Like many, Danielle Lilly can still remember the fear and uncertainty during the early days of Covid-19.
“You’d get updates each day,” she said, recalling watching West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s daily Covid-19 briefings. “No one in Raleigh County has it. Now there’s one. And two. And seven. And I can just remember how fearful I was.
“I didn’t like it at all.”
Schools and businesses were closed during those first few weeks, and Lilly asked her husband if he minded if she and their four children headed to Florida to visit her parents and grandparents.
“Not that it wasn’t going on there,” she said. “I just wanted away from the reality of the fear of it.”
Her plan worked, too.
As time went on, though the numbers mounted, Lilly said she could feel the fear and tension leave.
And that’s how the Shady Spring resident spent much of the next 16 months — on the go and removed from fear, living life as usual.
“I did a lot of living life, I’ll say,” she said. “My family, we travel a lot, but during Covid, we probably traveled much, much more.
“I wasn’t really afraid of it or this virus,” she continued. “At the beginning. And neither was my family.
“It wasn’t until this hit my family that it woke me up.”
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It started with her aunt.
“She passed away from Covid Dec. 2, 2020,” Lilly said of her mother’s sister who lived in Tennessee.
Her 65-year-old aunt had been diagnosed with cancer a few months before and had just started chemotherapy when she tested positive for Covid at the end of November.
“She caught Covid and pneumonia, and she shortly passed away within days,” Lilly said.
And because her aunt’s immune system was lowered from cancer and chemo, Lilly said she thinks it helped some people question how dangerous Covid could be.
“I feel like a lot of people didn’t feel like she really died from Covid, but that she had a lowered immune system and caught a ‘cold,’” she said.
Her aunt died just weeks before the vaccine rollout began, but Lilly said her family wasn’t interested in receiving Covid-19 vaccines.
At least not yet.
“It was something I felt like I needed more information on,” she said. “I thought, you know, as more and more people get it and we see how many people get sick, we’ll make a judgment then.
“And I was just kind of living life and doing our thing.”
Lilly has always been close to her family.
She grew up in the small town of Keystone Heights, Fla., halfway between Jacksonville and Gainesville, where both her parents and grandparents built houses on the same property.
“I lived next door to them (grandparents) my whole life until I moved here about 19 years ago,” she said.
Even with the distance, she ventured back and forth often and her parents Michael and Marsha Ricketts did the same, even joining her family on vacations.
In fact, when Lilly left Florida after Covid first hit, her parents then spent the summer with her family in Colorado, where she and her husband have a rental home.
That’s where Lilly was near the end of July when Covid found her family the second time.
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“I think it was July 20, somewhere in there,” Lilly said of the day it began.
Her 89-year-old grandmother Betty Norris had been on hospice for years, and the family thought she was near the end of life.
“We weren’t real sure, but we had a feeling and some family was coming down from Tennessee,” she said.
Back in Colorado with her husband and children, Lilly spoke with her dad on the phone.
“My dad said he had a runny nose and my grandpa had a runny nose,” she said. “He told me he thought it was allergies, but it was weird, I think, to have allergies in the middle of July in Florida.”
She told her dad he might want to keep a distance from others and reminded him that a runny nose can mark the early stages of Covid.
But it was too late.
“Well, at that point I guess pretty much everybody had kind of gotten it,” she said, listing the family members who had contracted Covid-19. “My father, my uncle, which is my mom’s brother, my grandfather, my grandmother, my niece and my mom.”
Lilly’s 62-year-old uncle spent a week in the hospital, and her former sister-in-law was hospitalized for four days.
She said they, her father and her niece are doing well now.
But August was a difficult month for her family.
Before the month’s end, her grandmother, her grandfather and her mother all lost their lives to Covid.
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Lilly’s “Grandma Betty” was the first, as she passed away Aug. 1.
At that point, her family was staying at her grandparents’, “hunkered down” taking care of one another.
Lilly said she and her two brothers had worried about their parents — particularly their dad, who served nearly 30 years in the military — throughout the pandemic.
“We were more worried for my dad to get Covid almost,” she said, explaining her mom was on no medication and was always thought to be the healthier of the two.
But it was clear very quickly, she said, that her mom was having a difficult time as her blood oxygen level dipped, she uncharacteristically napped and struggled for breath.
