By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published March 18, 2021
ATLANTA—In early March of last year, Allana Ann Joseph and her family were very ill. Her symptoms were a cough, fever, body aches, chills, loss of taste and smell and fatigue.
Unable to take COVID-19 tests due to limited supply, the doctor’s office told the family to remain at home and treat their symptoms like the flu. The family included Anita, Joseph’s mother whom she lives with, sister Christa, brother-in-law Michael and their five children who visit almost daily.
“It took about two weeks to recover from most of the symptoms,” said Joseph, who is the Life Teen and confirmation prep coordinator at St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn. “I felt extremely fatigued for at least another five days after all the other symptoms disappeared.”
When the family volunteered for a COVID-19 antibody test in late April, they tested positive. The limited medical help Joseph and her family received indicated to her “that this situation was beyond our control and that it would only get worse,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended life for over a year. Businesses have closed resulting in job and income loss. The elderly and those living alone have been isolated. Schools moved to remote learning. Gatherings and events have been cancelled or moved to an online format. Churches were closed for months before opening at limited capacity. Masks and social distancing have become part of everyday life outside of the home.
In the United States, there have been nearly 30 million cases of COVID-19. Of those, there have been a little more than a million cases in Georgia.
“Until the pandemic, relational teen ministry meant something completely different from what it does now,” said Joseph. “We were constantly telling our teens to put away their phones and get off the internet. [Now] we are the ones making cute videos for them to watch, encouraging them to watch Father Mike Schmitz on YouTube.”
Joseph meets with the teens in person and virtually. Working with them has helped her as she struggled with her faith this past year.
“Witnessing the teens and how they continued to have faith despite all the craziness going on in the world brought me out of my depression,” she said. “Through it all, I saw them praise God when their prayers were answered and grieve with each other when someone close to them passed. They were learning what true community was and I could not be prouder.”
Long-haulers get second chances
In June 2020, Rafaela Ortiz Rivera, 53, parishioner at Our Lady of the Americas Mission in Lilburn, was unable to receive her COVID-19 test results before being admitted to the hospital due to health concerns.
She tested positive for the coronavirus and spent 49 days in the hospital. At one point, she was on a ventilator and feeding tube.
When she came back home in August, she couldn’t move on her own or walk, said her daughter Laura Alcantara. She lost a lot of weight and had to get physical therapy to regain her strength, she said. Rivera was unable to go to the bathroom and shower on her own.
Rivera’s husband Daniel Alcantara and their other daughter, Kendra, also caught COVID-19. Daniel was in the hospital for three days.
While it’s been a difficult journey, Rivera believes “God has given me hope and strength, a second chance at life to be here and present.” She hopes people continue to pray that God will help and protect all of humanity.
Chuck Paulus is called “Chuck 2.0” by his family after his long battle with the coronavirus. March 19 will be one year since he was admitted to the hospital due to complications. He was in the hospital and medical facilities for more than 120 days.
After staying with his son for a while, Chuck returned home with his wife Nancy a couple of weeks ago. It’s been excellent to be back home, he said.
Chuck doesn’t have recollection of the surgeries and complications he experienced during those months, including being on a ventilator and kidney failure. For him, it was “a big nap.” During that time, his family contracted and recovered from the virus and his granddaughter, Charlotte Rose, was born.
Since being home, Chuck is an “Opa” again, as his grandchildren affectionately call him. He’s been going to Mass at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, where they have been parishioners for nearly 40 years. Chuck is thankful for those who prayed for him during his illness.
“When you look at where he should be after all he’s been through, absolutely he’s a miracle,” said his daughter, Brandee Hanes.
Struggle leads to connection
Not being able to attend Mass at St. Theresa of the Child Jesus in Douglasville was difficult for Deacon Carl Taylor and his wife, Angela, while their daughter, Erica, struggled with COVID-19.
In June of last year, Erica Taylor, 32, had a headache, nausea and dry cough, which she believed to be a sinus infection and stomach issues simultaneously. A lawyer for a nonprofit that helps low-income families with landlord issues, she took a coronavirus test as a precaution before heading to the courthouse for a case. She tested positive on June 19.
After the positive test, Taylor started having more symptoms, including fever, fatigue, brain fog and body aches. She had to give up her dog because she was unable to care for her canine companion. She went to the emergency room several times due to severe symptoms.
“Those moments of waiting, not knowing if she’s going to be admitted or what’s going to happen, it’s just like a horrific experience, especially as a father,” said Deacon Taylor. “This is my baby girl.”
