Mom's COVID-19 case brings her 8 living kids back together

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

When Pat O'Brien's 101-year-old mother was diagnosed with COVID-19, he hopped in his car and drove 49 hours to sit outside her nursing home window in Westland.

O'Brien, 72, is the eldest of Jean O'Brien's eight living children, all of who filtered into Wayne County from Las Vegas, New Jersey, Baltimore, North Carolina and Florida to plant themselves in their mother's view and lift her spirits while she was kept under quarantine for the deadly respiratory virus. 

Siblings, Terry O'Brien, left, 67, of Charlotte, N.C., Ellen O'Brien, 65, of Baltimore, Md, Megan O'Brien, 59, of Rahway, N.J., Denise Watkins, 68, of Garden City, Nancy O'Brien, 63, of West Palm Beach, Fla., and Tom O'Brien, 62, of Livonia, stand arm in arm as they watch their 101-year-old mother, Jean Schmitt O'Brien, who sleeps in her bed at the Angela Hospice Care Center in Livonia.

Jean, who relied on regular visits from a daughter and son who live locally, and from family friends, was confirmed positive with the virus April 21. Prior to that, visits with loved ones at Four Chaplains Nursing Care Center in Westland were curtailed along with sites statewide under an order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

"She doesn't do well with isolation and being on lockdown there, she stopped eating, she stopped drinking, she started spiraling down the drain," Pat O'Brien said. 

Ellen O'Brien, right, taps her fingers against the glass to get the attention of her mother, Jean Schmitt O'Brien, left, who sleeps in her bed.

Once she was confirmed as positive, Jean was further isolated to a separate area in the facility. The family successfully advocated to have her placed in a street-level room. Her children, who all underwent testing before gathering together in Michigan in a rented Airbnb, spent their days outfitted in protective masks, tap dancing, singing songs and holding up handwritten notes, all to make her smile.

"It immediately improved my mother. She was better, animated, responding to signs (we were holding)," said Pat O'Brien, who returned to his Seattle home Tuesday after visiting for several weeks. "She's got nine children and the idea of her being stuck in a room by herself with nobody to be there with her, it just broke my heart."

Jean's had very mild symptoms of the virus, her family said, primarily a brief blip in her temperature that resolved with medication.

Megan O'Brien of New Jersey said her mother has poor hearing, so phone calls and Zoom conferencing as a means of communication were out of the question. 

"She was just cut off from her family," said Megan, 59, Jean's youngest daughter. "For my mom, that's like cutting off bread and water."

Megan O'Brien said her mother was being cared for at Four Chaplains since last August. The family recently had expressed concern over the center's alleged handling of COVID-19 and filed a complaint with the state over worries involving whether there was adequate protective equipment, ventilation and separation between COVID patients as well as its reporting of cases.

A spokeswoman for the center did not respond Friday to requests seeking comment. 

Four Chaplains reported 29 positive cases as of Friday, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services. 

David Harns, a spokesman for the state's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, confirmed in an email to The News, "we are investigating but cannot comment on an open investigation."

"When the investigation is over and the documentation is complete, the results will be publicly posted on our website," he wrote. "They aren’t available until that occurs."

Jean was moved Thursday to Angela Hospice in Livonia and spent Friday under the watch of her son Terry, who sat in the courtyard outside. Jean, her family said, is again in a room that will allow more family to gather. 

The siblings stood a safe distance from their mother as she was transported Thursday by stretcher into an ambulance to ride to the hospice care center, and waved from nearby as she arrived and went inside, Megan O'Brien said. 

As Jean O'Brien, 101, battled COVID-19, her children gathered from across the country to be near her.

The O'Brien children grew up in Livonia after the family bought a three-bedroom house with one bathroom for the 11-member crew when Pat O'Brien was young, he said. 

Their mother, who had a heart valve replacement in 1990 and later moved into assisted living facilities prior to nursing centers, has been under hospice care for several years due to her age. But she's persevered.

"Family has always been around to comfort her and be there," Pat O'Brien said. "It really helps her just to get some attention."

Jean was born during the second wave of the Spanish Flu and lived through the depression. She was "dirt poor," her daughter said, and spent her childhood fearful over being abandoned after her parents divorced.

"That was at the forefront of her thoughts when she went into a nursing home, the fear of being abandoned," Megan O'Brien said. "Then they went into quarantine and she was living her worst fear."

Although she had nine children at home, Jean went to secretarial school and found work at a carpenters union. Later in her life, she also earned a college degree in gerontology, her daughter said. 

 Megan and Pat said the family has always rallied together in times of crisis. When their brother Joe died of cancer in 2016, everyone made the trip to be at his side. The siblings surrounded his bed and placed their hands on him as he took his final breaths, his sister said. 

"We've found so much strength and support by being together," Megan O'Brien said. "My mom would be the first to tell you she loves her family, she's proud of her family and her family is everything."