There's Love on the Other Side
By Brad McEwen
It’s a sound she says she’ll take to her grave, forever emblazoned in her mind.
The scream of an 8 year-old boy and a grim reminder of how things could have turned out.
And yet, for Lee County educator Tiffany Pafford, her 10 days battling Covid-19 at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital—and the memory of Face-timing her husband Bob and her two sons, Harrison and Maddox, to tell them she loved them one last time, are also a source of inspiration—fuel, if you will, to live her life to the fullest and spread the same kind of love and kindness that was poured over her by the PPE-clad angels that held her up and comforted her in the darkest of times.
“That was the worst day for us,” Tiffany told me of the day doctors told her she was headed to the ICU to be put on a ventilator as Covid-19 raged in her body. “In Albany, even now, the survival rate of those who go on a ventilator is extremely low.
“When we found out, I Face-timed Bob and the boys and we basically said goodbye. We just assumed it would be the last time we would ever speak to one another.
“I didn’t have the energy to hold up the phone,” she continued, gamely fighting back a few tears as she relived the memory with me through a smartphone. “Harrison is our 15 year-old and basically I told him ‘I’m here to push you and basically, I want you to push yourself and just think about me being there pushing you.
“Maddox, our 8 year-old, I don’t remember what I said to him exactly, other than I loved him. And he just told me, ‘Excuse me for one minute,’ and he went to the bathroom and just screamed.
“And that’s the one sound I will never get out of my head. Ever. For the rest of my life.”
Sitting home now, once again blanketed by the warmth of her three cherished boys who barely let her out of their sight, it’s clear that moment of darkness still haunts Tiffany. But after a moment’s pause to collect herself, that memory is quickly replaced by thoughts of the incredible turn over events that followed that painful exchange.
“I (ended up) not going on a ventilator,” Tiffany continued. “When I got up to the ICU the pulmonologist came in to see me and I was talking. And he was like, ‘Wow, you can still talk!’ And then he asked me a couple of questions and I remember telling him, ‘I have a husband and two boys that I want to go home to.’ “And so, he said, ‘Because you can have a conversation with me, we’re going to hold off on the ventilator.’ And so they would come in and check to see if I could still have a conversation with them.”
Thankfully, Tiffany never lost her ability to talk—even as her oxygen levels would plummet each time they rolled her over on her back—and after a day or so was taken back to a standard room; the doctors and nurses believing she had finally rounded the corner and would recover.
By April 4th, she had in fact recovered substantially and while not 100%, was on her way home, still stunned and somewhat in shock by what had transpired in her life since March 13—the day the coronavirus first wormed its way into her life.
While it may seem a lifetime ago for members of the Albany-area community that exploded onto the world stage as a global coronavirus hotspot just as the calendar flipped to April, it’s been just 8 short weeks since Tiffany and her fellow teachers met to discuss distance learning and lesson plans in the face of what she admits at the time she viewed as nothing more than a bad cold.
“I went to work (that day), we did our stuff—had a faculty meeting around 11 and it was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to close down based on the Governor’s recommendation,” Tiffany explained. “And so we sat in the hallway that afternoon and from what we’d heard we thought it’s a common cold. So we were talking and there’s probably 10 of us out in the hall and I said, ‘Y’all, one of us in this room, we’re going to get it.’
“And everybody’s like, ‘No, no, nobody’s going to get it.’ They’re like, ‘If anybody gets it, it should be you.’ And I was like, ‘Y’all, I’ll take one for the team. It’s just a cold. I can handle a cold.’
“Well just so you know, I’ll never take another one for the team. It was not like a cold.”
From that point on, Tiffany said, things began to go sideways. And it was barely a week later that she was rushing to the hospital, fighting for just a single breath.
“Bob had a fever that day actually [March 13] and we honestly thought, cause we had just had a bunch of work done in our house, that he had a sinus infection from all the dust and stuff,” Tiffany said of that fateful day in mid-March. “I got sick on the 15th [a Sunday], got a fever. I woke up around 4 o’clock in the morning with a high fever.
“That Saturday night [the 14th] I was at a friend’s house. It was less than 10 people but we have a friend who’s getting married and moving back to California so it was her bachorlette, goodbye party. I didn’t leave her house until almost 1 o’clock in the morning.
