The Transylvania Times -

Friends Help During A Tough Year – Brevard, NC

 

Last updated 11/9/2020 at 3:24pm

This year has been particularly challenging for Michelle Stuckey, but she appears to have turned a corner. (Times photo by Alex Perri)

If you met Brevard resident Michelle Stuckey for the first time today, you would have no idea she feared she was on her deathbed just a few months ago. If it wasn't for her supportive group of friends and neighbors, Stuckey said she is sure she would have died of COVID-19.

"It really hasn't been my year," she said.

In February, the 62-year-old Stuckey lost her companion of 13 years, Astro, a lab/Great Dane mix, to cancer. Then in March, she started coming down with COVID-19 symptoms, which later developed into a debilitating three-month long battle with the novel coronavirus. And in May, she found out she had breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy.

An African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child, but Stuckey said it took a village for her to survive 2020.

"Honestly, I swear to God they saved my life," she said. "I don't know what I would have done. Seriously. Because there's no way I could have fed myself. That ladies group did it, and my neighbors did it, and they were all just really amazing."

Stuckey has only been a resident here for three years, but in that time, she said she's found a tight-knit group of friends who lightheartedly call themselves the "Girls on Grapes" (for their love of wine). They took turns caring for her at a safe distance while she was too ill to care for herself.

The ladies, along with several of her neighbors from Glen Cannon, took turns bringing her cooked food, groceries and supplies to her doorstep and even mowing her lawn and taking out her trash, as she lives alone and her family live in different states. When she was searching for a way to thank them, she thought to reach out to the newspaper.

"I really don't want this to be about me. I want it to be about them," she said. "I just think that it would be good for all of them to know that their camaraderie, and the same with my neighbors, their effort that they put into me, really, really saved lives. And for me, if I did that, it would be so exciting, you know, to know that I really made a difference."

Stuckey was one of the first cases of COVID-19 in the community, and in the region, and said she was terrified to go through the disease with so much uncertainty. Due to the lack of tests in the area, she wasn't able to take a COVID-19 test while she was still ill, but she said she and her doctor are sure that is what she had. She had every symptom of COVID-19 before the symptoms were common knowledge – a dry cough, loss of smell and taste, foot pain, GI issues, extreme fatigue, body aches, low oxygen. All of it.

Stuckey is what doctors are now calling a "long hauler," someone who suffered from long-term COVID-19 symptoms. In March, she first started feeling sick with a fever and a cough. After about two weeks, she started feeling better and thought it might be going away, and that is when it "hit" her. Stuckey has Lupus, and said she's familiar with dealing with fatigue, but COIVD-19 was a kind of fatigue she had never experienced before. Even lifting her arm to grab the phone was too exhausting.

She said she doesn't remember much of her illness as she was asleep for much of the time.

For months, Stuckey lived as simply as she could. She left all of the daily essentials she needed on the counter because it was too exhausting to simply lift her arm to put a bowl back in the cabinet. She saved whatever energy she could by leaving things she needed within arms reach. Her friends would bring her meals she could easily reheat, and that was the only way she was able to eat. Oftentimes it was difficult for her to communicate, as she couldn't talk without triggering a coughing fit, so she relied on texting as much as possible.

One of the worst parts of her experience was watching the news, she said. She was too ill to even read, and so she had to rely on television news to get her information and not knowing what the situation was like in local hospitals was terrifying.

"Utterly frightening," she said. "So frightening. Because...nobody was speaking to me. And there were times where I wanted to call the news and say something, but I was too exhausted to make that my priority when I kept thinking this is really awful. It's like they're leaving the rest of us hanging. And especially those of us who were in a more rural community, where we didn't even have the tests. I didn't know what they had down (at the hospital.) Did they have the drugs? Did they even know how to treat anybody?...I didn't know. I felt so alone. I've never felt so alone in my life."

