Doctors said she wouldn’t survive COVID-19. After 25 days on a ventilator, she’s renewing her wedding vows

Grace Hauck, USA TODAY
·12 min read

MARYSVILLE, Wash. – Steve Jahn stood at the top of his driveway watching the final ambulance pull out. The first took his wife of 32 years two days before. The second took his father-in-law. The third, his mother-in-law.

It was eight weeks after the first known U.S. case of COVID-19 was reported in his home of Snohomish County, Washington.

He closed his eyes and prayed on the asphalt.

"The whole thing was surreal," said Jahn, 62, who sells ambulances and fire trucks. "It was the one, two, three succession of having all three of them go in a matter of three days."

For his wife, Peggy Jahn, 62, memories of that day are blurry – except for one. In the middle of the night, hours after she was rolled into a small isolation room at Providence Regional Medical Center, a doctor came in to deliver the news.

"You’re not going to survive this," Peggy recalled him saying. "Call your family. Let your family know that you’re not going to make it."

‘I’m not supposed to survive this’

Snohomish County natives Steve and Peggy Jahn met on a blind date in 1988. He was a single dad raising his son while working as a volunteer firefighter and emergency vehicles salesman. She was working for a marketing company in downtown Seattle.

"I found myself saying, 'I think I’m in love with you,' like a few weeks down the road," Steve said last week, as he sat clutching Peggy's knee and casting her a sidelong grin on their back patio. "We think it was inspired from above, to be honest with you, because there’s no other logical explanation for it, as is her recovery."

They barely spoke on their first date, but they felt the chemistry instantly. Steve invited Peggy over with a couple of friends and cooked hamburgers before taking her out to see "Die Hard." Within six months, they were married.

Peggy and Steve Jahn say their chemistry was instant. Six months after they met, they were married Jan. 21, 1989, in Edmonds, Wash.
Peggy and Steve Jahn say their chemistry was instant. Six months after they met, they were married Jan. 21, 1989, in Edmonds, Wash.

Peggy and Steve raised four kids together in Steve's childhood home on the Tulalip Tribes Reservation, overlooking Tulalip Bay in Snohomish County, just north of Seattle. Four years ago, they moved into a house farther inland, in Marysville, so Peggy's mom, Lillian Wattum, 95, and her husband, Howard Stiles, 90, could move in with them.

When their local hospital admitted the first known U.S. coronavirus patient Jan. 20, 2020, Peggy and Steve read about it in the newspaper. It was "weird," Steve said.

Peggy fell sick in early March after a long day of running errands. She went to bed that night, exhausted, and didn't leave for 10 days. When Steve returned from a business trip, they scheduled a telehealth appointment for Peggy, and the doctor said she probably had the flu.

By March 11, Peggy still wasn't better, and Stiles was feeling ill, too.

"Of course, there was more news about the virus at that point, so I took him up to a nearby clinic, and we had him tested," Steve said. "On Friday the 13th of all days, his test came back positive for COVID. At that point, I’m like, oh my gosh, this seems to be the real deal."

Quarantined at home with Steve and her parents, Peggy had a second telehealth appointment. This time, doctors advised her to come in. She wanted to take a shower before heading to the hospital, but she never made it to the bathroom. The room turned blurry; all she could see was gray.

Steve watched in horror as Peggy bent over and gasped for breath. He shifted into first responder mode and called 911.

By the time staff took her vitals at the hospital, Peggy's oxygen levels were dangerously low. It was late that night when the pulmonologist told her she wasn't going to make it.

“It didn’t register with me. I tried calling my daughter, but she didn’t have her phone on. And I got ahold of my son, but he was trying to be positive,” Peggy said. “I texted my friends, the ones that I wanted to let know. I said, ‘I love you. I’m not supposed to survive this.’”

Steve got a call, then a selfie of Peggy with her oxygen mask on, "looking like death on the edge." The two decided she would go on a ventilator that day, March 15.

"We texted pretty much nonstop until 6:59 a.m., and that’s when she said, ‘I’m in ICU now and they’re going to vent,’ and then, boom," Steve said. "That was the last communication I had with her until the second week of April."

