Photo: Ruben Rush in his bed at Wesley Long Hospital, as seen through his son’s cell phone.

At first it was just coughing, headaches and low fevers. But after his blood pressure started to drop, Ruben Allen Rush checked into Randolph Health hospital in Asheboro on March 23.

“I feel like I could be resting at home better than I could be here at the hospital,” the 69-year-old retired machine operator from Level Cross, told his wife, Barbara.

By then, he was having trouble breathing. His coughing was so bad he couldn’t maintain a proper oxygen level, and his temperature was spiking to 103 and 104 degrees. The last time Rush had been able to speak with his wife was on March 25, the day he was put on a ventilator. The following day he was transferred to Wesley Long Hospital in Greensboro.

Rush’s health declined rapidly at Wesley Long. Rush’s son, who is also named Ruben Allen, received a call from a doctor on March 31 informing him that his father’s kidneys were starting to give out, and it didn’t look good. Meanwhile, a chest X-ray revealed that Rush was fighting double pneumonia.

Through cell phones connected remotely to Rush’s hospital room, Ruben Jr. and Barbara said their goodbyes. They told Ruben Sr. they loved him. By then, the doctors had tried a range of experimental treatments, including hydroxychloroquine. Ruben Sr.’s oxygen level continued to drop.

The next day, based on the doctor’s advice, his family made the decision to take Ruben Sr. off life support. As one of the nurses shared Ruben Sr.’s stats to a phone held by Trish Rush — his daughter-in-law — Ruben Jr. and Barbara sobbed while telling their father and husband: “You don’t have to fight any longer. It’s okay to let go.”

COVID-19 has swept through the Triad over the past six weeks, abruptly cutting short the lives of dozens of mostly elderly people. Some had minor ailments and others more serious underlying health challenges, but in either case, the virus appears to be reaping death in a matter of weeks to those who otherwise might have looked forward to many more years with their families.

Lan Ilong Ti Le, a 74-year-old woman who was born in Vietnam and made her home in High Point, died at High Point Regional Hospital on April 20. COVID-19 was listed as an underlying cause on Le’s death certificate, although she was also diagnosed with breast cancer.

“We were supposed to get married,” said Roy Epperson, who lives in Sophia. “But she came down with breast cancer around Christmas. She said she wouldn’t marry me until she took care of that.”

Epperson said it was hard to talk about Le’s death.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve gone through in my life,” he said.

Rita Vetter Scearce, 67, of Greensboro, died from COVID-19 on Monday, according to her friend, Mary Coyne Wessling.

“While some of her friends have written that she had many health problems, I would not want people to use that as an excuse for why Rita Scearce died,” Wessling wrote in a statement to Triad City Beat. “She died from the virus. Her health problems were serious, but I have known people who had the same health conditions over the years, and they lived well beyond the first diagnosis. Yes, her health made her more susceptible, but it was the virus that filled her lungs and took away her chance to beat it.”

Rita Scearce was the primary caregiver for her husband, Jerry, who has struggled with severe health problems, Wessling said. Scearce took her husband to church, social gatherings and visits to grandchildren. Scearce suffered a stroke last November, Wessling said, and her children made the decision to place the couple in an assisted-living facility. As her health declined, she transferred into a nursing home, then to Cone Hospital and, finally, to the former Women’s Hospital in Greensboro, which Cone Health has converted into a COVID-19 ward.

Wessling said her friend lived for three weeks on a ventilator, and her family said goodbye to her via social media.

Guilford County has posted the second largest number of deaths from COVID-19 in North Carolina, exceeded only by Mecklenburg County, whose overall population is more than twice as large. As of Wednesday, the Guilford County Department of Public Health is citing 23 COVID-19 deaths, but TCB has confirmed 24 through a review of death certificates, a media story and a testimonial posted on social media. Based on TCB’s review, 33 percent of the deaths are African-Americans, slightly exceeding their 32.1-percent share of the county’s overall population. Le is the only Asian victim. One person, a 39-year-old resident of High Point who was born in Mexico, is listed as Hispanic.

The average age of those whose lives have been claimed in Guilford County by COVID-19 is 72.

Almost twice as many men have died from COVID-19 as women, based on data compiled by TCB.