Since there was still so much unknown about the virus, Stuckey said she wasn't sure exactly how sick she was. She said she often had to catch her breath after walking a few steps into her kitchen, but she wasn't gasping for air. Her friend, Jaci Daley, goes to the same physician as Stuckey and brought up the idea of getting her an oximeter. Daley said she searched nearly every pharmacy in Brevard and Hendersonville to no avail and their physician, Dr. Trimble, eventually sent one with Daley to bring to Stuckey.

Later Daley brought Stuckey an oxygen machine from Dr. Trimble's office as well, which Stuckey said was the turning point in her illness.

"For me it was just really serendipitous to be able to help on that day and in that incident," Daley said. "(It was) a terrifying thought that without that oxygen, she could have been on death's door. I'm really grateful I was able to help that way."

When she really concentrated on breathing, Stuckey said her oxygen levels were near 88; a good reading is around 95. After getting oxygen, though, Stuckey felt like she had finally turned a corner. It would take months for her to regain her strength, but she felt like she was starting to get better after that point.

There were three times that Stuckey said she considered calling 911, and her doctor thought about sending her to the hospital on three different occasions. They both thought it would be best to stay at home, if she could, due to the poor outcomes at the time for patients on ventilators. Her weight dropped below 100 pounds. After she finally reached the other side of the COVID-19 virus though, Stuckey was faced with another monumental health challenge.

Prior to retiring, Stuckey sold chemotherapy drugs as a pharmaceutical representative.

She knew the early warning signs of cancer.

She had an appointment scheduled to get her annual mammogram in February before coming down with COVID-19, but due to equipment failures her appointment got rescheduled to April – an appointment that never occurred due to the pandemic.

As soon as she recovered enough from the virus to get her mammogram, Stuckey immediately went to get her cancer screening. The postponed mammogram found the early stages of breast cancer.

Stuckey then began the process of gaining weight so she could undergo surgery. She had a double mastectomy in May and said there is a low chance of the cancer returning since it was caught so early.

In spite of all the hardships she endured this year, the main emotion she wanted to convey was gratitude.

"Even though it's been a tough year, the outcomes have all been really wonderful," she said. "And so I am very grateful for all of that."

Her sister was able to help take care of her during her surgery after testing negative for COVID-19, and, little by little, she regained her strength.

Stuckey and her doctor know she will need to be more careful than the average person as the virus continues to circulate throughout the country, but she's been enjoying being out of total social isolation. Being able to spend time with friends, even if masked and at a distance, brings her much joy.

Recently, Stuckey was able to have an outdoor birthday party with her neighbors and fellow "Girls on Grapes."

"We were so grateful to have her feeling better and getting back to her old self," Daley said. "A few weeks ago, we had a little get together for her birthday, but we all sat outside on the ground on blankets 6 feet away with our masks on. Just to have seen her and her be well enough to have visitors and be willing to see people and get outside and enjoy the sunshine, it was a wonderful thing."

For all of their love and support, Stuckey said she would like to thank a long list of friends and neighbors: Lisa Kovacs, Lori Shook Tilden, Jaci Daley, Betsey Fletcher, Susie Wells, Luanne Allgood, Alice Moran, Joyce Witheridge, Mary Kay Mills, Sally McVay, Jane Wheeless, Marsha Stopa, Ann and Jon Limbird, The Roberts family, Mary Rodgers, Evelyn Horne, and her artist friend Marilyn.

"When someone is sick, everybody picks up the slack and just goes and helps," Stuckey said. "There is another person in the group right now who has breast cancer, and I know that they have helped her a lot and it's just one of those things that they do. And I don't know if it really sunk in, because I was in here and they saw how sick I was. I think there's probably maybe three or four who absolutely know because they really saw me...but I think the rest of the girls may not know. I think that maybe if they read it in the paper, I hope they're proud of themselves because they are really great people. I, honestly, I know without a doubt I would not be here. Without a doubt, I would not be here. Without a doubt."

 
 

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