IOWA DERECHO 2020

After derecho, displaced family grapples with COVID-19 away from home

Myrtle Ross of Cedar Rapids hugs a family member after being released from Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids on Frida
Myrtle Ross of Cedar Rapids hugs a family member after being released from Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When the derecho tore through Eastern Iowa, William Ross already was in a crisis.

By the time the Aug. 10 storm hit Cedar Rapids, his wife, Myrtle Ross, was a couple weeks into what became a more than two-month hospital stay following an infection with COVID-19.

After a daunting 66 days in the hospital — including several weeks on a ventilator — Myrtle, 65, was released Oct. 2 from Mercy Medical Center.

But the couple still is grappling with the effects of the derecho. The storm severely damaged their home in the Cedar Terrace Mobile Home Park on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids, ripping off the back door and punching a hole through the roof of the kitchen after a tree toppled onto the home.

Because they don’t have insurance on the home, they will have to wait to begin repairs until the Federal Emergency Management Agency approves relief for them.

Until that FEMA aid arrives, Myrtle and William are living in a hotel off 33rd Avenue SW.

William said not only has it been difficult finding an available contractor, the repairs were put on the back burner when his wife’s condition took a turn for the worse.

“She’s been my No. 1 concern,” said William, 71.

‘A rough two months’

The Ross family still is working to find an adjuster to estimate the cost of damages, which is part of the process of applying for FEMA aid. William said there are other boxes to check off before they can make repairs, which they hope to accomplish in the next month or so.

However, the timeline on when they can move back home is tentative.

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“I quit smoking years ago,” William said. “When everything started going on, I started smoking again. It’s been a rough two months.”

Myrtle, who was unaware of the storm’s damage to her home until the end of her hospital stay, said she’s been eager to get home. But at least for the foreseeable future, she will be recovering from her long illness away from the comfort of home.

“I want my house back,” she said.

The couple ultimately did not take up an offer from a Mercy Medical Center social worker to help find temporary housing. Hospital officials say they’ve had to help a number of individuals navigate services in the wake of the derecho.

“As part of Mercy’s response, our social workers have assisted community members with finding meals, transportation, hotel rooms, connecting them with the Red Cross and accessing other community resources,” said Mercy spokeswoman Karen Vander Sanden. “The immediate aftermath of the storm was an overwhelming time for many and social workers were definitely involved in directing/assisting people, even those without medical needs, to appropriate services.”

A family’s recording

William believes he was the first of the two to be infected with COVID-19 through his part-time job as a contracted truck driver for the International Paper Company in Cedar Rapids.

Myrtle then soon exhibited severe symptoms, but at the time she assumed it was nothing more than a bad cold. She was taken to Mercy Medical Center on July 29, where she tested positive for the virus.

“I was worried (about COVID-19), and I hoped I would never get it,” she said in an interview last week with The Gazette. “Sure enough, I got it.”

Two days later, she was placed in a medically-induced coma and intubated.

William, who tested positive Aug. 3, felt minor symptoms. Their son, who also was infected, showed no symptoms.

In the weeks that his wife was in the hospital and he couldn’t visit, William found himself in a new routine. He would travel to both his parents’ and Myrtle’s parents’ gravesites in Cedar Rapids and speak to them. Then he would sit in the hospital parking ramp and “talk to the walls of the hospital.”

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“I asked for her to get better,” he said. “We’ve been together for 50 years and I wanted her to get better.”

Nonetheless. her condition worsened. Doctors presented William with a choice — whether to turn off the ventilator. He opted to keep the ventilator on, but signed a do-not-resuscitate order.

Around this time, in an effort to deal with the fact that relatives couldn’t visit the hospital, William had the idea of gathering family members — including the couple’s two children and her siblings — around a digital recorder.

In a 38-minute recording, the family spoke to Myrtle and shared memories. William, for example, recounted their wedding in Reno, Nevada, from 49 years ago.

William said he gave the recorder Aug. 17 to Myrtle’s nurses, along with eight extra batteries, and asked them to play the recording in her room night and day.

Later that week, Mercy providers called William to inform him his wife was doing much better — even sitting up in bed, watching TV.

“I think that recording had a lot to do with bringing her out of that coma,” he said. “Somewhere it sunk in that she wasn’t alone. She had people out there wanting to see her.”

Throughout the rest of August and September, Myrtle continued to improve enough to be moved from the hospital’s COVID-19 floor. By the sixth week, she was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation wing, where she could have a visitor. William began spending his nights in the hospital room.

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Myrtle still faces several weeks of occupational, respiratory and other therapies to regain her strength. She relies on a wheelchair for the most part, but is able to use a walker to move around the small hotel suite.

She has no memory of most of her hospital stay, including the recording.

She still hasn’t listened to the recording, fearing it would be too emotional. She thinks it will be awhile before she does to listen to it.

“I’m kind of shocked,” she said of the recording. “I would never dream my family would do something like that, but I’m glad they did.”

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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