As the medical staff prepared to sedate Peggy to intubate her, she heard two final words before weeks of silence: "Let's go."

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‘A hand grenade with the pin pulled

As the sun rose that interminable day on March 15, Stiles took a turn for the worse. His oxygen levels started to drop, and he was having greater difficulty breathing. Steve called for the ambulance again and the same archaic, "ratty-old bone box came," he said.

Wattum had a low-grade fever. When Peggy’s two brothers arrived, the group decided Wattum might as well go to the hospital, too, because of her age. With his brother-in-laws, their wives and kids, Steve prayed on the driveway.

"We just prayed for a miracle," he said. "Oddly enough, within four or five hours, the hospital called and said, hey, you need to come and get your mother-in-law, she’s not sick enough to stay here."

"I'm a cougar," Lillian Wattum, 95, says with a chuckle, because her husband, Howard Stiles, 90, is younger. The couple in Marysville, Wash., were married 10 years ago.
"I'm a cougar," Lillian Wattum, 95, says with a chuckle, because her husband, Howard Stiles, 90, is younger. The couple in Marysville, Wash., were married 10 years ago.

Steve picked Wattum up at the hospital that evening. Isolated and missing their partners, the pair clung to one another and to their community. As word spread of the family's situation, members of their church left food at the door, and some gathered to sing hymns in the backyard. Steve opened the sliding glass door and sang along from a distance as Wattum sat with her eyes closed and hands raised.

"It was one of the most blessed, yet hardest times of my entire life," Steve said.

Steve called the hospital several times a day. He wanted to know whether Peggy or Stiles was eligible to receive remdesivir, an antiviral drug originally developed to treat Ebola. Stiles received the treatment and was discharged March 25 after 11 days in the hospital. Peggy was too sick to get the drug through the trial but finally received it through compassionate use.

As Peggy remained in the hospital, the youngest kids, Peter, 30, and Heidi, 29, came to stay with their dad. They kept friends and relatives – including some as far as Norway – updated on Peggy's situation through a Facebook page, where the group shared photos, messages and music.

Steve tried to stay busy. He did laundry, swept, vacuumed, mopped, mopped again. When his kids put down their cups, he'd place them in the dishwasher before they were even done with them.

"They'd say, 'Dad!' And I'd say, I have to maintain some order. It’s all I can do," Steve said. "I've run a company. I’ve been a fire chief. I’m used to making decisions and making stuff happen. And I couldn’t do anything, and that was the hardest thing."

Steve couldn't bring himself to enter his bedroom. Most nights, he slept on a downstairs recliner, next to the home phone, staring at it before he went to sleep around 2 a.m.

"It was like a hand grenade with the pin pulled, and I’m just waiting for it to explode," he said. "I felt if that house phone rang ... I was going to get the news that I didn’t want to get. So every morning I'd say, 'Thank you, God,' that phone didn’t ring last night."

Steve wore Peggy's rings on a gold chain, clutching them like rosary beads. One night in late March, he glanced in the mirror and saw the rings on his chest.

"I just kind of lost it. That’s the first time I actually lost it," Steve said. "And I just looked up and said, God, either give her back or take her."

Days later, the grenade exploded.

Two doctors were on the phone, asking Steve to come in to discuss "Peggy's transition." Steve was escorted up to the sixth floor of the hospital April 6.

The doctors stopped Steve just outside Peggy's room. They had placed a trach in her throat, and she was going to need a feeding tube. She may never again be the Peggy he knew, they told him: Did he want to put her through that?

Steve got 10 minutes in the room with Peggy. He knelt down beside her bed. "Hey, honey, I’m here. I’m here," he said. Her eyes moved just a hint, and Steve walked around the other side of her bed.

"She slowly turned her head my way. So I’m like OK, she’s responding. She hears us," he said.

Steve walked out of the room knowing Peggy was going to make it. That night, he got a call from a nurse telling him that Peggy had wiggled her toes on command, twice.

"That was the first thing I remember, was wiggling my toes," Peggy said.

It was the beginning of her recovery. And the start of her delirium.

