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Son shares story of mother's COVID-19 battle, hopeful others show kindness as we emerge from pandemic

Rita Kirby
Posted at 9:10 PM, Mar 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-12 21:12:09-05

CLEVELAND — It’s been a year since COVID entered our lives.

News 5 learned the story of a seemingly healthy Northeast Ohio frontline worker, Air Force veteran and mother. Based on the determination and grit she showed in her everyday life, many thought a COVID-19 diagnosis would be a battle she was sure to win.

Rita Kirby— a frontline worker at Lutheran Hospital, where she served as a surgical tech—began her career in the medical field more than three decades earlier, during her time in the Air Force.

At first, Rita was responsible for loading aircraft with weapons, bombs and missiles.

“She’s got a get it done mentality and I think she learned that in the Air Force," said Zach Kirby, Rita’s son.

Zach said his mother cross-trained, moving into Air Force surgical rooms.

“She cared about people. It was a passion she had, serving in the medical field. Like most healthcare workers, felt a sense of duty to continue to be there to support the team and most importantly, take care of the patients,” Zach said.

Zach said he hardly saw his mother between March and July of last year.

“She took it seriously. I mean, she knew, she knew the risk and was careful with that.”

On July 12, 2020 Rita was rushed to the hospital after fainting and hitting her head. Doctors ran a series of tests and determined Rita had COVID-19.

“She was sent home about a day later, she developed worse symptoms, trouble breathing, and actually went back to the emergency room,” Zach said.

And the COVID-19 rollercoaster began.

About two weeks after being diagnosed, Rita was placed on a ventilator.

“One of the things she told me before she went on the ventilator was she wanted to do anything she could to beat this. She signed up for all of the trials and all of the experimental treatments, Remdesivir, the convalescent plasma. And she was given those treatments,” Zach said.

In the weeks that followed, Rita suffered a stroke.

Amid his mother’s declining health, Zach agonized over not being able to visit her.

Then, at the end of August—and to everyone’s surprise—Rita woke up in the middle of the night.

Nurses alerted Zach and placed her on a facetime call with her oldest son.

“She responded to me and was able to tell me she loved me.”

Despite the infections, dialysis, and fluid and scarring to her lungs, Rita started showing signs of improvement and doctors hoped to ween her off the ventilator.

But in early September, Rita went into cardiac arrest.

“I don't think I really knew what that meant at the time. Unfortunately she was left with a brain injury that was not recoverable. The only time that I was able to physically be with her throughout the entire process was as I held her hand as she passed away,” Zach said.

On Sept. 21, 2020, after a 10-week battle with COVID, Rita died. She was just 54 and had no underlying health conditions.

“Statistically, she should have survived, and the reality is not everyone is that lucky. This has been the worst year of my life and I've been put in a situation and had to make decisions and deal with things that I wouldn't wish on anybody.”

As a tribute, Lutheran Hospital named their new robotic surgical assistant “Rita” in her honor.

Zach is hopeful as we start to emerge from this pandemic that people will treat others with kindness, because you may not know what kind of rollercoaster they’ve been on this past year.