There have been days, Bob Mueller admits, when the family wasn't sure his 104-year-old mother had much longer to live. Especially that night about a week ago, just after Vera Mueller of Winona contracted COVID-19 and was placed on oxygen.
"It was about 9:30 p.m. and I sat there, watching her through the window" of her assisted living facility, said Bob Mueller, 70. "We didn't think she would make it. Then, I could see her lips moving. And I just knew she was saying her prayers. She prays every day."
Vera's faith, her son is convinced, pulled her through that darkest night.
"Her faith and her family," he said in a phone interview Friday. "That's what's kept her going all these years."
And by pulling through, Vera Mueller just may be the oldest person in the United States to survive the rapidly spreading COVID-19.
In an e-mail Friday, Kris Ehresmann, director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control at the Minnesota Department of Health, said she can't comment on individual cases.
But Ehresmann confirmed that the oldest person to contract the disease in Minnesota is 104. And, she wrote, while the CDC doesn't provide a range of ages for cases nationwide, and she "can't say 104 is the oldest case of COVID-19 in the U.S., I would be willing to say it is right up there!"
An Oregon man and World War II veteran, William "Bill" Lapschies, also is 104 and survived the virus.
But his birthday is April 1. Vera Mueller has Lapschies by nine days — she was born March 23.
For her birthday, Vera's family and friends from church made signs and gathered balloons, flowers and a cake. Because of safety precautions, they had to stand outside of Sauer Health Care in Winona — 6 feet apart — where Vera lives while staff members took pictures. Two days later, on March 25, she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
On March 28, her temperature was starting to fall. By April 6, the fever was gone.
Earlier this week, Vera Mueller was moved out of quarantine and back into her room. She never left the care center. She was never put on a ventilator.
And she needed no medication beyond Tylenol for her fever and body aches, her son said.
She remains weak, her son said, but she appears to be out of danger.
"She's 104 years old. She's wearing out," Bob Mueller said. "She survived the virus here and everything. But she's just worn out. It's going to take a long time to build back up."
In the 104 years since she was born in Plainview, Minn., Vera Mueller has survived a flu pandemic, a Great War, a Great Depression, a second World War and now, another pandemic. Along the way, she and her husband, Gerhard, who died in 1992, raised three children. She has six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
A devoted member of 100-year-old St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Winona, Vera Mueller volunteered for years in her community. Renowned for her rosettes and Christmas cookies, she helped out at the Sauer center, bringing treats and helping residents make arts and crafts. She moved there 12 years ago.
Now that she's out of danger, family members have resumed regular visits — although they are still talking to her through a window after calling ahead. And they're planning a proper birthday party, once everyone can get together in the same room again, "even if it's July or August," Bob Mueller said.
For now, he added, they're simply thankful for his mother's faith and resilience, and for the care center staff who have been by her side for every day of her ordeal.
"We can't say enough in praise of them," Bob Mueller said of the aides and nurses. "They're great in our books."