Peggy Jahn lost her hair when she contracted COVID-19 and spent 25 days on a ventilator. When it began to grow back in as patches of white strands, she used to laugh, comparing herself to the poltergeist Beetlejuice from the late '80s.
Peggy Jahn lost her hair when she contracted COVID-19 and spent 25 days on a ventilator. When it began to grow back in as patches of white strands, she used to laugh, comparing herself to the poltergeist Beetlejuice from the late '80s.

‘Come and get me’

Peggy finally came off the ventilator April 8, after 25 days.

A few days later, Steve received a FaceTime call around 3 a.m. It was Peggy. She couldn't speak with the trach in her throat, but she was flailing around and trying to communicate something. Steve dialed the hospital.

"I’m like, good gosh, I’m going to see her die on FaceTime in the hospital," he said.

A nurse rushed into the room and checked Peggy's vitals. Everything was normal, but Peggy was trying to mouth words. She handed Peggy a dry erase board.

"So she writes, and the nurse holds it up: 'Come get me.' And I’m like, oh, honey, I wish I could come get you," Steve said.

Doctors say it's common to experience delirium in the ICU. The sensation was "freaky weird," Peggy said.

She spoke to her family again for the first time the day after Easter, Peter's 30th birthday, babbling on about how her phone had been hijacked and the nurses were plotting against her.

"I don’t remember much," Peggy said. "I just remember a mom has to talk to their kid on their birthday, and I missed his birthday."

Peggy spent 42 days in the hospital. She lost her hair and had to learn to walk again after losing muscle while in paralysis on the ventilator. The first time she worked with physical therapists, Peggy could barely lift her toes. Before she was discharged, she had to walk 25 steps.

Her goal, Peggy told the physical therapists, was to hold a weed wacker and do her own yardwork again. The physical therapists couldn't promise her that or that she'd ever drive again.

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Steve picked Peggy up from the hospital April 24. On the drive home, Steve showed Peggy the empty hotel parking lots and barren malls. When she had gone to bed in her room in early March, life was normal. She emerged from the hospital to what Steve called "the apocalypse."

As the two pulled into the driveway, Peggy saw posters of support lining both sides of the asphalt. "It was very overwhelming," she said.

Friends gather in Marysville to show signs of support for Peggy Jahn while she was at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington.
Friends gather in Marysville to show signs of support for Peggy Jahn while she was at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington.

As Peggy continues her recovery at home, she's walking. She's weed wacking. She's remodeling the bayside home where she and Steve raised their children. Last week, Peggy hopped in the car and drove the 20 minutes out to the house.

Days after a historic windstorm wiped out power to the county, the water was still. Peggy roamed the house, ripping up carpet and sharing memories. She propped up a ladder in her daughter's old room and began covering the chipped paint with a fresh coat.

Steve stood on the back deck, watching two seals bobbing in the water and pointing to two bald eagles that had landed in their tree. He's still processing the trauma of what happened. After 29 years in the fire department, he never had post-traumatic stress disorder. Now he does.

Steve said the experience, as stressful as it was, helped him break down some walls with his kids that he didn't even know were there. For Peggy, her kids are finally answering her phone calls.

Peggy makes it up the 16 steps to the upper floor of her home in Marysville, Washington.
Peggy makes it up the 16 steps to the upper floor of her home in Marysville, Washington.

"I think the kids appreciate mom a whole lot more," she said with a wink. "I can get away with a lot more."

Last week, as staff at Providence Regional Medical Center paused and the nation observed a moment of silence for the 400,000 souls lost to COVID-19 in the USA, Peggy and Steve celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary. Sunday, they're renewing their vows outside their church.

Steve re-proposed April 15 as Peggy was leaving the ICU after 32 days.

Her hand shook as she held her iPhone up to her face in the hospital bed.

In their living room 15 miles away, Steve got down on one knee, dressed in a T-shirt and pajama pants, on Facetime.

"I clearly feel like I’ve been given a second chance to share what’s already been an amazing 31 years," he said into his phone. "I just want to say, Peggy Jahn, would you remarry me at your earliest convenience?"

Peggy cracked a smile: "Come and get me."

Reach reporter Grace Hauck at ghauck@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @grace_hauck.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 story of hope: Couple renew vows after 42-day hospital stay