The Guilford County totals also include two residents of Randolph County, including Ruben Rush, and two residents of Rockingham County, who died at Wesley Long Hospital.

The occupations of those who passed away in Guilford County, many of them retired, include salespersons, a nurse, furniture executive, retired Greensboro police officer, truck driver, hotel housekeeper, distribution checker, sales person, hardware consultant, banker, HVAC technician and call-center operator.

The official cause of Ruben Rush’s death is listed as “acute respiratory distress syndrome due to COVID-19 infection.” The “other significant conditions contributing to death” are both results of the virus that put him in the hospital: septic shock and acute renal failure.

Ruben Rush Jr. said his father was exposed to asbestos while he was working as a machine operator at Goodyear Textiles, causing some upper respiratory difficulties.

He thinks his father was exposed to coronavirus on March 15.

“It was very sudden,” Ruben Jr. said. “From when he had the first initial symptom, it was almost two weeks — just a matter of days before he died. He did nothing to the degree that would cause him to lose his life except for getting exposed to coronavirus.” Ruben Jr. added that the doctors at Wesley Long told him that because of his father’s exposure to asbestos, he was likely more susceptible to complications from COVID-19.

Following his retirement from Goodyear, Ruben Rush and his wife poured their energy into a mobile-home park in Level Cross, near the Guilford-Randolph county line.

“Both him and my mom, they worked in factories their entire life,” Ruben Jr. said. “One of the things they tried to do for their family was to give us something they could pass down. That’s what led to the mobile-home park. They worked hard all their life. They wanted to try to give us something better.”

Ruben Rush celebrates his son, Ruben Jr.’s marriage to Trish, with his wife, Barbara. (courtesy of Rush family)

As an inveterate handyman, Ruben Rush’s days were often consumed fixing things around the mobile-home park, and he was responsible for mowing.

“They were so close to getting everything paid off,” Ruben Jr. said. “One thing my dad said to one of his friends was, ‘Me and Barbara are going to do some traveling.’ He was planning on getting a boat so he could go fishing more.”

Ruben Sr. enjoyed coming over to his son’s house to help fix a bathroom sink or making repairs at the church he regularly attended in High Point.

“He was known for his infectious laugh,” his son said. “He had one of those laughs that everyone in the room would smile if they heard it.”

Hospitality and generosity were also hallmarks of Rita Scearce’s personality.

Rita Scearce

Scearce grew up in Burlington, raised by parents who had migrated from the North, Mary Coyne Wessling, her friend, said.

“She had a trace of a Southern drawl and all the Southern graces that have made this region legendary,” Wessling said. “No one who entered her world remained a stranger for long. Her wit, her smile and her ability to put the person at ease were all that was needed to make them a friend for life. Rita knew people, but she didn’t brag about it. Rita knew children and teens, but she didn’t admonish others who scratched their heads wondering how to handle them. Rita knew friendship, and took it to heart.”

Wessling said of all Scearce’s qualities, “the one that stands out is her love of young people. From infants to young adults, Rita worked magic in getting them to settle in for sessions of laughter, of opening up to her as they would any trusted confidant, and given them a chance to believe in themselves and their dreams.”

Ruben Rush Jr. said his father was tested for COVID-19 before he was put on a ventilator, but by the time the results came back he was sedated. To this day, his son says, he doesn’t know if his father knew that he had the virus.

Initially, the family had planned to invite 50 people to the graveside service, but then they learned they would only be allowed to have 10.

“There was literally a line of cars going down the road to where people would sit in cars, and Pugh Funeral Home provided speakers to where everybody in the cars was able to hear the service,” Ruben Jr. recalled. “That was a very cool thing to do to honor my dad.”

During their time of mourning, the family has leaned into their Christian faith.

Trisha Rush, Ruben Jr.’s wife, posted on Facebook in early April that she, like everyone else will remember the coronavirus pandemic “as that spring we all had to stay home, everything was canceled, and you couldn’t find toilet paper anywhere.

“I’ll remember all of that,” she wrote. “But I’ll also never forget watching my husband say goodbye to his father as he entered eternity with Jesus. This disease has stolen a lot from my family and our world. It even has taken away the ability to safely say goodbye to loved ones in person.”

But the virus doesn’t get the last say, Trisha Rush insisted.

She coined a new hashtag for the post: #coviddidntwin.”

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