Many families would be broken by the loss of two loved ones – and almost losing a third – in only one month’s time. But the Blanton family isn’t like most families.
In April, the Blantons lost their family’s matriarch, Andrea Blanton, as well as her daughter and loving caretaker, Doria Davis, to the coronavirus.
But that’s not how they see it, Tami Robison said.
“The first thing that we have tried to make clear is that this story is not about COVID-19,” Robison said. “It’s about the caregivers and the hospital.”
COVID-19 did not take her mother and younger sister, God did, Robison said at the start of a video thanking the intensive care unit staff at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital.
Alongside their grief, the Blantons allowed their hearts to be filled with gratitude for the lives Andrea and Davis lived, for all the love they shared and for the health care workers of their hometown hospital who cared for their loved ones when they couldn’t.
The Blanton family includes about 40 immediate family members, and the majority of them always have resided in McHenry, said Tally Blanton, Andrea’s granddaughter.
Andrea and her husband, Jack, have six children – Jack, Walter, Duane, Tami, Doria and Rick – and 16 grandchildren. The Blantons went into the coronavirus pandemic like many families did: cautious and a little unsure, Tally said.
The trouble started in the early morning hours of March 24, when Davis drove herself to the hospital because she was having trouble breathing, said her sister-in-law, Stacey Blanton.
Davis lived with her parents, providing care to Andrea for a variety of health issues. When Stacey heard that Davis was in the hospital, she thought she would go over to check on her in-laws.
“I noticed things weren’t right over there,” Stacey said. “I don’t know, just off a little bit. They said I shouldn’t be there.”
Stacey went home and texted a few family members to say that something was wrong. Later that morning, Andrea’s son, Duane, called 911 because he thought his parents should be taken to the hospital.
“I was there when the paramedics came on the morning of the 24th, and I just stayed in the front corner of the yard,” Stacey said. “Based on their assessments, they decided both should go to the hospital.”
Davis still was having trouble breathing at the hospital and was placed on ventilator support that day. Two days later, Robison was notified that all three family members had tested positive for the coronavirus. It wasn’t long before Andrea and Jack had to be put on ventilators as well.
As the family’s medical liaison, Robison said she was “a vessel for communication,” taking in daily information from nurses and physicians and helping the rest of the family make sense of it all.
Kim Bedow, a registered nurse in the ICU at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital, served as a primary care nurse for Andrea.
“It was almost our entire team taking care of this family at one point or another, so we all knew them, we all spoke with them,” Bedow said. “We all knew the story, and it was very hard for us to be on the other line of the phone and just trying to make the situation as personal as possible.”
On April 4, Robison got a call from the hospital about 1 a.m. Her mother, Andrea, was on ventilator support, and things had taken a turn for the worse.
Andrea had a preexisting condition that required the use of an oxygen machine. This had exacerbated the effects of the coronavirus on her lungs, Robison said.
“The nurse put the phone at my mom’s ear and let me talk to my mom for quite a while,” she said. “I just said that I was there, that it was OK. I said don’t worry about us, you know, we got this.”
The next morning, Robison met two of her brothers at the hospital, unsure of whether they would be able to go inside.
“They did everything they could, and they got us up into the waiting room,” she said. “It gave us a comfort to be there instead of at home just wondering what’s going on.”
When Andrea’s primary care doctor came out to the waiting room, Robison said they greeted him with words of encouragement, telling him that he was doing a good job.
“And his response was ‘I wasn’t successful today,’ ” she recalled.
On the morning of April 4, Andrea died.
“[The doctor] said, ‘I’m part of your family. I treated your mom for all these years, I know all of you.’ He felt like he let us down ... but they knew they did everything that they possibly could.”
The next day, Robison spoke with her father’s nurse, who wanted her to know that her mother was not alone when she died.
“She made sure that I knew that she was holding my mom’s hand, and she was telling her everything that we were saying in the last moments,” Robison said. “We weren’t in the room, but we were there, and I know my mom knew we were there.”
When asked what it’s like to stand in for family in this way, Bedow said nurses have been holding patients’ hands as they have died long before the pandemic began.
“Even outside of the COVID-19 pandemic, families aren’t always able to be here,” she said. “Sometimes they live out of state or things happen abruptly.”
The pandemic has added an extra level to this responsibility as families often aren’t able to visit their loved ones at all for the duration of their stay at the hospital, Bedow said.
“We’re doing as much as we can as far as setting up phone calls and FaceTime videos and letting family members in for compassionate visits when we are able to do so,” she said. “We’re trying to make the best out of an impossibly bad situation.”
After Andrea died, something changed, Tally said.
“Before, it was just kind of a haze of all these different emotions. ... There was hope, there was sadness, but after Grandma passed, it got very real,” she said.
The family consoled each other through FaceTime and got together in a small group to release lanterns in honor of Andrea’s birthday on April 17.
Then, on April 22, the Blantons received the news that Davis was not doing well.
They gathered in the parking lot of the McHenry hospital, which Robison said had come to feel like a safe space for them, to say goodbye to Davis together.
