‘I knew I had to fight:’ Milford woman, 91, credits vaccines after beating COVID

Photo of Brian Gioiele
Cheryl Jennings, left, with her mother, longtime Milford resident Betty DeForest. Both women battled COVID over the holidays. DeForest, 91, was hospitalized for five days.

Cheryl Jennings, left, with her mother, longtime Milford resident Betty DeForest. Both women battled COVID over the holidays. DeForest, 91, was hospitalized for five days.

Contributed photo

MILFORD — Betty DeForest received the gift of life this past holiday.

The 91-year-old Milford woman tested positive for COVID-19 three days after Christmas and spent the next five days hospitalized. But in the end, the 105-pound DeForest, who also suffers from asthma, overcame the virus that has claimed so many over the past two years.

“My first thought was ‘Please, God let me get through this,” said DeForest, a mother of four with eight grandchildren and five great-granddaughters and another one due in March.

“I wasn’t scared. I knew I had to fight,” she said.

At her age, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report DeForest was at least 10 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 370 times more likely to die of the disease than someone in their 20s. According to the state COVID data tracker, there have been 19,464 confirmed COVID cases among people 80 and older as of Jan. 10, and 4,055 of those patients have died from the illness. Another 1,032 are listed as probable COVID deaths.

For five days, Dec. 28 to Jan. 3, DeForest was bedridden at Bridgeport Hospital on a series of antiviral medicine. While in bed, she watched as medical personnel in Bridgeport Hospital’s COVID floors worked tirelessly, running from patient to patient. She also watched as her first roommate at the hospital died.

“I started thinking about what happened to me, how I was fortunate to come out with no ill effects, which is amazing at 91,” DeForest, who has lived in the city’s Devon section since 1981, said.

While in the hospital, she also spent time watching news events.

“I was watching TV and saw people protesting getting vaccinated,” she added. “I really started to think that this won’t go away until we all cooperate. The point is, people need to get vaccinated, for your loved ones, you will save a life.”

DeForest suspects she contracted the virus on Christmas Eve, when her daughter, Cheryl Jennings, took her out to eat. Jennings said, aside from a 3-week-old sinus infection she was being treated for, all were healthy.

“Because I had been in New York City the week before, I took a COVID test the Thursday before Christmas (Dec. 23) just to be on the safe side,” Jennings said. “I was completely surprised when I received the positive result on Christmas morning. This was not what I expected Santa to bring me this year.”

She immediately contacted her mother’s independent living facility and relayed the news.

“Then I texted my mom and said, ‘Please call me right away.’ She called me and I delivered the worst Christmas present ever,” Jennings said.

DeForest said she got right up from the dining hall table where she was sharing Christmas morning breakfast with other elderly residents and headed to her own room to quarantine. The staff nurse administered a COVID test.

“All of our family holiday plans were canceled,” Jennings said. “My brother, whom I live with, started coughing over the weekend, he later tested positive. My mom started coughing and running a high fever on Wednesday. I was devastated. I was sure I had given my 91-year-old mom COVID.”

Jennings said the family had been extremely careful for almost two years — social distancing, masking, hand sanitizing, getting vaccines and boosters, and missing family gatherings and holidays.

DeForest’s test results from Christmas Day arrived the same day her symptoms started. The results were negative, but the test had been administered less than 24 hours after her Christmas Eve lunch exposure and it was just too soon for the virus to register, Jennings said.

“Because of that negative result my mom thought she had bronchitis,” Jennings said.

But Jennings insisted that her mother be taken via ambulance to Yale New Haven Hospital’s Milford Campus.

“There she was administered another COVID test and the results came back in a few hours - positive,” she said. “Our worst fears realized. We shared the news with the rest of the family.”

Milford does not treat COVID patients, and Bridgeport Hospital’s COVID wards had no beds available, so the transfer had to wait about 24 hours, Jennings said.

“At 91 my mom has had her share of visits to Bridgeport Hospital,” Jennings said. “What she noticed is that the nurses are overworked and understaffed.” Jennings said.

DeForest’s first roomate at Bridgeport Hospital, a woman also in her 90s, died during DeForest’s stay.

DeForest, who is fully vaccinated and received the booster in September, has since learned she had the omicron variant, which she credits for her ability to survive its effects.

“That’s when I started thinking about all those nurses, techs … how overrun they were,” DeForest said. “Running, running, running. How are they supposed to go home after that, a 12-hour shift of just running like that? It is a hard way to live.”

While in Bridgeport Hospital, she said she was told that the majority of COVID patients had been unvaccinated. The CDC estimates that about 70 percent of COVID patients in hospitals are not fully vaccinated. That is why she felt her experience was a way to make a call to the community — get vaccinated.

Scott Roberts, associate director for infection prevention at Yale New Haven Hospital, said while patients who have received the vaccine and a booster simetimes get admitted, “almost all those patients are not having severe enough COVID to be on a ventilator or dying from COVID.”

DeForest is now back in an independent living facility in Milford, while her 100-year-old home, also in Milford, is being renovated. Her family hopes that it will be completed by her 92nd birthday in May.

“Although our holidays were ruined, our whole family is so grateful that she survived her run in with COVID,” Jennings said. “The vaccine and booster shot did its job keeping her from a life-threatening situation. My mom wanted me to share her story, to say ‘The point of my story is get yourself and your loved ones vaccinated and save a life.’”