The last time Elijah Ross-Rutter saw his mother, he was looking into her hospital room through a small glass window. As his mother was dying from the coronavirus, he and his five siblings said goodbye to her using a walkie-talkie. The receiver sat propped up against a pillow beside their mother.
“I told her I love her ... she shouldn’t worry about the kids,” Ross-Rutter, her fourth-oldest child, told BuzzFeed News.
Sundee Rutter, 42, a single mother of six and breast cancer survivor, died as a result of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, on March 16. All six of her children as well as her sister and mother were outside her hospital room to say goodbye via a handheld radio device.
Rutter was recovering from a yearlong bout with breast cancer when she was diagnosed with COVID-19. During her cancer treatments, she was able to have her family and friends by her side, but with the coronavirus, Rutter’s family could only communicate with her from outside her hospital room.
At first, Ross-Rutter said he was allowed to see her with a face mask on, but then the hospital completely isolated her.
“Like, I’m about to lose my best friend and she can’t even hear me,” Ross-Rutter said.
Ross-Rutter said his mother first visited Providence Regional Medical Center in Washington — the hospital where the first known US COVID-19 case was treated — on March 3.
While there, he and his mother spent eight hours in a sealed room with hospital staff coming in and out wearing full protective suits.
“They don’t even want to touch my mom,” Ross-Rutter said, adding that they were later sent home.
“She thought she had the flu, probably,” Ross-Rutter, 20, told BuzzFeed News. “But like, the coronavirus? It was kind of hard for us to understand how she could get it because not that many people had it around here.”
At the time, there were only 27 reported cases and nine deaths in Washington state, compared to the current 4,300 and 195 deaths. As of Monday, there are 1,068 cases and 21 deaths just in Snohomish County, where Rutter lived.
On March 7, four days after Rutter and her son were sent home, they returned to the hospital. This time, Ross-Rutter was confined to the visitors waiting area while doctors examined his mother. Several hours later, a doctor called to tell him they were keeping his mother overnight and that they’d be treating her for pneumonia.
The next day, she tested positive for COVID-19, Ross-Rutter told BuzzFeed News.
“For a while, she was able to text,” Ross-Rutter said, adding that she told him she was “much better” when he asked her how she was doing March 12. Text messages then turned into emoji-only responses.
“She was sending me hearts on the messages but she wasn’t replying,” he said. By March 16, the doctors called to say the family should come to the hospital. She died that afternoon.
Rutter was born and raised in Everett, Washington, but lived in Marysville at the time of her death. She went to Mariner High School and would have celebrated her 43rd birthday this August. Even throughout her cancer treatments, she worked for the discount retailer Ross Dress for Less, a job she held for 10 years.
Rutter raised her six children — ages 13 to 24 — alone after their father died in 2012.
“She had already beat [cancer] and was trying to get her life back and then this happened,” Jessica Harris, a close friend of Rutter’s told BuzzFeed News. “She’s a fighter, she did not seem to let it bother her at all,” Harris said of how Rutter handled cancer.
Her children described her as “kind, beautiful, caring, and goofy,” but mostly always positive and willing to put her children before herself.
“She would also love when we would teach her the new dance moves that were trending,” Ross-Rutter told BuzzFeed News, naming the dab, whip, Nae Nae, and folks dances as a few. “She really loved music.”
People across the country showed their support for Rutter and her children with donations of more than $275,000. The oldest child, Tyree Rutter, 24, plans to use the money to secure housing for him and his younger siblings as he completes his last year at Central Washington University.
“Like it’s crazy how much love and support we’ve been receiving from the community,” Ross-Rutter said. “It kind of goes to show how big of an impact my mom had on our community.”
“She was a supermom, you know?” he added.