“We couldn’t embrace each other, but the fact that we could just look at each other and mouth ‘I love you’ was comforting,” Tally said.
Family members stayed in their cars, and a few people released balloons in Davis’ honor.
“We FaceTimed her and the two nurses at that time, they stayed with my sister while my oldest brother talked to her, and we just went down the line,” Robison said. “The nieces and nephews, you know, anybody that was there was able to talk to my sister and tell her how much they loved her.”
They even played a few of Davis’ favorite songs for her, ending with her wedding song.
“The very last song we played was her wedding song, ‘How Do I Live Without You,’ and that’s when she passed,” Robison said.
Davis, 45, is survived by her husband, Matt, and their two children, Andrea and Zach Davis.
The family said this impromptu service would not have been possible without the extra level of care provided by the hospital’s staff.
“They just were amazing to stand in that gap for us and to do it so gracefully,” Robison said.
“It was like we were in the room with her, that’s how personal it felt,” said Robison’s sister-in-law, Madeline Blanton. “It was so beautiful.”
Davis’ son, Zach, is a senior at Richmond-Burton Community High School. After hearing what happened, the football team organized a car parade outside his house to let him know that they were there for him, Tally said.
At the time of Davis’ death, Robison’s father, Jack Blanton, still was in the hospital, heavily sedated and on ventilator support.
And then, just when the family needed a spark of hope the most, they got one, Robison said.
“I was sitting at home and I got a phone call from the hospital, and I answered it and it was my dad,” she said, chuckling. “And I was like, ‘How are you calling me?’ ”
Her dad demanded she come down to the hospital immediately, in the way that only Jack Blanton could, Robison said. It was then that she knew he had recovered enough to be told what had happened.
Robison had come to an agreement with hospital staff after Andrea died. At the time of their call, Jack had no idea that after being in a sleep-like state for 18 days he was waking up in a world without his beloved wife and youngest daughter.
“My biggest fear was to have to give him the news, and then for him to have to process it on his own without a family member,” Robison said.
After speaking with the hospital, Robison and two of her brothers, Jack and Duane, were allowed to suit up in full personal protective equipment to deliver the news personally.
“The first thing we had to do was let him know what was going on outside, you know, what the world is like right now,” she said.
Then came the harder news.
They spoke with him for a while, answering any questions he had. After her brothers left, Robison stayed at her father’s side and fed him lunch. Suddenly, time with him felt too precious to let slip by, she said.
“They didn’t pressure me to go, you know, they said whenever you’re ready,” she said. “I’ll never forget that time that I got to spend with him alone in that room.”
At the end of April, Jack was transferred to Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton to recover from the effects of almost three weeks of intubation and heavy sedation.
“His mind is coming back and he’s getting better every single day, and we’re hoping by the end of this month he’ll be home,” Robison said.
Rooted in their spirituality, the Blantons took an experience that may have divided many families and allowed it to bring them together, Madeline said.
“It drew us together as a family,” she said. “My mother-in-law, she is just smiling down on us because we’re taking care of each other, bottom line.”
Once the family could breathe a little easier, they wanted to find a way to return some of the love and compassion they had received from the staff at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital. Madeline said she had the idea to make a video to tell the rest of the community about their hometown heroes.
Tally had almost every member of the Blanton family record videos of themselves and edited the snippets together on her computer. She wanted the hospital’s nurses to know just how many hearts they had touched.
The result was an incredibly raw, heartfelt tribute posted on Tally’s Facebook page, which now has more than 17,000 views and has been shared 769 times.
“The responses to the video were just amazing,” Tally said. “It’s helped us heal in a way that I don’t think we expected it to because it’s our story.”
All of the love the family put into the video came reverberating back to them in the form of comments, calls and messages of support.
When the ICU nurses of Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital watched the video, Bedow said, many of them were wiping away tears.
“To be able to see that personal recognition, it was just very amazing and very touching,” she said. “A lot of people don’t really know exactly what we do and what we, you know, deal with on a daily basis, so they kind of shined a little light into that, and that was very much appreciated by our staff.”
Robison was patient and understanding with the team’s nurses, making their days just a bit easier, Bedow said.
“I just want to thank the family for all of their generosity and their compassion toward us,” she said. “And thank you to the community in general for the support, the messages, the food ... just everything.”
In honor of International Nurses Week, a few community members drew a large mural on the sidewalk leading into the hospital, which depicted a “super nurse” bursting through what looked like a coronavirus molecule, she said.
Bedow is far too humble to call herself a hero. After all, this is what she signed up for when she became a nurse, she said.
“It’s what I’ve chosen to do, and it’s what I love doing,” she said.
Hero or not, Bedow and the rest of the ICU team adopted the Blantons into their family during a very difficult time in their lives.
“It’s just community and family and people congregating in a way they’ve never congregated before,” Tally said. “It’s not people standing next to each other, but it’s just souls coming together.
“We still can’t be together, but I’ve never felt closer to everybody around me.”
“Amen,” Robison said. “We are forever connected.”