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Weaver man dies of COVID after refusing to leave his sick wife

Smallwood family

Mary Smallwood holds a photo of and her and her husband, Jimmy Smallwood, from happier times. When Mary was diagnosed with COVID-19, Jimmy decided he wouldn’t leave her side. That choice cost him his life. 

When Mary Smallwood was diagnosed with COVID-19, her husband, Jimmy, decided he wouldn’t leave her side. That choice cost him his life, his family said, but he wouldn’t have done anything differently. 

The Smallwoods — both 77, were Alexandria High School sweethearts who had married when they were 17. They both caught the virus after a family get-together at Christmas that left at least 16 members of the family infected. Mary was diagnosed first, said her daughter, LaDonna Smallwood, who tested negative.

Somehow, Jimmy also tested negative. LaDonna begged him to stay at her house to quarantine, just a hundred feet or so up the same driveway where Mary and Jimmy lived, but he refused, even after a doctor insisted he should avoid the virus due to his existing medical conditions. 

“I knew with his heart, he couldn’t make it,” LaDonna said this week, seated in the living room at Mary’s house near Weaver alongside her brother, Phillip Smallwood, and his wife, Robin, both of whom also contracted COVID. “He said ‘hush,’ that he knew he was going to heaven if he died, and he wasn’t losing his wife.” 

In early January, Mary ended up in the emergency room at Regional Medical Center in Anniston. Her lips had turned purple from a lack of oxygen, LaDonna said. Robin was hospitalized, too. Phillip said he managed to ride out the virus at home, but one day Jimmy collapsed. His blood oxygen level was at 60 percent, Robin said, something the family learned from the emergency workers who transported him to the ER. A level of 95 to 100 percent is normal; anything below 90 percent is considered low

Smallwood family

The Smallwood family (from left) Mary Smallwood, Robin Smallwood and her husband, Phillip Smallwood. Mary and Robin are sharing an oxygen machine due to complications from COVID-19.

The last Mary and Jimmy saw of each other was during their stay in the emergency room. Afterward, they were kept in the hospital’s COVID ward in separate rooms, two doors apart from each other. 

Mary had to be put on a ventilator, LaDonna said, and Jimmy seemed to understand that something was happening with his wife. He became agitated several times, and nurses would put LaDonna, herself a nurse, on the phone to calm him.

Eventually, she said, he “coded” — his heart had finally had too much from the stress of the virus and hospitalization and the sedation required for ventilation. After 20 minutes of work to resuscitate him, LaDonna said, she told doctors to stop. Jimmy died Jan. 13 at 1:34 a.m., she said. 

Mary and Robin have since returned home, but they share an oxygen machine that sits on the floor between them, clear tubes snaking out and up to Mary’s recliner and Robin’s seat on the living room couch. They expected to have the machine for three or four weeks, but a month later, Robin can’t disconnect for more than a few minutes without her oxygen dropping dangerously low, she said.  

Asked how she’s holding up, Mary is tough, but honest. 

“Fair,” she said. On the other end of the couch is another big recliner, empty, where Jimmy used to sit. “I miss my husband more than anything.” 

Phillip said he knows his dad couldn’t have been convinced to do anything differently, even if he’d known how things would turn out. 

“He loved his wife, and that’s the way he was,” he said. 

LaDonna said she wished the hospital had allowed a family member to stay with Jimmy. She believes his agitation could have been calmed if she had been there with him through the long nights, and that his heart might not have given out with her support, she said. She had to let Mary know about Jimmy’s death via Facetime, a video chat app. 

Mary eulogized her husband as a strong person, a God-fearing man who loved church and wouldn’t let a Sunday go by without attending Weaver Church of Christ. If she could, she’d tell him she loves him. 

“I miss him something bad, something terrible, but I wouldn’t bring him back here for nothing in the world,” Mary said. “He’s in a better place now. A better place than this.”

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.