WILLISVILLE, Ill. — After spending two months inside medical facilities and nearly dying from COVID-19, Brandon Pendergrass left his rehabilitation facility in Sikeston on Monday and headed straight to the nearby home of his sister-in-law.
For the first time, he held his baby niece, born just before he ended up in an emergency room. She slept calmly in his arms, wearing a big pink bow for the occasion.
Brandon, 29, and his wife, Emily Pendergrass, 28, then made the nearly two-hour drive to their home in Willisville, Illinois, where they re-created Halloween.
She made chili. They looked at pictures of his 13-year-old niece and 8-year-old nephew in their costumes and ate candy. They planned to watch scary movies but chose a comedy instead.
The next day, Brandon got his first proper haircut and shave, losing the beard and returning to his normal clean-shaven self. His mom plans to remake Thanksgiving dinner for him soon.
Brandon was determined to not lose another moment to COVID-19 and make it home before Christmas, a major feat since he had to build strength to even walk again.
“That was his goal. He would say that to every therapist that would come in, so they would work really, really hard to make it happen,” Emily said. “He had missed so much, his niece, Thanksgiving …” Their anniversary.
Emily put up a Christmas tree for the first time in their three-year marriage. They usually don’t bother because they spend the holiday at their parents’ homes, but this year they were staying put, celebrating by wearing matching Christmas pajamas, shopping online for furniture and making his favorite Rotel cheese dip.
“I’m just happy to be here, to be home,” Brandon said.
Faith in Jesus has been engrained in Brandon and Emily’s lives. Brandon’s grandparents were pastors. His dad is a pastor. Emily also grew up in the church. The couple first met as teenagers at a youth convention.
Brandon volunteers as the youth pastor at his father’s church, Tri-County Pentecostal Church. He plays the drums. Emily plays the piano and does a lot of the administrative work.
To welcome Brandon home, their church family put up a dozen yard signs around his house. The messages read: “Christmas wouldn’t be the same without our drummer boy Brandon” and “Our Christmas miracle has arrived home.”
The devastation of COVID-19 would test the strength of their faith, however. In July, the disease took the lives of Emily’s aunt and her husband. A week later, Brandon lost his grandfather, which they also blame on COVID-19.
The infection would spread through their families, but it left Brandon, despite his young age, fighting for his life and his young bride scared she would never see him again.
“There for a while, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had a lot of questions,” Brandon said. “Why am I here? Why me?”
Tell her goodbye
Brandon and Emily began to feel sick two days after attending a small baby shower for Emily’s sister. They were among six of her family members who tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the party.
While Emily had a fever and was tired at first, she began to feel better as the days went on. Brandon, however, got worse.
“Each day, another symptom would hit,” he said. “By the 11th day, I couldn’t stand.” They had a pulse oximeter, a fingertip device that uses small beams of light to measure oxygen levels in a person’s blood. His was 78. Normal is 95 to 100.
On Oct. 21, Emily drove her husband 30 minutes to the emergency room at St. Joseph Memorial Hospital in Murphysboro, Illinois, with his parents following behind them.
They waited in their cars in the parking lot as he went in. Within minutes, a doctor told Brandon they had to sedate him and insert a breathing tube.
“I had no idea what was happening. I just knew it was a serious situation, seeing the look on the doctor’s face,” Brandon said. “They called my wife and basically told me to tell her goodbye.”
He called Emily and told her what was happening. He said he was scared, he loved her.
Emily was confused. She hadn’t even heard from a nurse or a doctor yet. “It’s OK. I love you too,” she told her husband. “I’ll call and talk to the nurse. I’ll see you in a little bit.”
Nightly text messages
Paramedics immediately took Brandon by ambulance another 15 minutes away to Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, where smaller hospitals in the 16-county southern Illinois region refer patients.
He was only there a day. Even with a breathing tube, Brandon was still struggling. He needed an ECMO machine, which the hospital didn’t have.
The machine — ECMO is an abbreviation for “extracorporeal membrane oxygenation” — does the work of the heart and lungs. Through tubes inserted into the neck or groin, blood is sent through the machine, were it takes out carbon dioxide and adds oxygen.
Brandon was flown by helicopter to SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital. Doctors there tried to avoid using ECMO because of how invasive it is.
“We tried to do our best adjusting ventilator and optimizing his blood pressure, but all these maneuvers were failing in his case,” said cardiologist Dr. Elsayed Abo-Salem. “The damage to his lungs was that severe, that even with the ventilator at the maximum degree of support, it was not working.”
Brandon’s heart had nearly stopped before they hooked him up to the machine, Abo-Salem said.
