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Jacksonville woman tests positive, dies months before 100th birthday

A Jacksonville woman describes the final weeks of her 99-year-old mother's life
A Jacksonville woman describes the final weeks of her 99-year-old mother's life

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A few months shy of Mildred Fussell’s 100th birthday, her family learned she tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

The near-centenarian lived at the Brookdale Atrium Way Skilled Nursing facility since 2013 when her family says she was recovering from a fall that left with her a head injury and a broken hip. Fussell had recently moved into the skilled nursing part of the facility.

Three weeks into her stay – Nancy Loznicka, her daughter, got the call that she spiked a fever. She was rushed to Baptist Hospital and it wasn’t long before a hospital staff member called and said her mother tested positive for COVID-19.

“I just sank. I just knew … 99-years-old. How will she battle this battle?” Loznicka said. “How is she going to get through this next round?”

Next came nearly two weeks in the hospital -- a period Loznicka described as rattled with highs where it seemed her mother might recover, and lows that left their mother exhausted.

“She began to go downhill again. I was told her oxygen levels plummeted. She was really breathing hard to get a breath,” Loznicka said. “The doctor explained to me her body was working so hard just to get oxygen. The whole upper body was just heaving up and down fighting for air.”

She continued, “They then tried high flow oxygen where they put a different size tube up the nose. This is like having a [leaf] blower on high blowing up your nose constantly.”

Loznicka said she was told her mother was trying to pull the tube out of her nose and eventually required a sitter to come in and watch her mother.

“Normally it would have been us. I said, ‘Can’t we, please?' There was begging going on. Can’t we please, somebody please. Do what you have to get us protected. Can we please somebody be there,” Loznicka said. “They said, ‘No we can’t. It’s too much of a risk. We will take care of her. She will not be in there by herself.‘”

Loznicka says she believes the staff at Baptist took good care of her mother – and in making sure her family felt as connected as possible given the hospitals rules banning visitors.

“One nurse said, ‘Her spirit is just defeated.' She has fought so hard. We have all prayed so hard. We have prayed so hard for some type of relief and she’s just done.” said Loznicka. “I knew she’s not going to recover from this.”

Loznicka says she got a call from a member of the pulmonary team after her mother had been in the hospital for more than a week – about something her mother said.

“She told him, ‘I have a DNR do not resuscitate me. I don’t want tubes. No feeding tubes. No kind of tube. Just make me comfortable,’” said Loznicka. “I said, ‘Follow my mothers wishes.' That was hard, and I still wonder, did I make the right decision?”

Over the next 30 hours – family members began making their final calls to their mother. They still were not permitted to go to the hospital to say their goodbyes. For Loznicka, who herself struggles with breathing issues, it would have been especially risky.

Loznicka’s last words to her mother were over a phone call just a few hours before she passed away: ”I hope you sleep well tonight, mother. Better than you’ve been sleeping. I love you.”

“This is 30 hours after – we were told she probably wouldn’t last that long. Thirty hours – God kept her here 30 more hours,” said Loznicka. “I’m thinking how in the world did she manage to last that long.”

Loznicka describes their mother as a small, but mighty force. Standing around 5-feet tall, Mildred weighed less than 90 pounds, but she had been through a lot, including raising a toddler and newborn while her husband fought in World War II.

Loznicka says her mother lived through losing her husband and several health episodes, to include strokes. Loznicka said her mother had always been a perfectionist. Fussell was an avid baker – and was known to throw out a perfectly good pound cake if it didn’t live up to her standards.

“My brother reminded me, all of us, of what she had gone through. She wasn’t only a child that went through the depression – but she went through WWII, my dad being gone a year while she was home with two little ones – a baby and a toddler,” said Loznicka. “She persevered through all of it, but this virus was more than she could handle.”

Loznicka, who is deeply rooted in her faith, says she knows it was her mother’s time. She says the painful and isolated way her mother passed that that hurts her and her family.

“It angers me when people say this is just the flu and they start throwing out statistics,” said Loznicka. “Well, when it hits your little percentage, your little home, it’s a big deal.”

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.