Taylor began sharing her experience with COVID-19 on Facebook to help others and share information about the virus. She later started a blog called, “Fighting COVID” where she shares her triumphs and struggles of being a long-hauler, those with lingering coronavirus symptoms for more than a month.
Even though she still suffers from brain fog, Taylor looks forward to returning to work within the next few weeks. She has been doing mental exercises to help with brain function and is taking medicine to help her stay awake and alert while working.
While Taylor grew up in the Douglasville parish with her family, she has found support through the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. She became an official parishioner more than a week ago.
“Without my faith, I really don’t know if I would be making it through,” said Taylor. “There just came a point where I’ve done everything that I can humanly do … but there’s just an aspect of this that is beyond me, and it’s my job to surrender and trust that God will get me through this and lead me through it to whatever end.”
The Taylor family considers Erica to be God’s warrior.
“We know how blessed we are, this could’ve been different,” said Deacon Taylor. “We’re not going to take this for granted.”
For Paul Caruso, 78, who leads the prison ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta, the memory of his month and a half in the hospital does not exist. His challenge in early March was retraining his muscles to walk.
“I have no memory, I have no memory of going into the coma, no memory of being on the ventilator,” he said from Roswell Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
Caruso was admitted on New Year’s Eve to Wellstar North Fulton Hospital. At the same time, his daughter and son-in-law were battling their own COVID virus. He improved enough within days to consider recuperating at home, then his health plummeted.
Angela Caruso Phillips, the oldest of his three daughters, said the family didn’t expect him to survive. The family and Caruso agreed to use a ventilator to help his breathing for two weeks, but then let nature take its course. Doctors encouraged the family even as the care stretched to six weeks.
Family, friends, former inmates and others recorded prayers, favorite music and words of support on a MP3 player for the 78 year old. He listened while unconscious.
“Everybody came together, especially in prayer. Every day on Facebook, every day we were giving updates to everybody and there were so many people reaching out in prayer I mean, we had prayer warriors,” Phillips said.
Caruso said his experience has shown him the power of intercessory prayer. He’s gotten more than 100 cards from people whose lives he has touched.
“I feel good. God is good, all the time,” he said.
Even though the majority of people who contract the virus survive it, thousands of families in the U.S. are grieving the loss of family members and friends.
Nyrva Cadet, parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta, spoke to her mother, Brigitte Synsmir, several times a day. Synsmir was homebound with a home aid and living in New York with Cadet’s father, Jacques.
Being a diabetic, Brigitte was very independent and took care of many of her needs. But one day, when she was unable to stay awake long enough to check her blood sugar, the family knew something was wrong. She was taken to the hospital on April 25 where she tested positive for the coronavirus. Jacques’ health started to deteriorate, and he was taken to the hospital two days later.
Brigitte died on April 30 at the age of 82. Because of strict hospital rules, her family was unable to be with her.
We tried to get last rites for her, but there were no chaplains or priests, said Cadet.
“It hurts because my mom was such a devout Catholic, and for her to die that way was one of the most painful things for us.”
A few weeks later, after finally locating a funeral home, the family found a priest to celebrate the funeral Mass. Of the Synsmirs’ seven children and their families, only one of Cadet’s sisters, her husband and nieces who lived in New York were able to attend the funeral in person. The rest of the family was able to watch the service via Facetime, as online streaming wasn’t available.
Jacques, 86 at the time, was in the hospital with COVID-19 complications when his wife died. The family didn’t tell him the news of her death in fear of his health declining. When he was released a month later, the family told him the news. He was able to attend her interment.
I know my mother is with God, said Cadet.
“I know she’s in a better place, I know that. But I miss my mother so much. It’s going to be a year, and it’s still very, very difficult for all of us.”
Keeping Brigitte’s memory alive, the family plays Beethoven’s Mass in C major, one of their mother’s favorites. Whenever there was a crisis, in addition to prayer, she would play Mass in C, said Cadet.
Cadet’s daughter, Danielle, would ask her grandmother questions, tape them and load them to Instagram. In these videos, Brigitte would give advice on life and tell stories.
“We have that also to look back at and remember, to see her vivid and alive,” said Cadet. “Those things are there to help us keep going.”
Months later, Cadet was exposed to the coronavirus by a colleague at a clinic where she worked as a nurse anesthetist. Not knowing of her exposure, she gathered with her immediate family to celebrate Christmas. Her husband, children and grandchildren were exposed, all having different symptoms. The family has fully recovered.
“There’s still a lot for us to learn about this disease,” said Cadet. “We still need to continue to take precautions.”
Writer Andrew Nelson contributed to this story.