As the days stretched on, Brandon had to get a tracheotomy, an incision in his neck, so he could get oxygen to his lungs through a tube into his windpipe. He had a feeding tube inserted directly through his belly. Surgeons put a filter inside a major vein to his heart, to keep out blood clots that had riddled his body.
At one point, he was being considered for a lung transplant.
Emily kept his cellphone. She knew he couldn’t respond, but she texted her husband every night before she went to bed.
She would tell him what the doctors and nurses did to him that day and what was going on in the world. There was the election and the days of counting votes. She gave him updates about their family.
On Nov. 11, she wished him a happy anniversary.
“It breaks my heart not to be with you. You mean the world to me. We will get through this,” she typed. “I love being married to you.”
No one makes her laugh like he does. She loves their movie nights. She loves how they play games, go shopping and run to Huck’s together for a Dr Pepper.
“I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you,” she wrote. “Hurry home.”
‘Not my will, but yours’
A week after he went into the hospital, Brandon’s mom, dad, and all of his three sisters also got COVID-19.
It was a torturous three weeks, said Brandon’s father, Billy Pendergrass, 61, who lives in nearby Percy, Illinois. His wife and one daughter were hospitalized, but Brandon was by far the worst.
“We didn’t know if we were going to have our boy back, or what kind of boy if he did come back,” Billy said.
The hardest part was not being able to visit his son.
“That was our greatest pain, knowing he was up there all alone,” Billy said. “That was our deepest sorrow. We could not be with him.”
The pandemic has brought tragedy unlike anything his family and his congregation of nearly 150 have ever experienced, the pastor said.
“I’m so tired of death,” Billy said. “I’ve done more funerals this year than I’ve done in the past six years.”
Some died of COVID-19, he said, while others’ deaths seemed hastened by loneliness and isolation — like his father’s.
Just before the pandemic hit, his father went into a veterans home in Oklahoma because of his worsening Alzheimer’s disease. Visitors were soon banned from coming in. Group activities shut down. He quickly deteriorated and died within five months, Billy said.
How quickly the virus spread through the Pendergrass family, and how sick it made Brandon despite his young age, was a wake-up call for many in the congregation, Billy said. Brandon was overweight but had no underlying health conditions.
People began wearing masks, the pastor said. They gained perspective. They grew closer.
“It just makes you more appreciative of your loved ones,” Billy said. “I really want my kids to hear from me every day how much I love them. It has affected people like that.”
Billy said he and his wife understand that children are just “loans from God,” and if he takes them, they shouldn’t question.
“But at the same time,” he said, “you really learn what you are made of, ya know?”
The pastor thinks about Jesus, scared of the suffering he was about to endure on the cross, praying in the garden, “Father, not my will, but yours be done.”
It is difficult to get to that point, Billy said. It’s hard to focus on God in the middle of a storm.
“If you see him, you are going through it right. If you don’t see him, it’s all in vain. You can become bitter. You can become distraught,” he said. “You have to be able to see the Lord in the midst of it, and when you do, that’s when help comes.”
‘I will sing Hallelujah’
Despite setbacks and complications, Brandon’s lungs slowly started to heal. After nearly four weeks on ECMO, doctors removed him from the machine. He was able to breathe on his own through his tracheotomy.
A couple days later, Brandon woke up. He had no idea a month had gone by.
Ten days later on Dec. 1, he was transferred from SLU Hospital to Landmark Hospital in Cape Girardeau, where he had the tube into his windpipe removed. He slowly started to breathe on his own. He began to talk and eat again.
He was moved on Dec. 13 to Missouri Delta Medical Center in Sikeston. That’s where he struggled to walk longer distances, ride a stationary bike, climb stairs and strengthen his arms.
These were difficult times. It was Brandon’s storm, and he wondered what God was trying to tell him.
Before he got sick, he and Emily had already felt lost. Sunday church services were being held virtually. Wednesday night activities for children were canceled altogether.
As youth pastor, he felt like he couldn’t get to know or help the struggling teens. The couple prayed for purpose in their lives and ministry.
“I hit a low point in my life where I didn’t know what to do,” Brandon said.
As he struggled through his rehabilitation, Brandon talked to his mentors in the church. He turned to scripture like Psalms 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …” He listened to music, especially one song, “I will sing Hallelujah.” He prayed.
Hundreds of supportive letters and texts from people he met throughout his life poured in. He had affected people’s lives in ways he never knew, he said.
He realized that that no matter what he goes through, he is going to praise God. He and Emily put their fate in the Lord’s hands, and it gave them peace.
“I’m not saying that God gave me COVID,” Brandon laughed. “But I believe he allowed what happened to me to show me that I could trust him … and believe me, that’s hard. It really is sometimes.”
Michele Munz • 314-340-8263 @michelemunz on Twitter firstname.lastname@example.org