“So, three hours after I got home I had a fever and that’s when my stuff started.
“And I just thank God you know that nobody at that party, because I obviously was already infected, got sick. And that Friday, when we were at school in the meeting, all the teachers were in my classroom, including a woman who was 9 months pregnant! And nobody got sick.
“God is just amazing. I even had people riding in my car with me for lunch. It’s pretty powerful that other people didn’t get sick.”
Despite the onset of her high fever following a few days of Bob not feeling great either, neither really suspected coronavirus, as Tiffany explained that they weren’t exhibiting many of the other then-known symptoms of the disease.
Plus, at least in Tiffany’s case, other symptoms were present that at that time had not been directly linked by experts to Covid-19.
“We still thought it was just the dust from the house because everything in our house had been covered in dust while we were getting stuff done,” she said. “Bob had a little bit of a cough. I had zero cough. I just had a fever and felt really bad.
“So, we go through the week and Bob’s fever went away like that Monday. He had fever Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So, when it went away on Monday I was like, ‘it can’t be coronavirus because it’s supposed to last longer than that. And I thought after a couple more days I’d feel better.”
But she didn’t.
“I laid in the bed,” Tiffany remembered. “I didn’t feel good. But then on Thursday I started vomiting. And again, I was like, ‘you know what, I don’t have coronavirus because this is not one of the symptoms. I’m not having breathing problems. I don’t have a dry cough. This is something completely unrelated.’
“So, I went to the doctor Friday, which would be the 20th to have them check me. They said, ‘get checked for the flu.’ So, I had that done and the PA who came in there was like, ‘You do not have coronavirus. This is a stomach something.’
“They gave me Zofran, gave me some fluids and sent me home.”
Tiffany went on to say that the next day, a Saturday, after the medicine seemingly had no effect on her condition, she and Bob decided to go get tested for coronavirus just to be cautious. They went through the drive through that was formerly off Palmyra Road for the test and were told they’d have the results in about four days.
But well before then, things took a turn for the worse.
“I just felt really bad that weekend and then Monday, it was around 7 o’clock at night, I tired to take a breath and I couldn’t. So, I hollered to Bob, ‘We have to go to the hospital!’ That was probably 7:15. And at 7:33 I was in the ER.”
Upon arrival, Tiffany said she was taken through a triage process to determine next steps and she told me she knew something serious was going on by the reaction of the nurse checking her out.
“The lady started yelling out like, ‘Sepsis, Level 2!’” Tiffany said. “So within five minutes of being at the ER I was on oxygen and probably within 10 minutes, I had an IV going.
“And I’ll tell you, on the way back to the room, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the ER at all, but as they were taking me to my room there’s people sitting in the hallway, in wheelchairs, with masks on. And I guess those were the patients who weren’t as severe as I was, but it scared me at first because you see all these people and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s no room for me here!’”
And things only got more frightening from there.
“They did all of the tests and a doctor comes in, and he’s really young, and almost like he had too much coffee and he was like, ‘I’m pretty sure you have Covid.’ And still I was like, ‘The doctors Friday said no Covid.’
“He was like, ‘I’m telling you, you have Covid.’ Then they come in and they were like, ‘Hey, we’re more than likely transferring you to Atlanta because we don’t have any rooms here for you.’ So that starts a whole other thing.
“I text Bob [because he was not allowed to accompany Tiffany into the depths of the ER], and I’m like, ‘They’re fixing to take me to Atlanta.’ And Bob’s like, ‘No. You have to stay near Albany. There’s nobody in Atlanta. We don’t know anybody there. There’s nobody even close to you there.’
“Then they came back about 20 minutes later and said, ‘You’re in luck. We have a room. The lady in the room next to you is worse that you so we’re taking her to Atlanta and you’re going to stay here.’
“I got the last Covid room that night that was available. So, our whole experience is just a… you can see God’s hand every single step of the way.”
That she could see God at work throughout her ordeal is something Tiffany takes very seriously, and it’s one of the things that has motivated the otherwise private person to share her story.
Not long after returning to her family, Tiffany and Bob shared their experience with their Church of the Groves family in keeping with the Easter Sunday message about God’s restoration—a subject she’s now fluent in, despite her early desire to keep what was happening to her private.
