Knox student in ICU 39 days due to COVID

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(At left) Jevon and his mother, Tammy Billingsley, smile for the camera in happier times. (Right) Jevon in his bed at Parkwest Medical Center.

It’s been 39 days since Tammy Billingsley last heard her son’s voice, felt him squeeze her hand, or even looked into his eyes.

It’s been 39 days since Jevon, a student at Knox County’s Ridgedale School, was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance because COVID-19 was stealing his ability to breathe.

It’s been 39 days since Jevon was first placed in a medically induced coma and hooked up to a ventilator at Parkwest Medical Center’s Critical Care Unit. 

That’s 39 days of soul-trying pain, fear and loss for this Knox County mother and the rest of Jevon’s family. 

Tammy wants other Knox County parents to understand that COVID isn’t just destroying the lives of the elderly or infirm. 

It can also devastate those who are young and strong. 

“It’s happening to more kids than they’re aware of,” Tammy said. “The fact that my son is experiencing something that is going to alter the rest of his life is testimony that it can happen.”

The brutal reality of the coronavirus — how it often separates the sick from their loved ones, leaving both to suffer alone — has taken its toll on Tammy, Jevon’s father, and his four siblings.

“I’d read all these articles that talked about people having to say goodbye to those they loved and not being able to be with them,” she said. “And I couldn’t imagine it. And now I’m living this with my family, praying every single day, and I don’t know how this is going to end.”

She added: “He needs more prayer now than we have to give. It’s only by the grace of God that he’s still here. If there are any prayers out there that could go up, we’ll be grateful for every prayer. Just like we’re grateful for every nurse and doctor that walks this hallway, caring for Jevon and everyone else. So many people have disappeared from this hallway, some of them dying and some going home, and he’s still here. He’s still fighting and we’re thankful.”

“He just enjoys being in your presence”

Although Jevon is 21 years old, he’s developmentally delayed and autistic, which means that he functions on the level of a five-year-old child but is otherwise a typical young man of his age.

As a special education student, federal law says that Jevon can remain in a special classroom in the public school system until he turns 22. In Knox County, that classroom is at Ridgedale School, the system’s alternative learning center for students with intellectual disabilities. 

He’s attended Ridgedale since he was 16, where he quickly became a staff favorite due to his upbeat disposition and penchant for playing jokes.

“He can’t sit still,” Tammy said. “He enjoys being your shadow. He just enjoys being in your presence, and he likes to entertain people. He enjoys teasing people and making them laugh.

“He loves to watch dance movies, especially High School Musical— he’ll watch that repetitively. He also really enjoys going to stores like Wal Mart and Target, but we don’t take him there much because it can be difficult to get him to leave.”

When the pandemic struck early last year, Tammy wasn’t all that concerned for Jevon because he was in a tightly controlled environment at all times, both at home and at school. Tammy works in a medical office, and she made sure that Jevon’s world was the world recommended by physicians. 

That meant masks, social distancing, and constant hand washing were the orders of the day, every day. 

“Jevon’s routine is so controlled,” she explained. “Last year at Ridgedale, masks were always worn plus he really loves his hand sanitizer, so I wasn’t too concerned. This summer, his areas were so controlled and there was always an adult with him, so I wasn’t concerned.”

Tammy feels now, however, that she made some mistakes. 

One mistake was trusting that Jevon’s environment was so rigorously controlled that he didn’t need to be vaccinated, even though both she and his father had been fully inoculated.

Also, when the new school year began August 9, she assumed that — like last year — commonsense precautions like wearing masks would still be required. 

“Once school started, it didn’t register to me that they weren’t wearing masks,” she said. “I don’t know why it didn’t register. And finally I asked, you know — they’re making everyone wear masks, right?”

“We didn’t have a clear understanding”

The Knox County Board of Education had decided to do away with the rule requiring masks at the end of the previous semester. They also did away with contract tracing and, due to a change in state rules, they would no longer be able to move the system to virtual learning. 

The move was partly a response to the public backlash against masks, lockdowns, and other pandemic-related restrictions. It was also a reaction to the feeling that the worst of the pandemic had passed. 

It turned out, however, that the worst was yet to come. 

By the beginning of September, the number of cases in Knox County was skyrocketing, as was the number of students and staff members absent from the schools. Area hospitals started to fill up, leading local health officials to beg the public to get vaccinated.  

As the numbers rose, the controversy over wearing masks grew more heated. The School Board again turned down a proposal to require masks, and Governor Bill Lee issued an order allowing parents to let their kids “opt out” of any mask policies passed by local school districts.

At least 140 people in Knox County died from COVID in September, the highest monthly toll since the pandemic began.

Tammy’s attention, however, was on her job and her family.

Jevon tested positive for COVID on August 30, after weeks spent in a classroom full of kids who didn’t wear masks. He wasn’t wearing one, either — there was no way he could keep his face covered all day when he was surrounded by peers who didn’t cover theirs, his mother explained.

At first, all Jevon had was a bit of a cough and a low fever. By the morning of September 2, however, he was lethargic and unable to communicate normally. His parents used an over-the-counter pulse oximeter to check his vital signs, and they were alarmed to see that his oxygen level had dropped to 35 (anything under than 90 is generally considered an emergency). 

