Carolyn Harris watches a parade in her honor after surviving COVID-19.
Everything about the birthday party for a 1 year old was perfect.
Mickey’s Clubhouse was set up inside a Greenville venue; a few dozen friends and family mingled.
But within days, about a dozen of the partygoers tested positive for COVID-19, which in mid-March, few people knew much about. The first two South Carolinians were diagnosed days before the party, on March 6, one in Charleston County, the other in Kershaw.
In Greenville, Denice Harris, 52, was at the party and was among the first in her county to contract the virus. She was followed by her 68-year-old mother, Carolyn Harris, whose case was so severe she almost died.
Their story, played out over several months, demonstrates how resilient South Carolinians have been in a time of uncertainty. It’s a story about the faith of a family and the work of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who have continually chanced their own lives against a virus that turns the body’s immune system against itself and knows no enemies.
Denice Harris stayed maybe an hour or two at the party that Saturday. Come Monday, she felt like she had come down with her annual bout with the flu. She felt so tired all she wanted to do was cover up with a blanket and lie on the couch. Her son, Cameron, tried to get her to eat, but she pushed him away.
She felt dehydrated, so her mother brought Gatorade. Carolyn Harris rushed into her daughter’s house and put it on the counter, far away from her daughter. Carolyn, too, often got the flu despite her annual shot, and she didn’t want any of that.
The next day, Denice had a fever, aches and pains, so Cameron took her to the doctor for a flu test. Negative, the doctor said, but probably a false negative. At home for a week, she lapsed into a feverish haze, and a headache and joint pains grew severe.
Then she couldn’t breathe.
Panicked, Denice’s son took her to Bon Secours St. Francis Medical Center but had to drop her off — no hospital visitors allowed, as medical centers across the state had begun taking strict precautions against the novel coronavirus. Cameron drove away not knowing what was going to happen to his mother.
Hospital staff immediately gave her oxygen and X-rayed her chest.
Denice settled down, the oxygen soothing her. Then, the medical staff came back wearing masks and gowns, covered from head to toe. The image was jarring.
“You more than likely have COVID,” she recalls the doctor saying.
Her mind began to do what it always does when faced with a problem — she calls it over-analyzing.
She had heard people in China and New York had the coronavirus, but Greenville?
Dr. Marcus Blackstone, chief clinical officer at Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, acknowledged later they didn’t know a lot about this virus then.
“It was a learning process for us all,” he said, not the least of which was something as basic as what medicines to administer.
Denice Harris wondered: What this would do to her, and even more frightening, would she ever go home?
The hospital transferred her from St. Francis Eastside to the downtown hospital, where the eighth floor was set up for COVID patients.
IVs and oxygen in place, Denice tried to rest. But her labored breathing — like something heavy on her chest — made for a restless sleep. Panic set in.
All she could think was, “Now it’s in my body.”
She was quite sick, the doctor told her.
Blackstone said doctors had no prescribed treatment for COVID-19 in those early days and relied on drugs used for lung ailments.
Her family brought her things from home and dropped them off downstairs. Most prized was her pillow.
She was alone, her iPad the only connection to her close-knit family. Daily, her condition improved, her body fought off the virus.
She talked to her mother, Carolyn, on the phone often. In one conversation, Carolyn complained of sinus trouble; she just didn’t feel well.
Denice was released from the hospital after seven days, a Tuesday, weak, but uplifted.
Then on Thursday, April 2, Denice’s niece took Carolyn to the hospital. Carolyn had not gone to the birthday party yet was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Denice worried she had exposed her mother. Unlikely, people told her. Carolyn worked at a mortuary; any number of people could have infected her.
Fear rose when, the next day, in an early-morning call, the family learned Carolyn’s condition had rapidly worsened overnight. She was in the ICU, on a ventilator and sedated.
Carolyn often told her family members when they were ill, “Don’t let the bed take your strength.” Keep going. Now she could not.
Fifteen years before, doctors said pancreatic cancer would kill her in six months. Could she pull off another miracle?
“We’re a small but close family,” Denice said, listing them off, her son, daughter, sister and sister’s son, brother and his wife and two children. “We prayed every day.”
Carolyn’s prognosis was bad, the doctor said.
