in weeks and to cheer her on to a full recovery. She was transferred there from Baptist Medical Center in Jackson after fighting back from COVID-19, but in need of rehabilitation before returning to her independent life in her own home.

According to Betty’s daughter-in-law, Rebecca Whittington, the family matriarch first became ill on Tuesday, Mar. 10, when she was hospitalized at Baptist Memorial Hospital – Attala for a couple of days after x-rays showed she had a mild case of pneumonia.

Sent home with a course of antibiotics, Betty had become increasingly ill by Saturday, Mar. 14, causing Rebecca and Betty’s daughter, Beth Wheeless, to take her to the emergency room at Baptist-Attala.

Betty was admitted to the hospital for the second time by Dr. Tim Alford, and on Mar. 20, she was transferred to Baptist in Jackson after Dr. Ben Carter told the family it appeared Betty had suffered a mild heart attack.

When she arrived at the Jackson hospital, it was immediately suspected that Betty had contracted the virus.

It was on Mar. 21, that the Mississippi Department of Health reported the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in an Attala County resident.

Betty’s test came back positive on Mar. 23 and doctors recommended testing everyone Betty had been in contact with recently. Four members of Betty’s family tested positive — daughter Beth, daughter-in-law Rebecca, grandson Cody Whittington and his wife, Hilary Whittington. All four quarantined at home and did not require hospitalization. Cody, an xray technician at Choctaw Regional and Hilary, an xray technician at Baptist-Attala, each had to test negative twice after recovering before returning to work.

In the meantime, Betty was placed on a ventilator on Mar. 26.

“The doctor told us that the longer she was on that, the less chance there was that she’d recover,” said Rebecca.

But Betty was able to come off the ventilator on April 6 and had two COVID-19 negative tests on Apr. 14 and Apr. 18. But that was not the end of the challenges.

She was moved to a wing for COVID-19 patients at that point, but required speech therapy after having the ventilator tube in her throat for those 12 days. She also had trouble swallowing and at one point aspirated on some food, causing a new bout with pneumonia and the need for a temporary feeding tube.

“We thought we’d lost her two times there, but she came back again,” said Rebecca. “God just wasn’t ready for her.”

The family is extremely grateful for the care the family matriarch received along the way in Jackson, particularly from Dr. Maria Rappai and the nurses, who did what they could to keep Betty and her family connected during a time when they were unable to visit with her themselves.

“She could not have had a better doctor. She (Dr. Rappai) got her through this. And I can’t express by gratitude to the nurses. They were really great there,” said Rebecca.

The family received at least three update calls per day, sometimes more if there were a specific change in Betty’s situation that needed to be conveyed to the family.

Once Betty was off the ventilator, nurses helped the family connect visually, as well.

“They would facetime us using their own phones and she would wave at us,” said Rebecca. “That was the only way we had to communicate with her. Seeing her did us so much good.”

In a brief telephone call with The Star-Herald and Rebecca on Monday, Betty’s voice was still raspy, but she laughed about how “hard” her therapists are working her to prepare her for a return home. She also chuckled as she complained about the hospital food, which is currently pureed for her as she improves her ability to swallow through therapy.

According to Betty, she had already completed two hours of therapy on Monday and had spent most of the morning sitting up in a chair where she could look out the window.

Betty does not remember much of her hospitalization in Jackson, likely since she was sedated for much of the time allowing her body rest and fight off the disease, but most especially when her breathing was aided by the ventilator.

But now, Betty said she is looking forward to spending time with her family, which includes son, Wendell and his wife, Rebecca, daughter Beth and her husband, Larry Wheeless, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, with a fifth expected in August.

The family believes that Betty’s general attitude, along with great medical care, is allowing her to fight back from what could have been a deadly illness.

Betty and her extended family now look forward to a reunion in early June once Betty completes the therapeutic program intended to get her back on her feet.

If any 91-year-old can bounce back from such a serious illness, the family believes Betty is that person.

“She’s got a positive attitude about her. She’s tough and she’s going to laugh about things,” said Rebecca. “We love her to death. She’s a feisty spirit and she’s one-of-a-kind.”