Juanita Moran didn't have the classic signs of COVID-19.
The petite 99-year-old had been in good health until early November, when she started sleeping all day and eating only a few bites. Her seven children, who had been taking shifts caring for her around the clock for more than a year, were heartbroken when a hospice nurse surmised that she likely had only days to live — and surprised when she tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Adding to their worries, nine of Moran's children and their spouses confirmed one after another that they, too, had caught the potentially deadly virus.
"Those were awful weeks," her daughter Marie Zellner recalled.
Now, two months later, family members are grateful that all have safely recovered — something of a miracle, in their eyes — and want to warn others to take the virus seriously, even as the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 has declined since peaking late last year.
On Sunday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported 2,165 new coronavirus cases and 44 more deaths due to complications from COVID-19. Since the virus started infecting Minnesotans last March, the state has reported 436,572 positive cases, 22,763 hospitalizations and 5,707 fatalities.
"People, if they don't believe it can happen to them, as careful as you try to be, it can," said Zellner, as she sat at a kitchen table with her mother, whose eyes were bright once again as she talked about playing her accordion and making tortillas. "Once somebody gets it, the transmission is so easy."
Deeply loyal family
Moran's children couldn't bear to send her to a care facility when she developed health problems requiring round-the-clock care in 2019, Zellner said.
They had always been a close-knit St. Paul family, raised by parents who landed in Minnesota in the 1920s as children of migrant laborers from Mexico.
Moran and her husband instilled a deep loyalty to family.
"We're a large family and we have that, I think it's a cultural bond," a daughter, Yolanda Groess, said. "It's just something you grow up with and your parents are everything. You respect them and you love them and they take care of you and then when it comes time, we take care of them."
With six of the seven Moran siblings now retired, they organized a schedule to take shifts looking after their mother in son Vic's house in Cottage Grove. They helped her bathe and dress. They cooked for her and fed her. They kept track of her medications.
They listened to her reminisce about her own childhood, the oldest of 10 children who saw her parents struggle to find work during the Great Depression. She often tells the story of going with other families to the local landfill to scour for unsold food and goods that stores had thrown out.
"We lived from the store of the dump," Moran said recently with a chuckle, marveling at what was trashed. "Big crates with big heads of lettuce, big crates with tomatoes. I couldn't believe that they would throw out boxes of candy. We as children, we were glad we got those things ... oh, golly!"
Moran learned English in school and later translated for her parents, teaching them words and phrases along the way. The principal soon asked her to interpret for meetings with other families, and she found herself translating in jobs throughout her life, including while she worked as a nurse's aide, a department store clerk, a cafe cashier and a day-care center worker.
She and her husband raised their children in the Catholic faith and inspired them with a love for music and traditional dancing; Moran still plays the piano and accordion, though she sometimes struggles with dexterity.
Before Moran fell ill, her children talked often about how to keep her safe from COVID-19, siblings said.
They were careful not to allow visitors inside the house. The extended family of 99, including grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, had to see the matriarch through windows.
"We didn't want anybody to come over," Vic Moran said. "It's been the core of maybe eight people coming to help out."
And they were careful to venture out only for necessities, they said, staying socially distant and wearing masks.
They will likely never know exactly how the coronavirus crept into their bubble.
"We all tried to be as careful as you can be," Zellner added. "But that virus, it's a tricky one. It will find its way somehow."
Prepared for the worst
As Moran grew more lethargic, her children called a hospice service to bring comfort.
Allina hospice nurse Jen Hutcheson first visited the week of Nov. 15, she said, and Moran was "unresponsive on the couch."
"I expected her to pass away that week," Hutcheson said. "I had the whole family prepared."
For several days, they said, Moran slept most of the time and threw up what little she ate, dropping from just over 100 pounds to less than 90. With most of her children infected, a granddaughter continued to help care for her, and the family hired a personal care attendant.
A few relatives had mild symptoms while others felt knocked out and worried they would end up in the hospital.
Groess, 68, had a bad case — she was feverish, nauseous, coughing and aching so much that she spent most of a month on the couch or in bed.
Daughter Rebecca Moran Cusick, 62, fell ill for two weeks with pounding headaches, muscle aches and other symptoms.
"I think that was probably the most emotional part of being sick with COVID ... knowing that your mom is sick as well," she said.
As the family braced for their mother's last breath, they started to get word of more positive signs.
She was staying awake for longer periods of time. She was eating more. She wanted to change out of her pajamas. She wanted to do crossword puzzles.
Last week, Moran stood unassisted at the kitchen counter in her son's home, earrings dangling from her ears and the sleeves of her white bedazzled sweater pushed up. She rolled a small dowel over tortilla dough.
She doesn't really remember much of her miserable bout with COVID, her children said, and they are grateful.
"I haven't made these since I got a little sick there for a while," Moran said, flipping an uncooked tortilla from hand to hand to stretch it out. "I used to be fast ... when I was younger I could make 'em better."
Family members are relieved they made it through and have been told they are now likely immune, at least in the short term. The seven children gathered for New Year's Eve to play bingo with their mother.
But they plan to practice social distancing again soon, concerned their immunity may wear off.
"You get so scared because you do not want to get this again," Zellner said. "You don't want to spread it.
"We feel blessed," she said as she grabbed a warm, wet dish cloth to wipe tortilla flour off her mother's hands. "The biggest blessing is right here."