Terri Schantz survived COVID-19, but she and her family will deal with its devastation for the rest of her life.
The Stafford County woman was one of the first three people in the Fredericksburg area to contract the disease, and it almost killed her. Before she got sick in mid-March, the 60-year-old had been active and independent, enjoying outdoor activities with her six grandchildren and the “perfect job” as a clinic assistant at North Stafford High School.
Then the virus took hold, and for a while, it looked like “Mimi” might not make it, said her daughter, Brandi Banks. “It was definitely one of the scariest situations we’ve ever been through.”
What started as pneumonia worsened, along with her breathing, and Schantz was put on a ventilator. During the two weeks a machine breathed for her, Schantz suffered a stroke that damaged her left side.
Medicine to keep her blood pressure from dropping caused a blood clot, which cut off circulation in her good hand. A week after she got off the ventilator, the thumb and all the fingers on her right hand were amputated.
Months later, Schantz remains unable to walk. Sometimes, it’s hard for her to get the words out, although those around her say she sounds good. She has physical and occupational therapy twice a week to strengthen her legs and improve the range of motion in her arm.
Still, she deals daily with pain in her left shoulder and phantom aches from fingers that have been removed. The worst part is “not being able to do anything on my own,” said Schantz, who became a widow three years ago when her husband, Mark, died.
Her life has changed in every way possible, but she tries to keep it all in perspective.
“I’m lucky to be where I am, even though I still have a hard road ahead,” she said.
Her daughter says there’s been a lot reported about the opposite extremes of COVID-19, from those who show no symptoms to the daily death tolls. Little has been mentioned about patients like her mother, who will never be the same.
“This is what a survivor looks like,” Banks said. “It’s not like getting a cold or getting the flu and getting better. Their lives are changed forever.”
‘VIRUS IS VERY REAL’
The novel coronavirus is part of a family of viruses responsible for a wide range of problems, from the common cold to severe diseases. Early on, some public officials compared it to the seasonal flu, saying the two were similar in severity and suggesting COVID-19 would go away when the weather got warmer.
Instead, death tolls in the United States have risen with the summer temperatures to the point that more than 162,000 people have died, including 2,322 Virginians and 55 people in the local health district.
As for COVID-19’s similarity to influenza, “the flu does not have lasting effects the way this does,” according to Mary Washington Healthcare officials. But because it’s still a new virus, health officials “are just beginning to grasp” the long-term consequences, said Dr. Christopher Newman, its medical director.
“Thankfully, most have a complete recovery, although many suffer from longer-term issues such as cardiac inflammation, chronic lung disease, shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance, fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating, blood clots and strokes,” he said.
In local discussions about COVID-19, Dr. Donald Stern, former acting director of the Rappahannock Area Health District, often said that 98 percent of those who get COVID-19 will recover. At least half of those infected will not even know they have it, he said.
But how many will suffer as Schantz has is unclear.
“None of those numbers matter when it is you or someone you love that is affected,” said her daughter. “We want people to know that this virus is very real.”
‘A LONG ROAD’
School was still in session in March when Schantz, a certified nursing assistant at North Stafford High School, started to get sick. It was almost time for spring break, and she thought she was coming down with a seasonal respiratory infection.
She has mild asthma, but had shingles a few weeks earlier and guesses her immune system “was shot.” When her temperature climbed to 104 degrees, she knew it wasn’t a normal infection.
Schantz went to an urgent care clinic, then was sent to the emergency room at Mary Washington Hospital. She’d spend almost six weeks there, with family members being updated over the phone about her declining condition because hospitals didn’t allow visitors.
Schantz doesn’t remember much about the hospitalization, other than “crazy dreams” that might have been snippets of reality. She had glimpses of nurses taking care of her, getting medicine for the pain and not being able to eat or drink.
“I found out bits and pieces as we went day to day,” she said. “I didn’t know how serious it was until later on.”
Schantz stayed in a rehabilitation facility for almost four more weeks before she came home on May 20. Banks, her husband and their four children live down the road, so they moved in with Schantz to take care of her. The Banks family is having a room added to their home so Schantz can move in with them permanently.
Schantz said she can feed herself if someone sets everything in front of her, but she needs help with everything else. Doctors have talked about her eventually getting a prosthesis on her right hand, which seems to be healing “pretty good,” she said.
The problem is the left side. She’s gotten some movement back in the leg and can stand briefly, shifting weight from one leg to another. But she can’t take any steps, and she doesn’t have any movement in her left hand.
“She’s doing a lot better than she was,” her daughter said. “It’s definitely a long road, but her spirits are up and she’s moving in the right direction, for sure.”
‘NOT GIVING UP’
Schantz has applied for Medicaid, but hasn’t been approved. She’s still on the school’s health insurance, but she has co-pays for more than nine weeks in facilities as well as for therapy.
Her family includes her son David, his wife Emily and their two kids. They were in the news in May for finding paper bags in the road while driving in Goochland County. The bags were stuffed with almost $1 million dollars in cash, and they handed it all over to the authorities.
Schantz and her children have talked often about the difficulty in getting Medicaid approval and how reliant she is on her family members, who care for her 24/7.
“What do people do when they don’t have the help they need?” her daughter wondered.
Becky Ponton, a fellow church member at Round Oak Baptist Church in Caroline County, has known the Schantz family about 12 years. She started a GoFundMe account to help with expenses, and it has raised almost $6,000. Checks also can be made out to Brandi Banks and mailed to 200 Truslow Road, Fredericksburg, VA 22405.
“Terri loves her family and especially children,” Ponton said. “She has always been very active in her grandkids’ lives, keeping them so her son and daughter could have outings and breaks for themselves. She co-teaches the nursery at Round Oak and has for many years. She gave up her time of Bible study, so parents could have theirs.”
Others described the same type of compassion. During her five years at North Stafford, she’s helped with after-school events and ticket sales for various sports. She worked with the Fairy Godmother Project to help families diagnosed with cancer.
“She has had a close, positive relationship with many of the students, offering support and being a positive adult role model,” said Colette Hokana, administrator of health services for Stafford schools.
Schantz didn’t feel up to having a newspaper photographer visit her home, so her family submitted photos of her—at school events, fishing at Lake Mooney in Stafford and enjoying her grandchildren. Images show the group gathered at a park for her birthday last year, at Paramount’s Kings Dominion last summer and picking out a Christmas tree in 2018.
It’s hard to believe “this virus could cause her to lose so much mobility and independence,” Ponton said. “But she has a great personality, a positive attitude and a loving family. She’s not giving up and we won’t give up on her, either.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425
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