“We’re not optimistic,” the doctor reiterated. Carolyn had the worst case of the COVID patients in the hospital.
Denice called five times a day to talk to the morning- and evening-shift nurses. She showed the nurses her mother’s picture. Her mother was a strong woman who spent a career as a certified nursing assistant. Carolyn could live in retirement for only a year before she began driving families to the cemetery and answering the funeral home phone, anything to be useful.
“This lady,” Denice told the nurses. “This lady here. She waited on patients for 30 years. That lady up there is well loved, well respected.”
“I wanted them to see her as more than a patient,” Denice said.
It was all she could do. Waiting was not easy. Were they waiting for the end? Or for the next miracle?
One week on the ventilator. Two. Carolyn needed to get off. Every time the doctors tried, she almost died.
The family knew the percentage of people on ventilators who died was high — at one time 60%, now about 40.
The family missed Carolyn’s 69th birthday as well as Easter dinner with Denice’s roast beef or chicken and strawberry shortcake and Carolyn’s mac and cheese and potato salad. They missed their mother’s tea, so sweet they called it “diabetical” tea. They skipped dying eggs, a tradition they’ve kept even though all but one grandchild is grown.
Doctors performed a tracheotomy. Finally, Carolyn Harris could breathe without the machine.
Mother’s Day brought the first phone call. All the family gathered on a Zoom call from their own homes. Their mother could only listen, but what joy.
When Carolyn was transferred to Regency Hospital, a critical care unit also in St. Francis, her family then felt comfortable she would survive.
Her first COVID test out of the ICU was positive, though. Two, three, four tests, all positive.
Denice believed still that everything comes in God’s time. She could be patient.
Finally, she heard her mother say, “I’m COVID free.”
“I cried my eyes out,” Denice said.
Denice saw her mother for the first time after three months when she went for physical therapy training. She would take care of her mother. There was no way were they sending Carolyn to a nursing home.
That day, Denice walked into the room, straight to her mother’s bedside, leaned over and embraced her as if she would never let her go. Her mother hugged her right back.
Seventy-one days after she entered the emergency room, Carolyn Harris was released from St. Francis. Little did she know, a contingent of friends, doctors, nurses and family waited downstairs to celebrate her recovery.
The nurses told her how much they would miss her. They cheered and hugged.
Blackstone said it was the best day he has had in the hospital since the coronavirus came to stay.
“That was a big day for all of us,” he said. “You go home and you realize all of us really did a great job.”
The next day, Denise asked her mother if she wanted to get some fresh air on the porch. She wheeled her outside and before long, Carolyn heard sirens.
“What is going on?” she asked, shocked to see a fire engine and police car, lights and sirens on, and a contingent of her friends riding and walking by in a parade for another celebration. Up the street and back again.
It was June 12. Carolyn was home.
All of the people who tested positive after the March birthday party have recovered, Denice said.
In the weeks since her hospital stay, Denice Harris has made a full recovery. Physically, that is. Emotionally, she is changed. She has a new understanding of the fleeting nature of life, the goodness of people and God’s role.
“I am a religious person, but for anybody who has gone through this, if you don’t have a new perspective on life, something is wrong,” she said.
Her mother edges toward health. Immobility damaged the nerves in Carolyn’s ankles, leaving her with no feeling in her legs. She needs braces and a walker to get around. But that’s not stopping her.
Carolyn and Denice stay in the mother’s home. Their independence grows. Few people are allowed to visit — only family and a friend who stays with Carolyn when Denice needs to go into her office at Homes of Hope, where she is director of housing and property management.
For Carolyn, prayer remains the center of her life. She said she doesn’t remember anything from the time she was sedated except she dreamed she hit a nurse. Denice said that was likely when they tried to take her off the ventilator and she swatted it away.
Mother and daughter feel frustrated when they see people refusing to wear masks. It is a simple thing, they say.
Blackstone, too, is bothered when he treats patients who did the right things but were infected by people refusing to wear masks, stay home, keep six feet apart, wash their hands.
“This is preventable,” he said, “if people would just take this seriously.”
Lyn Riddle covers Greenville for The State. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado and an MFA from Converse College. She has worked for The Greenville News as an editor and reporter and for The Union Democrat as the editor. She is the author of four books of true crime.