Katie Churms was in the grocery-store checkout line, asking the cashier about some items for her daughter’s doctor-recommended diet, when a stranger approached.
“Are you Hannah’s mother?” the stranger asked. When Katie Churms said yes, the woman replied, “I’ve been praying for your daughter, and I don’t even know her.”
A lot of people have been praying for Hannah Churms, the first COVID-19 patient admitted to the intensive-care unit of DeLand’s hospital.
Hannah, a 20-year-old junior at Stetson University, is home now and in good spirits after a harrowing battle with the coronavirus, and a hospitalization that stretched from March 30 to April 16.
She navigated her survival — including four blood transfusions, seizures, and cardiac and kidney complications — without the physical presence of her parents, Katie and Jody Churms, who weren’t allowed to be at her side or even to visit.
Hannah is still undergoing dialysis three times a week, but she’s growing stronger, and her kidney function is steadily improving.
“The doctors are very hopeful,” Hannah told The Beacon April 20.
Hannah’s case of COVID-19 was somewhat atypical, and her diagnosis was a long time in coming after she first began to feel ill with nausea March 6.
Also remarkable is that neither her father nor mother, nor her boyfriend or her sorority sisters — all of whom she spent time with while still thinking she just had a bad upset stomach — have contracted COVID-19.
Her parents were quarantined and tested immediately after Hannah’s March 31 positive diagnosis, and even her mom, who had snuggled her daughter frequently while Hannah was feeling ill, was negative for the virus.
“I guess the Lord knew we couldn’t handle any more,” Katie Churms said with a laugh.
Hannah, who’s studying sports business at Stetson, might have been the last person many people would have thought would get the virus. She was young and healthy, and so concerned about the pandemic that she had begun largely staying home and practicing social distancing before many people were taking the disease seriously.
The family is at a loss to explain how she contracted COVID-19.
“No clue. Absolutely no clue,” Hannah said.
For a while, even medical professionals told Hannah she didn’t have it.
After developing a cough and chest pain, she called a telehealth doctor March 28. Hannah said after hearing her symptoms, he told her she was being paranoid, prescribed a cough suppressant, and offered to send her information on COVID-19, so she could read about the real symptoms.
A day later, the chest pain became so intense that Hannah and her family called 911. Paramedics came to their house and measured Hannah’s vital signs, but told the family her symptoms were related to dehydration, she said.
She never had a fever, even during her hospital stay, Hannah said.
Hannah wasn’t in a rush to go to the hospital, partly, she said, for fear of catching COVID-19 from a sick person there. But, on the afternoon of March 30, the chest pain was unbearable, and she asked her mother to take her to the emergency room.
After about an hour in the ER, Hannah said, she was put on a ventilator, taken to the ICU and tested for COVID-19. Her kidneys were failing, and she had developed cardiomyopathy, an impairment of the heart muscle, her parents were told.
The positive test result came early Tuesday morning, March 31, and Hannah was airlifted to AdventHealth Orlando that afternoon.
The week of March 30 is a blur to Hannah.
“I went in March 30, and I woke up April 3,” she said.
Her friends at Stetson had learned of Hannah’s diagnosis.
“Everyone was texting me and asking if I was OK, but I was on the ventilator at the time, so I couldn’t answer,” she said.
Then she was better. She was allowed to visit electronically with her parents, via Google Hangouts. On April 6, she was moved out of the ICU.
Then the monster raged one more time. Hannah’s blood pressure rose, her kidneys failed again, and she had seizures. The hospital staff awakened Hannah’s parents early April 11 with the bad news.
Katie Churms, a teacher, called her boss at St. Barnabas Episcopal School in DeLand and asked him to put Hannah on the church’s prayer list. The news traveled quickly.
West Volusia residents, and — through the connections of family and friends — people all over the world fought back with prayer. Social-media news feeds popped with urgent messages about Hannah’s reversal.
She stabilized on Easter, April 12.
“Finally, Thursday the 16th was when I was able to come home,” Hannah said.
In addition to the Episcopal connection at St. Barnabas, Hannah’s mother is Catholic. Her father is affiliated with Trinity United Methodist Church, where Hannah was also on the prayer list. And, since the pandemic hit, through a connection with a neighbor, the family has been watching online services at the Journey church, which has three West Volusia campuses.
“We’ve got all of our bases covered,” Katie Churms said.
Levity aside, the Churmses are grateful for Hannah’s excellent medical care and the community’s prayerful response. They’re hopeful that sharing their story will inspire others to take COVID-19 seriously and do what’s needed to keep themselves and others safe.
And Hannah is looking forward to feeling strong enough again to get back to her online coursework at Stetson University, where her advisers and teachers have been supportive and understanding, she said.
She’s grown through the experience.
“I think that it’s made me stronger,” Hannah said. “I think that it has strengthened my faith a little bit more. … Knowing that I’m being prayed for all over the world, it has helped me realize I need to value my life, and my faith is growing stronger.”
Maybe someday it will be clear why COVID-19 picked her and hit so hard.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Hannah said. “There’s a plan for everything.”