After beating virus, Michigan woman dies at age 101

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Livonia — The O'Brien siblings spent the last three months sitting outside their mother's nursing home window hoping that one day, they'd be able to take her home.

They say it was all planned out.

When the pandemic swept across the country in March, they decided on taking their 101-year-old mother, Jean O'Brien, from a Westland nursing home to a private residence to care for her. But it was too late, she had already tested positive for COVID-19.

Siblings, left to right, Terry O'Brien, 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.

"It was devastating for her," said her daughter, Megan. "I mean that really was her worst nightmare because it goes back to some of her childhood things including abandonment, and then going into a nursing home to begin with. ... She struggled for a long time."

The call to action brought Jean O'Brien's eight living children back to her from Las Vegas, New Jersey, Baltimore, North Carolina and Florida while she was kept under quarantine for the deadly respiratory disease.

Despite no longer testing COVID-19 positive earlier this month, Jean died peacefully on Friday, according to her family.

"She was no longer testing positive, but the damage it had done to her systems was too great," said Megan, 59, Jean's youngest daughter.

The daughters were allowed in one at a time to see their mother, Jean O'Brien, after she was moved into hospice.

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 as they were at sites statewide under an order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

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

"She doesn't do well with isolation and being on lockdown there, she stopped eating, she stopped drinking, she started spiraling down the drain," said her son, Pat, 72, who drove 49 hours from Seattle.

The family recently filed a complaint with the state questioning its reporting of cases and challenging whether there was adequate protective equipment, ventilation and separation between COVID patients.

In early June, she was taken to Angela Hospice Care in Livonia, which "was truly a gift," said daughter Denise Watkins, 68.

101-year-old Jean Schmitt O'Brien smiles at her children standing outside her window at the Angela Hospice Care Center in Livonia.

"Angela was our lifesaver. They couldn't go out of their way more for us to see our mom," Watkins said. "They would actually move the bed next to the window when we got there, so we could have interaction, and then when my mom recovered from COVID, we were able to actually go in and visit where we were able to sit by her side and hold her hand."

Jean loved board and card games, and was very competitive, her children say. In her final days, she could remember all the songs from the '30s and '40s. 

"No one could beat her at Scrabble or word games," Megan said. "She regularly played The Detroit News, The Word Game."

The siblings said their mother had a great sense of humor, cared for the small things, and loved her family more than anything.

Their only priority was to keep her from being alone.

“Never in a million years did I think I would not be able to visit my mom when she was in the nursing home or that she would catch COVID,” said another daughter, Ellen, 65. “And to think of all the other people in the nursing homes that are in lockdown. … They’re just alone.”

As of Saturday, 7,304 nursing home residents were confirmed to have the virus and 2,064 residents had died from it. Meanwhile, 5,419 have recovered. Nursing home staff has also been impacted with 3,217 cases and 21 deaths, according to state data.

The siblings plan to have a private immediate-family only funeral service on Sunday. They hope to gather at a beach house in North Carolina a year from now to celebrate their mother's life.

O'Brien was the matriarch of nine children, 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

From left, son-in-law Steve Watkins, daughter Denise Watkins, daughter Nancy O'Brien, son Terry O'Brien, daughter Megan O'Brien, son Pat O'Brien and daughter Ellen O'Brien, outside the Westland nursing home where 101-year-old Jean O'Brien, was cared for.

"Thank goodness we all had each other," Megan said.

"We are blessed that our mom had a great sense of humor, and we all have great humor. Even in the hardest of times, we've had some of the greatest laughs, just as a catharsis."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_