Jakob Tapley stood solemnly near his grandmother Saturday as seemingly everyone in Blitchton rolled past her home on Queen’s Way, just off Highway 80 a mile or so from where the Ogeechee River separates Bryan and Effingham counties.
“If there’s anything to learn from this whole experience, almost four months long, it’s that miracles are real,” he said. “They do happen.”
Should you doubt, the proof sat nearby in a wheelchair on a day bright with sunshine and smiles, as Shirley Hogan greeted those who turned out to welcome her home after a 105-day battle with COVID-19 that isn’t quite over yet.
“I have such mixed emotions,” she said, at some point after the last vehicle had slipped past and her front yard filled with well wishers. “I am so happy to be home.”
There was, Shirley’s daughter Sherry Tapley said, an 80 percent chance her mother would not recover, would instead become another victim to the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed nearly 400 lives in the Coastal Health District, including 16 in Bryan County.
Jakob, Sherry’s son, said his mother was his grandmother’s best advocate through it all, the person who took one for the family and stayed on doctors and nurses to make sure Shirley was looked after while taking the weight off her father, David Hogan.
“She bore the weight of a lot of responsibility,” Jakob said, assuming roles that included keeping her mother’s wide network of friends and family at Olive Branch Baptist Church informed through social media, with daily Facebook updates that began July 17 and continue on now.
“It was pretty grim, for a lot of days,” Sherry said. “They gave her a 15- to 20 percent chance of survival. There were a lot of tears, some days. A lot of days.”
His wife’s sickness seemed in a way to come out of nowhere and get worse in a hurry, David said. And then the world went sideways.
“On July 14 we put her in the hospital. I kissed her on the head, and a couple days later they had her in the ICU, and it just went down from there.”
Before that day, Shirley, a retired florist who owned and operated Flowers N Things from her home for nearly 30 years before retiring in 2016, knew something was wrong but thought it was an upper respiratory infection.
That led to a visit over the July 4 weekend to an Apple Care because her doctor’s office was closed, which led to a test for COVID, which resulted in a letter telling her she was positive and “thanking me for using their facilities,” Shirley recalled. “I remember opening that letter … and about 90 days later I woke up. There was a male nurse rubbing my hands because they were so swelled, I didn’t even recognize them being my hands.”
It’s a chronology that spanned late summer and then fall, going from July into October and includes being moved from St. Joseph’s ICU and a ventilator to Candler rehab and later to Jacksonville for more rehab after her trache was removed.
Along the way, there were dreams that didn’t make sense and conversations she doesn’t remember, but Shirley said she saw multiple signs God was answering prayers and said she never thought she wouldn’t make it home.
“You hear all the time that when people have a near death experience they see Jesus,” she said. “I never saw that, so I know God wasn’t finished with me. I knew I still had something to do. Whatever he’s got in store for me has yet to be done.”
Now, the next task Shirley sees on her post hospital to-do list is to get out of her wheelchair and walk again.
“They think it will take about four weeks, that’s what the therapist said,” Shirley said.
That would put her back on her feet around the end of November or early December.
“She’ll be out of that chair before you know it,” David said. “She’s a strong woman.”
Saturday’s parade, with its hugs and horns honking, was the latest in a stream of days in which kindness and caring was the rule for the Hogan and Tapley families.
“We have had a huge, huge, huge support system with prayer, with bodies, and we never would’ve made it without all the support, love, prayers, meals, friendships,” Sherry said.
There also are Sherry’s longtime friends Cristy Sehr and Victoria Pape, who organized the parade in a matter of days after Shirley’s return home.
There were the people who packed into those 35 cars and pickups and golf carts, and those who followed Shirley’s illness and recovery online, including some from as far away as Finland.
Overwhelming it was, Shirley said, and overwhelming was a word used often Saturday morning. “My family has been wonderful, friends just overwhelm me with their kindness,” Shirley said. “I am so, so blessed.”
And, she said she knows the odds were stacked against her. But what are odds when you have faith everything will work out the way God wants it to.
“They said I had a 20 percent chance to live,” Shirley said. “They don’t know the good Lord like I do.”