MIAMI, Okla. — Three days after Christmas, Jennifer Cunningham found herself at Integris Grove Hospital struggling to breathe.
Following a doctor’s appointment, Jennifer’s husband, Wes Cunningham, dropped her off at the emergency room for testing to determine how double pneumonia — one of the effects of the new coronavirus — was progressing.
A midafternoon scan indicated Jennifer had blood clots in both lungs. Doctors told Wes they were looking to find a hospital to transfer her to for further treatment, but he said he was told no hospital beds were available in Oklahoma, Arkansas or Missouri.
By 6:24 p.m., Jennifer was dead. Doctors told Wes they believed some clots dislodged when she went to the restroom.
Now, just days after her death, Wes and other family members and friends, including daughters Victoria, 17, and Annaliese, 11, are speaking out about Jennifer’s battle with the virus, which by Dec. 31 had claimed at least 72 other lives in Ottawa and Delaware counties in Northeast Oklahoma.
“I think it’s important for people to see (COVID-19 affecting) people close to them and in their communities,” Wes said. “They need to see how painful and devastating of a disease this is. I think so many people take (COVID-19) for granted and do not take the simple precautions of wearing a mask until it affects them directly. It is a proven killer. You just have to look at the numbers.”
Jennifer, a former teacher in Miami and Fairland in Oklahoma, was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Dec. 15 after self-quarantining from an exposure on Dec. 4. She told family and friends she wanted to use social media to highlight her journey with the virus.
She knew firsthand, from watching her sister-in-law’s experience working at a Joplin hospital, that area health care facilities were burdened with COVID-19 cases.
“She was worried people were not being safe enough,” said Joelle Shaffer, the sister-in-law. “She posted things because she wanted people to know what COVID-19 was like.”
Four days later, Jennifer’s social media posts turned more serious as she asked friends for “positive vibes, thoughts, love and prayers. I’m going on seven days of this COVID-19 nonsense. The fever keeps climbing and I’m tired.”
By Dec. 22, Jennifer’s fever climbed to 104 degrees while her oxygen levels decreased. Tests at the emergency room in Grove indicated she had pneumonia and low oxygen levels. She was discharged after a seven-hour stay accompanied by the prescribed oxygen tank.
A Christmas Eve update let friends know the prescribed oxygen was helping her, although she said that her blood pressure was still low and the fever was only staying down thanks to medicine.
Wes said things improved somewhat on Dec. 26, when Jennifer slept in a bed. It was the first time in eight days she was able to leave her recliner for more than a bathroom break or trip to the porch.
“I really thought she was going to get better after we came home with oxygen,” Wes said. “I thought that would help us turn the corner.”
But her death would come two days later as she sat at the Integris Grove emergency room awaiting transport to another hospital. COVID-19, relentless and hard to defeat, had claimed another victim: a 42-year-old wife, mother of two, teacher and community volunteer.
Dedicated to students
Before her marriage to Wes in 2003, Jennifer explored a career in the hospitality industry, dreaming of working in a hotel in Hawaii. After the births of her daughters, Jennifer began working for the Department of Human Services in Ottawa and Delaware counties in child welfare.
Her brother, Marc Shaffer, said the job left Jennifer empty and searching for other ways to help the students she encountered.
“She wanted to make a difference,” he said.
That passion, family members say, led Jennifer to pursue an alternative teaching license and eventually earn a master’s degree in education administration from Western Governors University.
She began teaching middle school science in Fairland in 2013 before transferring to teach the same subject at Will Rogers Middle School in Miami. In 2019, she made another move to teach English and yearbook classes at Bluejacket High School in Craig County.
Amber Harrison, a Grove teacher and friend, would go on walks with Jennifer. The pair would discuss ways to get their students engaged and excited about learning — even if it meant finding new, innovative and hands-on methods.
The pair would later collaborate, taking their students on field trips to the Rural Oklahoma Museum of Poetry in Locust Grove. Jennifer made it mandatory for her students to enter the museum’s poetry contests, even as she herself entered. Jennifer’s first entry, “I Remember,” was published in “Word Daubers,” the collection of works from the museum’s 2019 Summer Poetry Challenge.
“She wanted her students to be globally aware and care about others,” Harrison said. “She wanted them to make a positive impact on others in the world.”