At first glance, Burnest Orr’s chances didn’t look good. He had contracted COVID-19 at his assisted living facility in early April. He developed serious complications, including pneumonia in both lungs and congestive heart failure. With his age — just weeks away from his 99th birthday – and the complications, doctors thought putting him on a ventilator would probably do more harm than good.
But that first glance didn’t tell the whole picture. Orr had some powerful plusses on his side. Along with a dedicated team of caregivers at Missouri Baptist Medical Center and a countrywide prayer chain, Orr kept a relentless positivity in the face of a frightening disease. Moreover, he had his family’s staunch support — even as one of them confronted her own health crisis.
Hard worker, independent spirit
Orr was born in Tennessee but came to St. Louis in 1942 to “go to school and build airplanes” at aircraft manufacturer Curtiss-Wright Corporation. He continued there after the factory was sold to McDonnell Douglas and eventually taken over by Boeing.
Orr and his wife raised four children in north St. Louis City and north St. Louis County. Daughter Donna Wilkerson remembers her father being strong and positive while working two jobs throughout her childhood.
He retired from Boeing after 42 years in the aeronautics industry and remained active and independent after his wife’s death, living — and thriving — in an assisted living facility in Florissant.
As COVID-19 spread across the globe, one thing quickly became obvious. Patients over age 65 were the most vulnerable to dying from it. Orr’s facility, like others across the country, responded by locking down in March. His family missed him, but knew the lockdown was for the best.
Then, Wilkerson, 66, of Glen Carbon, Illinois, got some worrying news of her own. After her annual mammogram showed suspicious spots, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in early April (see sidebar below).
About that time, the family and assisted living facility noticed Orr had a mild respiratory infection. With the lockdown at the facility, the family thought Orr probably had a simple cold. “The facility didn’t have cases of the virus, to our knowledge,” Wilkerson says.
Orr did not get better, and on April 13 he complained of being very tired and out of breath. After a chest X-ray was taken by the facility, it was determined Orr had pneumonia. The facility reported Orr’s results to Benjamin Voss, MD, his primary care physician. Dr. Voss wanted Orr to immediately go to the Missouri Baptist Medical Center emergency department to be tested for COVID-19. However, pandemic restrictions made finding a medical transport almost impossible.
Wilkerson was scheduled to meet with her Siteman Cancer Center breast cancer surgeon the next day to plan her surgery, so her brother, Craig Orr, stepped in from his home in Northville, Michigan, to arrange the transport.
On arrival at MBMC on April 14, Burnest Orr tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted to the COVID-19 intensive care unit.
“His diagnosis scared me more than mine,” says Wilkerson. “At that time, we thought COVID-19 for someone his age was a death sentence.”
At first, so did Orr.
“I thought this might be it,” he says.
The virus had invaded his lungs and caused congestive heart failure, making breathing even more difficult. But doctors knew for a patient Orr’s age, with those serious complications, a ventilator was more likely to cause further damage than to help. Instead, they turned to other treatments, including supplemental oxygen. In twice-daily calls to the unit, Wilkerson and her brother gauged how her father was doing by the amount of oxygen he needed.
A place of comfort
Craig Orr and his wife managed to find a vacation rental home still open despite quarantine and came to St. Louis to help out. Also helping out, says Burnest Orr, was “a lot of prayer.”
With their church, prayers chains and social media contacts joining in, “we had a whole country of prayers,” says Wilkerson.
In the MBMC COVID-19 unit, the staff found that Orr had one more secret weapon — a boundless love of life.
“I worked with Burnest the first few weeks I was on the COVID unit,” says nurse Erin Bingham. “Tensions were high and things were changing by the second. I pride myself in the ability to comfort patients in their times of need, but Burnest’s room ended up being a place of comfort for myself and many others. His love for life and constant positivity was infectious.
“The second you stepped in his room you were met with a full-faced smile and music. He would ask, ‘Have you heard this one? It’s a good one.’ He would be filled with joy when I told him I had. While doing my duties, he shared stories about his family, his life. And never had a bad thing to say. Not about his life, the staff or the virus he was battling,” she says. “I’ll never forget that delightful, full-spirited man.”
Slowly, the tide turned against the virus. On April 25, Burnest Orr was moved out of the COVID unit to begin about a week of rehab.
The pandemic had closed most rehabilitation facilities in the area, so Orr moved to MBMC’s acute rehab unit to help him regain strength. Again, his positivity won over the staff.
“Caring for COVID-19 patients was something I think all of us nurses were nervous to do,” says nurse Allie Mancuso. “But we were also up and ready for the challenge. Patients like Burnie are one in a million. Every time I entered his room, he always had a smile on his face and such an optimistic attitude for getting better. He really had a comforting presence.
“He made me feel like I was truly making a difference and was so appreciative of all the care we provided for him, which really melted my heart,” she says. “He's one tough cookie and I will always remember him!”
Recovery and party planning
On May 5, the day before his 99th birthday, Burnest Orr was discharged from MBMC. He went to the home rented by his son and daughter-in-law, who provided care for about a month, while his daughter recovered from her surgery. He is now residing with his daughter and son-in-law. Orr and his daughter are both continuing their recoveries together — getting stronger by the day.
The entire family says they’re grateful for their father’s care during his stay at MBMC staff and for the kindness and reassurance they received when they called to check on him.
Orr says he appreciates all those who helped him through a difficult time and would be glad to see them outside of the hospital in about a year, when he celebrates his 100th birthday.
“That,” he says, “is going to be a big celebration.
In tough conditions, woman overcomes cancer diagnosis with strength
Getting a cancer diagnosis is difficult in the best of times. Donna Wilkerson got her diagnosis in the middle of a pandemic. But, like her 99-year-old father, Burnest Orr, who was in intensive care battling COVID-19, Wilkerson conquered a life-threatening disease by simply doing what she had to do.
Make no mistake – it wasn’t easy. “It was the worst time in our lives,” says Wilkerson, 66, of Glen Carbon, Illinois. “It was hard to sleep. And you’d jump any time the phone rang.”
But for her and her family, giving up wasn’t an option.
Her annual mammogram in March turned up several suspicious calcifications. A biopsy confirmed that she had cancer. Her mother — a non-smoker — died from lung cancer and her sister died from ovarian cancer. So Wilkerson, knowing the importance of early detection, scheduled a biopsy.
In early April, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
On April 14, the day of her appointment with Siteman Cancer Center breast surgeon Julie Margenthaler, MD, her father was admitted to Missouri Baptist Medical Center with COVID-19. His diagnosis scared her more than hers, she says. Her surgery was scheduled for two weeks later at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital.
Because of pandemic restrictions, her procedure, a single mastectomy, would be done outpatient. And she’d have to go it alone. With the waiting rooms closed, her husband dropped her off at the BJWCH emergency room door on the morning of April 27. He waited outside until the surgery was over and she was wheeled back out of the emergency room door, ready to go home.
“I didn’t really feel bad,” she says. “And I was extremely blessed that they found the cancer early and were able to get all of it.” By having a mastectomy, she was able to avoid follow-up chemotherapy and radiation.
Even better, her father had not only survived his bout with the virus, he was able eventually to come to her home. Now healthy, both of them get stronger every day.