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Waiting to death: How COVID-19 killed an East Tenn. man who didn’t have the virus

Jack Harmon’s death certificate doesn’t list COVID-19 as his cause of death, but his family said that’s exactly what killed him. Just not in the way you would think.
Published: Oct. 12, 2021 at 5:20 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 12, 2021 at 11:35 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Jack Harmon’s death certificate shows that cardiogenic shock and a nonfunctioning mechanical heart valve directly caused his death on September 13, 2021. However, Harmon’s family argues COVID-19 is what really killed the 80-year-old from Blount County.

“He knew with his age and his heart condition it could be deadly to him. Ironically enough, I feel like it was, but not in the way we thought it would be,” Harmon’s daughter-in-law, Ashley Harmon, said.

COVID-19 related hospitalizations across Tennessee started dropping on September 10, 2021. The number continued on a downward trend for more than 30 straight days. However, University of Tennessee Medical Center warned the demand for ICU beds is still high. In an email dated Monday, October 11, UTMC’s Stacey Whitt said, “We are encouraged COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped from its peak in September. However, the numbers have stalled the past two weeks. COVID-19 hospitalizations and demand for ICU beds still remain significantly high.”

The Harmon family hopes that acknowledgment and what happened to Jack serve as a warning to East Tennesseans.

Their story starts with a home video, recorded by Ashley Harmon. The video shows her daughter Stella climbing into a golf cart with a destination in mind. All toddlers are on the go, but Stella knows where she is going.

“Stella, where are we going?” Her mother Ashley asks. “Where do you wanna go?”

The young child answers, “Pappy.” She wants to ride the golf cart down the street to see her grandfather, her Pappy Jack. His Blount County home is a quick ride down the road from hers, and the two were accustomed to spending a lot of time together.

“He didn’t have to work or coach baseball...he had nothing else to do but love her,” said Ashley.

But when life is so good and bad things happen, it’s in our nature to wonder, “What if?”

“What if a few more people had gotten vaccinated?” Ashley wondered. “What if there was just one more room?”

“What if the doctors had found this months ago?” Her husband, Donnie Harmon, wondered.

Those are the sort of questions Stella’s parents, Donnie and Ashley Harmon, found themselves asking over and over. Because, if things had happened differently, they wouldn’t have buried Donnie’s dad on Saturday, September 18.

Jack Harmon’s headstone is towards the back of a Blount County cemetery. Stella visits with her parents but doesn’t understand that her Pappy Jack is gone.

Donnie and Ashley met with WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara to explain what led to his death.

“He got vaccinated but you still think COVID is what killed him?” asked Hara.

Ashley said her 80-year-old father-in-law died at Blount Memorial Hospital on September 13, 2021, after waiting almost a week for a bed to open at University of Tennessee Medical Center. He needed something so basic: surgery to repair a mechanical heart valve. “They realized his mechanical valve that he’d had for about 20 years had quit working, so it was staying open and his blood wasn’t flowing through his heart,” said Ashley.

Jack’s death certificate shows a nonfunctioning mechanical aortic valve and cardiogenic shock directly caused his death. Ashley said surgery to repair it was the only thing that could save him.

“The nurse in the CCU told me they had called as far north as Chicago and as far south as Atlanta, and they couldn’t find an empty CCU bed, that everything was full due to COVID. I broke down and cried and I asked the nurse, ‘Well what am I supposed to do’?” Ashley explained.

Ashley said she called everyone she knew: Veterans Affairs because Jack was in the military and hospital board members. The family even contacted Congressman Tim Burchett’s office desperate for help.

But when Congressman Tim Burchett’s office called the family to see how it might be able to help, the family didn’t answer. They were busy watching doctors try to revive Jack. They had missed the call from Burchett’s office and Jack died 20 minutes later.

“I just needed one bed. One person not being sick in the hospital could have made all the difference for us,” said Ashley.

She described enduring highs and lows, and experiencing frustration and anger throughout the ordeal.

Jack’s medical records from Blount Memorial Hospital show how dire the hospital crisis was in mid-September. According to Jack’s death summary, “Attempts were made to transfer to multiple facilities with CTS including UT, Parkwest, Tennova, Ft. Sanders, Erlanger and Vanderbilt. No one was able to accept patient due to COVID pandemic and no beds.”

How often does someone die waiting for a bed that’s occupied by a COVID-19 patient? Blount Memorial Hospital isn’t tracking that data. “This is not something we’re actively tracking,” said Public Relations Manager Josh West. When asked if the hospital was aware of any circumstances similar to Jack Harmon’s, West said, “I can’t speak to that.”

University of Tennessee Medical Center isn’t keeping track either. Stacey Whitt, spokesperson for UTMC, said, “We don’t have that data.”

The state of Tennessee also does not keep track. “We are not tracking that information,” said spokesperson Sarah Tanksley.

Dr. Malcolm Foster, an East Tennessee cardiologist, told Hara he and his partners have had patients expire while waiting on a transfer.

In fact, in the last year, he said between 50 and 100 of their patients died while waiting for a bed to open at one of the major health systems in East Tennessee.

Dr. Malcolm Foster

Dr. Foster said the death rate was proving worse during the Delta wave of the pandemic, a trend he called concerning.

Yale conducted a study before the second Delta wave of the pandemic. It looked at the association between available hospital ICU beds and patient death rate during the initial weeks of the pandemic. It found that hospitals in the northeastern part of the United States had more deaths from a COVID-19 induced lack of ICU beds. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Alexander Janke, told WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara that Tennessee was relatively spared in the early days of the pandemic.

However, the scarcity of recent data focusing on the second wave of the pandemic makes it difficult to understand whether what happened to Jack happens often or is a rare occurrence. Either way, Donnie and Ashley said it should never have happened at all.

When asked why the couple decided to share Jack’s story, Ashley said, “Because people think everything is fake or made up or exaggerated. I want people to know that this is real and that it could be their family member. Next time it may not be an 80-year-old man who’s had a long life. It could be a 16-year-old kid who has a wreck on the way home and there’s no hospital bed for him, or there’s no ventilator for him, or there’s no surgeon for him.”

Their daughter Stella still rides the golf cart down the street to check on Pappy Jack’s house. And still, she doesn’t understand why he’s not there.

“I’m more heartbroken for her. I’ll always remember him but I feel like she was robbed of that opportunity,” said Ashley.

The Harmon’s will forever be haunted by the “What ifs?” Except, Ashley said, maybe one. “What if the person who sees this story makes a change? What if a child doesn’t lose their parent because...we shared Jack’s story?”

This “What if?” gives them hope that Jack’s death might just save a life.

Jack Harmon has three children, seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. He was a member of Six Mile Baptist Church, a veteran of the United States Air Force and retired from the Alcoa Aluminum Company.

According to Jack’s death summary, “Attempts were made to transfer to multiple facilities with...
According to Jack’s death summary, “Attempts were made to transfer to multiple facilities with CTS including UT, Parkwest, Tennova, Ft. Sanders, Erlanger and Vanderbilt. No one was able to accept patient due to COVID pandemic and no beds.”(WVLT)
Jack Harmon’s death certificate shows that cardiogenic shock and a nonfunctioning mechanical...
Jack Harmon’s death certificate shows that cardiogenic shock and a nonfunctioning mechanical heart valve directly caused his death on September 13, 2021.(WVLT)

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