Family remembers woman who was first COVID-19 patient at Franciscan Health

She also left an impression on hospital staff
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Posted at 9:21 PM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 21:32:11-05

GREENWOOD — 91-year-old Emily Wahlen had been living with her daughter, Mary Mcqueen, and son-in-law Mike Mcqueen, for around nine months in March 2020.

Mary said her mother loved to sit on the porch and watch all of the activity that surrounded their Greenwood home.

At the beginning of March, Mary and Mike attended a wedding. This is where the couple caught COVID-19.

The wedding was held on a Saturday, and by Wednesday, Mary had a headache. By Thursday, Wahlen had a bad cough.

The two went to see the family doctor that Friday and were given some cold medicine to take care of the symptoms.

Then, Mary received a phone call.

“It was Saturday night I got a phone call from one of the gentlemen at the wedding and he had gone to get tested to see if he had COVID-19, and he said ‘I should know in the morning if it’s positive or not’ and I said ‘Well, we may already have symptoms,’” Mary said.

The next day he called back to let them know he had tested positive.

“So then I called our doctor, Dr. Jim Records, and told him, because we were in his office that Friday," Mary said. "So he took it from there for us and called the board of health and reported it. Then he had to shut his office down for two weeks."

The Johnson County Board of Health recommended all three people in the household go get tested at Franciscan Health.

Mary said when they arrived at the hospital, they were taken to a room and given both a flu test and a COVID-19 test.

“In about an hour they came back and said the influenza test was negative we did not have that," Mary said. "My heart just sank because I knew then that we had COVID I just knew we did.”

On March 10, 2020, Mcqueen received a phone call from the Johnson County board of health that all three of them had tested positive for the virus.

They were told to quarantine at their home.

The next day, Wahlen woke up with more severe symptoms. The 91-year-old could hardly breathe or move.

Mary called the board of health and was directed to take her mom to the hospital. At first, the person on the phone offered to send an ambulance, but Mary declined for fear they would infect the paramedics or the firemen when they arrived.

When Mary and her mom arrived at the hospital, she was allowed to stay with her mother.

“They had told me I could stay with her in her room because she was scared and she said 'Will you not leave me?' and I said 'No I will stay with you' and we got permission that I could stay with her if she was admitted,” Mary said.

After Wahlen was brought in, they were told she had pneumonia and she was put on oxygen. Mary was then told she could no longer stay.

“She said 'I know that this is the best thing' so I kissed her goodbye and told her how much I loved her and that and then he came and picked me up,” Mary said.

At that time, ICU Nurse Tayla Nidey became the family’s lifeline.

“So Tayla called me twice a day she called me around 10 in the morning and then around 5,” Mary said.

Nidey said initially it was very scary when Wahlen came in. The woman was the first patient she treated for COVID-19.

“I just remember there was a lot of confusion, everyone was scared," Nidey said. "There was a lot of anxiety because we didn’t really know what we were walking into. If you walk into a room with someone with tuberculous you know what to expect, you know what to wear. We weren’t sure if what we were wearing was adequate. We were going by a guideline and we think this will work. There wasn’t really a time though to hesitate and let those fears come in at the moment."

Nidey said a lot of that fear and anxiety were taken away by Wahlen. Although she was a patient, she was comforting the staff members who were treating her.

“Whenever she saw fear in someone else, she would reach out and even though you are gowned up, in all this stuff, and you have two layers of gloves on, she would reach out and touch your hand and tell you it’s going to be ok, everything is going to be ok," Nidey said. "And you just felt this warmth and you were like ok, yes we’re going to be ok, we’re going to get through this."

“Which is so my mom, my mom was a strong woman as far as looking at the positive of everything,” Mary said.

When the time came, Wahlen made the choice not to be placed on a ventilator. It was a choice her family supported.

Much of Mary's family was able to go see Wahlen in full PPE gear before she passed away. Mary was still in quarantine so she saw her mom over FaceTime for the last time.

“Tayla called me again and said 'Your mom has gone under, and the hearing is the last to go' and she said 'I want you to talk to your mom,'" Mary said. "So I talked to her and told her how much I loved her and how much I so enjoyed her being here and living with us and thanked her for everything she’d done as a mom and Tayla said ‘I know she can hear you she’s squeezing my hand.'"

Emily Wahlen passed away on March 17, 2020. The 91-year-old, the first person to die from the virus at Franciscan Health and the second person to die from the virus in the state.

Since then, staff at Franciscan Health have treated around 2,000 COVID-19 patients. Nidey said she thinks of Wahlen with every COVID-19 patient she treats.

“One of our greatest things that we can do in our job as healthcare workers is to be the light in someone’s darkest hour and I feel like ironically that patient was a big light in our scariest moments as healthcare workers,” Nidey said.

And while Nidey found comfort in Wahlen, Mary found comfort in Nidey.

“And I was so grateful and thankful that my mom had Tayla with her," Mary said. "You couldn’t have picked a better person to be with her. Tayla is not only a hero but a guardian angel for my mom."

Wahlen’s family was unable to have the funeral Wahlen had planned for herself. The 91-year-old had paid for, picked out her clothes and songs for her service ahead of time as to not leave any burden on her loved ones. However, the funeral home told the family they would not do anything with Wahlen because she had died from COVID-19. While the family did not get that closure, Mcqueen finds peace knowing her mother passed away holding someone’s hand and is now safely in heaven.