MARYSVILLE — About the only thing certain in Steve Jahn’s life was his days would be filled with uncertainty.
It became that way the moment the doors closed on the aging ambulance that whisked his wife from their home near Fire Trail Road on March 14.
Peggy Jahn, 61, had been trying to shake a fever for nearly two weeks.
Her breathing was fine when she was first diagnosed with what a doctor thought might be flu, and that seemed to cross COVID-19 off the list of potential culprits. At that time in early March, the virus was just beginning to creep into the community’s consciousness.
Steve wasn’t just worried about Peggy. Living with them were Peggy’s mother Lillian Wattum, 94, and her husband Howard Stiles, 90, who’d begun to complain of a shortness of breath. On March 11, Steve took his stepfather-in-law to a clinic for X-rays and tests. Two days later, the results were back: Howard had the virus and the household was in quarantine.
The next morning, Peggy’s breathing grew labored. Steve called a doctor, then 911.
Steve had been a volunteer firefighter for 29 years. His emergency responder instincts kicked in. He told the dispatcher that there was a COVID-confirmed case in the home and he would walk his wife out to reduce exposure.
He noticed the rig in the driveway was old. He would know. He sells fire engines and ambulances for a living. He surveyed the plastic-covered inside and figured the aid unit had been designated for infectious diseases. As the doors closed, the decisive firefighter in him gave way to the fretting husband. His wife of 31 years, the woman who had raised his three children, was in the back of an ambulance and there was nothing he could do.
That afternoon, news trickled in via Peggy’s texts from Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. She had the coronavirus.
Steve was still up at 2 a.m. when she called.
“Honey,” she said, gasping, “the doctor just came in and told me I’m probably not going to make it.”
In a few hours, she’d be intubated and on a ventilator.
By 7:05 a.m., Peggy’s texts stopped.
The following day, Steve Jahn made another 911 call. This time, for Howard. The same ambulance with the same plastic-covered interior — what Steve dubbed the COVID Special — took away another member of his family.
Steve went back inside to check on Lillian.
Eventually, they too would test positive for the virus.
A COVID connection
Steve and Peggy met on a blind date in 1988. Both were approaching 30. Neither was looking for a relationship.
Steve lived on the Tulalip reservation and had custody of his 4-year-old son from a previous marriage; Peggy lived in Edmonds, worked at an insurance company in Seattle, and helped care for her father who was in the late stages of ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The woman who ran the daycare where Steve brought his son insisted that he meet her friend. Steve wasn’t eager but eventually relented. They met in July, were engaged in October and married in January. Their family grew with the birth of another boy and a girl.
Today, Steve Jr., the oldest, does maintenance at an Oso ranch. Like his father, he became a volunteer firefighter, and was part of the rescue and recovery efforts in 2014 when a deadly mudslide swallowed a neighborhood and a stretch of Highway 530. Middle child Peter is a manager at Microsoft. Heidi, the youngest, works at a high school in Bellingham guiding students toward graduation.
Many people in Marysville and Tulalip know Peggy Jahn, who comes from healthy Norwegian stock. She’d been a PTA mom who made friends easily through church and Marysville’s elementary school parent cooperative.
As word spread of her deteriorating condition, the reality began to sink in that COVID-19 could infect anyone. The family felt a responsibility to let others know how she was doing, and to help them understand that they needed to take precautions. Peter became the family’s messenger, writing thoughtful social media posts.
“We were facing the possibility that both parents and grandparents could die,” Peter said. “At the same time, for many people in our social circles and our professional groups, it didn’t feel real to them. No one knew a connection to it. Suddenly, in a couple of days, we became the connection.”
Peter didn’t want to lionize his family or spin a sob story. His was a balancing act of providing information but sparing terrifying detail.
“We had to handle the public awareness of our situation while we were processing the very real grief and uncertainty of the situation itself,” he said.
Days turned into weeks with little progress.
Steve could not sleep in the bed he’d shared with his wife. It was too painful.
At night, he’d doze off in a $250 Costco recliner. Nearby was a phone he compared to a grenade with the pin already pulled that could explode when the hospital called.
“You figured if the phone rang in the middle of the night, it would be, ‘I’m sorry … ’”
A sign of hope
On April 6, after Peggy had been on the ventilator for 20 days, arrangements were made for Steve to visit her in the ICU. For more than a week, Lillian had insisted that Steve find a way for Peggy to hear his voice.