Lilly said she encouraged her mom to go to a doctor in case she needed breathing treatments or steroids, but her mom resisted as long as she could.
“It was probably like 2 in the morning when she went finally,” she recalled explaining she had asked her mom to go all day. “But by then what I was telling her was probably too late.”
It was Aug. 8 when Marsha Ricketts was hospitalized.
Her 91-year-old father, Lilly’s “Grandpa Al,” was admitted a few days later.
“He had blood clots and pneumonia,” Lilly said. “You know, the Covid things.”
Alvin Ricketts died on Aug. 15, but his daughter didn’t know.
She had been intubated four days earlier, on Lilly’s 40th birthday.
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Lilly was home in Shady Spring on Aug. 27 when she said she knew she needed to go to Florida.
“I was sitting in bed and I got this heaviness, in my opinion it was the Holy Spirit, it was just like urging me to go home and see my dad,” she said.
She had no doubt her mom would pull through. Her mom had told her as much before she was intubated.
“I can’t tell you how hopeful I was that she was coming off of the ventilator,” she said. “I had peace about it. I had dreams about it. I just really was like, ‘My mom’s coming off the ventilator.’”
She flew home the next day and surprised her dad. Her timing was good as her mom, who had recently been making baby steps, went downhill that same evening.
Lilly said they knew what it meant when they received a call to visit the hospital, where no visitors were allowed.
“They told us, ‘If we call you in, this is most likely the end of their lives,’” she said. “So we went in to see her Saturday night and we went in to see her Sunday when she passed away.
“We missed it by an hour.”
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It isn’t easy for Lilly to wrap her brain around all that was lost in a single month.
“I don’t even know if I’ve mourned my grandma and my grandpa because of the loss of my mom,” she said, beginning to cry. “I’m sad. I was definitely close with my grandma and grandpa. Very close, but I just don’t know that it’s quite hit that they’re gone because it’s just so devastating that my mom’s gone.”
Lilly said she’s learned that Covid is “not a common cold. It’s not the flu,” as she might have thought it was at times before.
“You don’t know who this virus is going to take advantage of,” she said.
And though she and her family previously had no interest in receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, she is now fully vaccinated, as are her father, her brothers and her husband.
It was the day after her grandfather died that she received her first shot.
She said she knows many people are for and against the vaccination for different reasons, but it was a conversation with her brother while her mom was still in the hospital that told her she was making the right choice.
“I was telling him that I was very aggravated that God was not healing my mother,” she recalled. “I know he’s the maker of the universe. He created us. He could do this. This is something he could do and I believed it. His word said if you believe this, even if you have the faith of a mustard seed, that he can cause this to move. And I prayed it and spoke it and I believed it. I believed it and why didn’t he?
“And my brother looked at me and said, ‘He did. He gave her what she should have had, and it’s called a vaccine. It’s what they’re asking people to get.’
“… When my brother said that to me, I think it hit me right where I needed to hear it,” she continued. “What if the God that made all of this world is the God that is putting scientists together to try and stop this thing and there’s not an agenda? What if there’s not an agenda that everybody wants to believe? What if there’s a Creator and a God who wants us to make the choices to help?”
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Lilly said she isn’t proud that it wasn’t that long ago that she was a bit of a “rebel” when it came to both masking and vaccines. But today, she’s “asking for forgiveness” and taking great care to not unknowingly carry the virus to someone else’s doorstep.
“I didn’t get the shot in any way for me,” she said, beginning to cry. “I got this shot because I want this to stop with me. I don’t want this to affect anybody’s else’s home the way it’s affected mine.”
And she said her loss has encouraged others to make the same move, as she has lost track of the number of people who have told her they have made the choice to get vaccinated because of her family.
She said that’s bittersweet.
“I’m glad people are being moved in some way for my mom,” she said. “I hate that it’s in the way it is, and I don’t want anybody else to be moved to get a vaccine because somebody had to die.”
That’s why she’s sharing her story.
“I’m hoping that the ones who are teetering and unsure, maybe this story, my mom’s life, my grandparents’ life and my aunt’s life will tell them that it’s real and will push them to make a good decision.”
— Email: mjames@