“It’s not that I didn’t want people to know, but we’re not very open sharing our business,” she explained. “Like my Facebook [which she shares with Bob] is pictures of the boys, or pictures of Bob and I. We’re not about spreading our personal business.
“The day I went to the emergency room I was supposed to have been on a Zoom faculty meeting that morning and I sent my principal a message Sunday night and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be able to make it.” Then she actually texted me the night that I went to the emergency room. I was on my way and she was like, ‘How are things?’ And I was like, ‘Not good. Going to the ER.’
“Well she texted me about an hour later and she’s like, ‘Alright, I’m starting a prayer list, I hope you’re okay with this. So that got it started. My Lee County people found out sooner and then once I went into the ICU that’s where it blew up.
“There was so much support,” she continued. “We were overwhelmed. I talk about when I got home and was going through our Facebook Messenger and phone and stuff and I was like, ‘Bob, why didn’t answer these people?’ And he was like, ‘People were calling and texting and sending and I just couldn’t keep up with it all.’
“We’ve been super blessed to have had so many people love us.”
And, Tiffany said, that flood of love didn’t just come from friends, family and colleagues.
Not only did it come from all corners of the community, it was the love of strangers, Tiffany said, that comforted her during the long, lonely days she spent at Phoebe.
“Everybody who walked in my room, even the people who would deliver my food tray would ask me how I was doing,” she said. “Some them who were repeat visitors would ask me, ‘How are your boys?’
“One of my nurses in the ICU, one of the things I got was a prayer list from Lee County where teachers had signed up every 15 minutes to pray for me. When I showed her, she prayed with me.
“The people there became more like personal friends instead of people who were supposed to be taking care of me.
“That’s one of the things—you’re lonely, you don’t have any visitors, but them staying three or four minutes in my room just to talk made it better. I had one CNA and we were talking and she told me about having a son who passed away. They got to be personal conversations and just like, ‘I’m supposed to come in here and give you medicine. They made me feel important, not like I was just part of their job.
“I had one nurse who would just come and sit and hold my hand. She was my nurse pretty much every day after I got out of ICU. She would just come and sit and hold my hand and she would pray over me. My hair was awful because I didn’t get a shower in 12 days. She went to the store and bought me a hairbrush and offered to brush my hair.
“It’s that kind of stuff. And if she was scared, I certainly couldn’t tell. And it wasn’t just nurses. It was every single person I came in contact with.”
That Tiffany’s recent journey would ultimately end with the blessing of love, is fitting she said, as the experience, while traumatic, has changed her in ways she didn’t know were possible.
“I have told people I feel better than before I got sick,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s my new outlook on life or my appreciation for life, but yeah. I’m so much better than before. I’ve written somewhere that this has been an awful and an awesome journey. And I do look at it as a journey.
“I don’t know. I would love to go into the hospital and talk with people. I want to share my experience so people know it is awful, and it is horrible, but there are many lessons that come on the other side of that too.”
And one of the key lessons to be learned, she said, is one she shared as we wrapped up our interview.
“I would tell people not to take any amount of time or any person for granted. Tell people you love them. Even friends. I’m not a hugger and I still won’t be because of all of this Covid stuff. But I’ve told more people that I love them in the last few weeks.
“I’m just counting my blessings more often and look and finding things to be appreciative for.”
And having learned what she’s been through, it’s easy to see the blessings she cherishes the most.
“I’ll be honest, the first thing I did when I got home was take a shower because I didn’t want any hospital germs on them,” she of returning home and seeing her family.
“But the first hug I gave them felt as good as the first time I held them when they were born.
“And they just loved on me and would sit in the living room and just look at me. If I moved and if I made a noise, they’d be like, ‘Are you okay? What can I get you? What do you need mama?’
“I just look at them and I’m like, ‘I’m fine.’”
And with that, I knew the interview had come to an end. No more questions were needed.
When I walk through my back door every evening—another day navigating our strange new reality behind me—and there’s Milla, Bear, Rhodes and Tay to greet me, I know I’m fine too.
Like Tiffany, I know in my heart that what lies on the other side of all the hardship and strife, is Love.
Happy Mother’s Day everybody.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen