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5 hours from home, Florida single mom fights COVID-19 alone

Wendy Victoria
Walton Sun

FORT WALTON BEACH — A 41-year-old woman is fighting for her life alone in a Gainesville hospital.

Brandy Hearne, a single mother from Fort Walton Beach, has a 6-year-old daughter, Lily, and a 13-year-old son, Alex. She hasn’t been able to talk to them, or anyone, for more than two weeks.

That’s how long she’s been on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, which she was placed on after her lungs completely failed while fighting COVID-19, according to her older brother, Barry Boutwell.

Hearne, who works in the finance office of the Okaloosa Tax Collector’s office, began feeling ill in early July.

She was flown to UF Health Shands Hospital in mid-July after doctors at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center called Boutwell to tell him they didn’t have the ECMO machine she really needed. Instead, with her family’s approval, they hooked her up to a heart bypass machine that kept her alive long enough to get more specialized care.

More: ‘It didn’t have to happen this way’: Daughter recalls Florida man’s trepidatious COVID-19 decline

When she was hospitalized, her ex-husband moved into her home to take care of their children.

Her 73-year-old father, Carl Fontaine, has some health challenges and is so broken by his daughter’s illness that he can’t talk about it without crying.

“You have no idea,” he said Sunday. “It’s probably one of the hardest things in my life. I’m 73 years old and this ain’t right at all.”

During the time she has been hospitalized, Hearne has used up her paid time off, emergency paid time off and Care Act money.

The rent, utilities, car insurance and car payment still need to be paid and her niece put up a GoFundMe page on July 24 to help raise money. As of Sunday afternoon, more than $7,000 had been donated.

“While we will never give up hope that she will pull through, we must be realistic in acknowledging that the recovery will not be a short one,” the post reads, in part. “The hardest part for us is that we can't be there to hold her hand, but I know she feels our love and prayers.”

Boutwell said that right before his sister’s lungs failed, she had a couple of days when she seemed to be better. She texted her family members and even sent selfies.

“We thought she was on the upturn,” he said.

He said he and his sister are close and that they had lost their mother to cancer two days before Hearne’s 18th birthday.

“She works very hard, spends a lot of time with her children, that’s about all you can do when you’ve got young ones,” Boutwell said.

The children have been quarantined and tested and are not showing any symptoms, Boutwell said. But they miss their mama.

When she was at FWBMC, Boutwell and his dad spoke to her nurse every four hours.

“Every single time they were pleasant. They were very helpful,” he said. “They were trying to do the best they could. I could hear it in their voices. I believe they saved my sister’s life.”

The staff at Shands have also been very helpful and nice, he said. Boutwell talks to them daily.

“What they’re telling us is they’re trying to wait for her to get strong enough so they can get her off the ECMO and insert a tracheotomy. She could possibly be on oxygen for the rest of her life.”

This story originally published to nwfdailynews.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.