He was given 15 minutes. Steve knew such access was unusual and perhaps ominous. The fact was Peggy might not get any better and at some point a difficult decision would need to be made.
The loving husband would need to channel his inner firefighter to observe, assess and decide what was best.
When he walked in, Peggy’s head was turned to the left, facing the hallway. Her eyes were perhaps a third open but not moving. He told her he loved her. He put a rubber-gloved hand on her head and prayed.
Her eyes opened a bit and he studied her pupils before walking to the other side of the bed. He said, “I’m over here now, Honey.”
Slowly, Peggy turned her head toward her husband. For Steve, that movement was a sign.
A nurse’s voice over a walkie-talkie in Peggy’s room nudged him toward the door.
First, Steve kissed his wife on the forehead through his N95 mask.
In the hallway, two doctors asked for his impressions.
“I think,” he remembers telling them, “I saw a woman in there that is there.”
Steve knew that it was their job to be a reality check, and that he must understand that she might never improve and could end up in a long-term care center on a feeding tube and ventilator. A week earlier, before a procedure to open an airway in her throat, Steve was asked if he’d rather have her taken off the ventilator.
As Steve headed to the hospital elevator, he had a sense of calm he hadn’t felt since the day Peggy left. He relayed the conversation he’d had with the doctors to Peter and Heidi.
And then he shared his own assessment.
“I think she is going to be OK.”
‘Peter, it’s Mom’
The next day, Peggy was wiggling her toes and tracking voices.
Two days after Steve’s visit, a doctor reported his patient was nodding her head when he asked her questions.
By April 10, Good Friday, her family was able to see her over FaceTime. It was the first glimpse of her face in nearly a month. She couldn’t talk but her image spoke volumes.
Long before her illness, Peggy looked forward to Peter’s 30th birthday, on Easter Sunday, April 12. That day her family had a FaceTime session with her. She couldn’t speak. She could barely write on a whiteboard. A simple thumbs up was an exertion.
The day after Easter, Peter was by himself at his parents’ house. His cellphone buzzed. The caller ID was from the hospital. He answered with trepidation.
“Hi, this is Peter. Who is this?”
“Honey, Peter, it’s Mom,” said Peggy, her raspy voice enhanced by the new speech valve in her throat.
As tears streamed down his face, Peter texted his dad and sister to get home quick.
Peggy Jahn spent 42 days in the hospital, 25 on a ventilator.
She knows she is one of the lucky ones. In Snohomish County, more than 100 people have died from COVID-19. She’s struck by how many people it takes in a hospital to save one life — from doctors and nurses to the laundry staff cleaning and changing linen.
On April 15, toward the end of her month-long stay in the ICU, Steve reached out to Peggy on FaceTime. He was at home. Coral the family cat wandered behind him. With Peggy were hospital chaplain Cathy Chalmers and Dr. Niket Nathani, a pulmonologist. Around Steve’s neck was a chain with Peggy’s wedding ring close to his heart. Steve bent down on one knee.
“Peggy Jahn,” he said, “Would you remarry me at your earliest convenience?”
“Come get me,” she replied.
Home at last
Peggy was released April 24. Her driveway was lined with welcome home signs. The day before, friends gathered in a Marysville theater parking lot to make a video. They stood six feet apart holding signs, waving and shouting words of encouragement.
Peggy looked forward to seeing her mom and stepfather. Howard spent more than 10 days in the hospital and time in rehab, but was home again. Lillian and Steve are healthy too after testing positive for the virus.
Steve thinks about the neighbor who mowed his lawn, the meals and groceries left in the driveway, the friends who were there when needed most.
Late at night, Steve would call Mike LaRosa. Their friendship began 25 years ago when their children were in elementary school. Even in the bleakest moments, LaRosa sensed his friend’s resolve.
“He was just a model of strength, faith and hope,” he said.
When people asked what they could do, Steve told them: Pray.
And so they did.
There were prayer circles from counties across the state and states across the nation. Prayers were uttered from Albania to the north slope of Alaska and from Norway to Thailand.
Peggy is home now. The wedding ceremony is pending. Rehab will take months, but she is doing better each day.
“It’s a true-blue miracle,” Steve said.
Peggy’s hope is people will find hope in seemingly hopeless situations.
And she will pray for them.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org