Jevon was rushed to Parkwest’s emergency room, which was so packed that Jevon was only one of many patients who had to be treated in a bed in the hallway. 

By 5 p.m. that day, a doctor was explaining that giving Jevon oxygen through a mask wasn’t enough. It was time, he said, to let a ventilator take over the arduous task of breathing for him. 

 “The critical care doctor came in and said, ‘We’ll have to do a respirator,’” she recalled. “With the sense of urgency, we didn’t have a clear understanding that once he was vented we wouldn’t be able to see him.”

Jevon and his mother enjoying each other’s company.

“Now it’s just waiting”

For three weeks, no one was allowed to be in the same room with Jevon except medical personnel. Those restrictions were eventually relaxed, but today his family still can’t interact with him because of the medications used to keep him sedated and not fighting against the respirator. 

“We didn’t get to see Jevon for 21 days,” Tammy said. “The doctors kept us involved as best as they could…. They ended up having to put an IV in his neck because the one in his arm stopped working. He’s been on antibiotics to fight a secondary bacterial pneumonia, and prescription medications for COVID. They put him on a paralytic so he wouldn’t fight against the respirator, plus he’s heavily sedated, plus he’s tube feeding.”

For a brief time things seemed to improve, but when they tried weaning him off some of the medications his oxygen levels started to drop again, she continued. 

“Ordinarily they only want you on a respirator for two-and-a-half weeks,” she said. “They want to do a temporary tracheotomy, but he’s on too much oxygen for that.”

His doctors are concerned that he might be having seizures or even have suffered a stroke. Several tests have come back negative, but they can’t be sure without an MRI and they can’t take him off the other machines long enough to have one performed.

One of the doctors explained why it was so dangerous to remove him from the ventilator for even a short period of time.

“Think about how difficult it is for you to blow up a balloon,” he told her. “That’s what he experiences every time he takes a breath.”

Since he went into the hospital, Jevon had lost more than 60 pounds. Nurses regularly suck mucus out of his lungs with a tube, and the skin is peeling from his hands and feet.

“One of his doctors talked to me about now we don’t have a cure for COVID,” said Tammy. “We are basically treating the symptoms for COVID. Now it’s just waiting.”

She paused for a moment, then described how one of Jevon’s doctors explained to her that he will likely have to endure a long period of rehabilitation even after he recovers from the infection. 

“I’m assuming he’ll have to re-learn how to do everything,” she said. “He’ll have to re-learn how to walk, re-learn how to speak …. This is a child with a five-year-old’s maturity level.”

His mother still can’t touch him without wearing gloves in the Critical Care Unit.

“This is part of God’s plan”

While Jevon and his family have been focused on his struggle for life, many other Knox County parents have been focused on another type of fight. 

On Sept. 2 — the same day that Jevon was placed on a ventilator — the parents of four disabled Knox County students with severe health problems filed a lawsuit in federal court against the school system, arguing their children’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have been violated by the system’s lack of a mandatory mask policy. U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer — a Republican who was appointed by George W. Bush in 2003 — handed down a temporary order requiring Knox County to re-institute the mask policy it used in 2020-21 until the lawsuit is resolved.

At the beginning of the month, hundreds of pro-mandate parents protested and swamped Board meetings with speakers who were furious at the lack of COVID precautions. In the wake of Greer’s order, however, the daily protests and acts of defiance have been by those who oppose the mask mandate.

Tammy doesn’t want anything to do with the conflict over masks, even if she knew for sure the change from last year’s policy was at least partly responsible for Jevon’s illness. 

What she wants, rather, is for every parent to realize that even children and young adults can be harmed or killed by the coronavirus.

“I don’t want people to think I blame any political based decisions,” she said. “I’m not here to tell anybody what they should or shouldn’t do. It’s their choice, it’s their child, it’s their household. But I am willing to talk about and make people aware of what’s going on with my child.”

She continued: “I’m not sharing Jevon’s story to be political. I’m sharing it to make people aware that this is possible. And if one or two people are helped with this knowledge, then it’ll be just like I’ve been telling Jevon — God has a plan, and this is part of God’s plan.” 

Even if only a small minority of young people suffer the kinds of complications that Jevon has endured, the fact is that it can happen to anybody’s child and everyone needs to take all the precautions they can, Tammy said. 

“To not be able to see your child for 21 days, and to know the last time you saw them they were so heavily sedated that you couldn’t explain to your child what was happening…No parent should go through that,” she said. 

“My mistake was thinking I had Jevon in a controlled environment and that he would be safe. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your child is safe from this.”

Editor’s note: Sometimes conflicts of interest can’t be avoided. In those cases, we believe the best policy is to disclose them promptly and, when possible, to minimize the employee’s involvement in producing the story. Hard Knox Wire Publisher Jenna Stambaugh is a teacher at Ridgedale School where Jevon is enrolled and, in previous semesters, she has been one of his teachers. Due to this obvious potential conflict of interest, Jenna didn’t take part in the news gathering, writing, or editing of this story.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on October 11, 2021.