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  • Writer's pictureAhmad Austin

First, this 94-year-old Ventnor woman survived cancer. Then along came COVID-19.

(Originally published in The Press of Atlantic City on 6/5/2020)

Estella Londono has left her family in awe of her will to fight the past eight months.

After spending 18 days in the hospital battling COVID-19, months after being diagnosed with colon cancer, the 94-year-old was greeted by warm applause from her children and grandchildren when she came back to their Ventnor home May 27.

Her daughter could only describe the scene one way.

“It’s unbelievable,” Isabel Iannuzzelli recalled thinking that day. “This is a miracle. I knew she was strong, but, my God, this is amazing. I still can’t believe it.”

For Londono, who came to the United States from Medellin, Colombia, 26 years ago, the battle began in September when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She was given two months to live, but after a monthlong hospital stay, she beat the odds.

In early May, Londono began to feel ill. Joe Iannuzzelli, Isabel’s husband and Londono’s son-in-law, said the family assumed it was cancer-related. They never even considered the possibility of COVID-19. When she began to have trouble breathing, they put her on oxygen. Joe was adamant on her staying home, explaining that if her time was coming, it should be spent around family as opposed to alone in a hospital. Londono would eventually ask to be taken to the hospital.

“For my mother-in-law to say she wants to go to the hospital,” said Joe, a lieutenant in the Ventnor Fire Department, “she must have been hurting pretty bad.” Isabel, with two of her brothers, took Londono to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus.

Days into her stay, the family received the news that she tested positive for the coronavirus. “We were shocked,” Joe said. “We thought, ‘Aw man, this is it.’”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight of 10 COVID-19 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in adults 65 or older. For adults 85 or older, it is estimated that 10% to 27% die from complications related to the coronavirus.

All family members at the home were soon tested. All of them tested negative, but Joe mentioned Londono’s caregiver was the only constant presence in the home who did not get tested since she refused.

The hospital called the family daily to give updates. Hearing the ring of the phone put everyone on edge.

“Every time that phone rang and I saw ‘AtlantiCare,’” Isabel said. “I thought that was going to be the call to tell us that my mother was gone. It was a long 18 days.”

The family leaned heavily on its faith, praying often for Londono to go through as little pain as possible. Some of them even made video calls to pray the rosary with her.

“I have a little altar in my kitchen over here with the Virgin Mary and a statue of Jesus with a candle,” Isabel said, “and every day, I had that candle on and I would pray, ‘Please, God, don’t let my mother suffer.’” Joe said Londono initially received 45 liters of oxygen per minute with a new mask-free treatment. The doctors tried plasma therapy, but her body rejected it and her condition worsened. They tried again the next day, and her body tolerated it. From that point on, they began gradually decreasing the amount of oxygen she was receiving. After a week and a half at 35 liters, Londono showed significant improvement and the doctors took her down to two liters. The hospital called the family May 22 and informed them of her progress. Joe, who was on the clock the day she was supposed to come home, picked her up in a Ventnor ambulance.

After her stay in the hospital for the cancer, Joe said Londono was frail at first but was back to walking around, cooking and cleaning in a couple weeks. Though she feels weaker this time around due to the coronavirus, her confidence has yet to waver.

“I’m still weak. I need a lot of help,” Londono said with the help of her daughter translating. “But I know I’m going to get better.”

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