There’s no pretty way to say it. Peggy Gallagher nearly died.
The 69-year-old Moon resident and Mathews County Public Schools employee went to Riverside Walter Reed Hospital on Saturday, March 14, restlessly uncomfortable and complaining of a headache. She had spent the week before coughing and telling friends of a heavy feeling in her chest. An X-ray showed pneumonia.
The following day, Peggy was admitted to the intensive care unit and placed on a ventilator. Her family doctor told her husband, Kevin, that a second X-ray looked like “a SARS epidemic exploded in her chest.”
Nine days later she was confirmed positive for COVID-19. But she didn’t know it, because she was in an induced coma, unconsciously engaged in the fight of her life.
Peggy, now recovering at Walter Reed Convalescent Center, struggles to recall anything that has happened while she’s been in the hospital. With 11 weeks of treatment behind her, she can only fully recall the past two weeks. A few hazy memories of earlier weeks are beginning to pop into her head. She also doesn’t remember the week before she was admitted. The last thing she clearly recalls is being on the special education bus, doing her job as an aide, and listening to one of her young students express concern about the coronavirus. She reassured him, saying, “Oh, don’t worry about it. We’ll be fine.”
Kevin fills in the missing parts for Peggy. He said that by the end of her first week in the hospital, one of her lungs had collapsed and doctors were giving her from less than a 20 percent chance to as much as a 30 percent chance of pulling through.
When he visited Peggy on Monday, March 23, for her birthday, Kevin had to wear a hazmat suit. She didn’t know he was there. Later that day, the COVID-19 test that had been administered on Tuesday, March 17, came back positive. By then, Kevin had called his children and told them their mom was likely to die.
Kevin tested positive for the coronavirus, as well, so he was restricted from visiting the hospital for two weeks as he self-quarantined. He never developed any symptoms.
On April 1, Kevin got a call from the hospital asking permission to give his wife a blood transfusion. Peggy’s other lung had collapsed, she was on dialysis and bleeding internally from an unknown cause. Two days later, with his 14-day quarantine period over, Kevin visited the hospital, and doctors told him that Peggy wasn’t responding to treatment. The only thing keeping her alive, they said, was the ventilator, and it was “time to terminate.”
Kevin said he wanted the weekend to notify his son Jayme in Florida and his daughter Megan in New York and to make whatever arrangements could be made. He talked to the funeral home about cremation and to a priest about last rites. Not a religious person, he called everyone he knew and asked them to pray for his wife at 11 a.m. on Monday, when the ventilator was scheduled to be turned off. Prayer chains were started, not just in Mathews but all across the country, as well.
With his children unable to travel because of pandemic restrictions, Kevin went alone to the hospital on Monday morning to say goodbye to his wife and best friend of 48 years, when he was met by a different doctor than he had seen before. Kevin asked him to give Peggy something to keep her from suffering after she was removed from the ventilator, but he told Kevin he was not ready to sign the papers to end treatment.
“His words to me were, ‘I will not euthanize this woman. She’s fighting,’” said Kevin. He wonders if all the prayers did, indeed, make a difference.
Over the following week, the doctors reduced Peggy’s coma medications and performed a tracheotomy so they could remove the ventilator tube from her mouth and connect it through the opening in her throat. She awoke on Thursday, April 9, and the hospital called Kevin and told him she wanted to terminate. Kevin rushed to see her, grabbing a photo of their granddaughter Amelia as he left. He showed Peggy the photo and asked her who it was. Unable to speak, she mouthed “Amelia.”
“Do you still want to terminate,” asked Kevin. Peggy shook her head no.
By April 20, Peggy was ready to be moved to a rehabilitation facility on the Peninsula. Sometime during the following month, she called Kevin and hoarsely whispered her first words in nearly two months. She said, “Where am I and why am I here?” She wanted him to visit, but he couldn’t because of COVID-19 restrictions. Friends and family called often on FaceTime, offering love and encouragement.
On May 22, Peggy was moved to Walter Reed Convalescent Center, and since then, said Kevin, there’s been a steady improvement in her condition and her demeanor. The center allows window visits, and Kevin has been there most days, standing outside the window to chat. Her best friend, Lynn Jaeger, has visited regularly, as well, and other friends have begun to drop by.
Peggy credits Lynn with convincing her to go to the hospital, suspecting she was suffering from pneumonia. “She’s been my rock,” she said. The family’s other rock has been her daughter Megan’s husband Joe. Peggy is also thankful for the nursing and therapy staff at the convalescent center, especially Amanda, Ginger and Alissa.
“Everybody is wonderful,” she said.
Peggy said her ongoing problems include her jaw not functioning properly because of the extended time she spent on the ventilator, and pain inside her mouth, which she said the tube “destroyed.” Her mouth is so sore that all of her food has to be ground up before she can eat it. The longest she’s been able to sit up on the side of the bed has been 10 minutes, she said, and “standing up hasn’t happened yet.” She has to do exercises in bed.
Among the memories of her time in the hospital that have floated into Peggy’s mind is one of a nurse who was always singing, and she recalls a moment when there was “a bunch of darkness over here, and a bunch of white faces on me, and a dark tunnel with a light at the end.”
“I was kind of like fighting it,” she said, “and I promised that I’d never watch the ID Channel again.”
Peggy finds it strange to be catered to. “I can’t get up and do stuff. I have to ask everybody, and I keep apologizing,” she said. “They’re so nice here. They say all nice things to you.”
Peggy said she’s not ready to deal with getting back into the social media world that she enjoyed so much before, but she’s enjoying hearing from friends, and appreciates that everybody has been praying for her.
She said she misses all the children on the school bus, and she can’t wait to get home and be able to see her own children and grandchildren. Most of all, she wants to be able to just sit outside on the deck with her husband and enjoy “our quiet little life.”