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'We all need to think about each other': Mom speaks out after 12-year-old dies of COVID-19

Elizabeth McNew's family hopes that people will act as selflessly as their daughter and wear masks to protect others.
12-year-old Atlantic Beach girl dies of COVID-19
Grieving the loss of her daughter, Elizabeth, 12, has been a rollercoaster for Elda McNew. She credits a strong faith and the love of family and friends with helping her.Courtesy Elda McNew
/ Source: TODAY

After being hospitalized for 10 days, Elizabeth McNew, a 12-year-old Florida girl, has died of COVID-19, according to her family. As they grapple with her loss, they hope that people understand how serious coronavirus is and they do all they can to protect others.

“If you kept one germ droplet from just accidentally getting on another person, you have been a hero, and all it took was an annoying little mask,” Elda McNew, 49, of Atlantic Beach, Florida, told TODAY. “I would like people to think of the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Because we need to find some love and compassion for each other.”

12-year-old Atlantic Beach girl dies of COVID-19
Elizabeth McNew, 12, was kind to everyone she met. As her family copes with her sudden death, they hope to encourage others to act selflessly and compassionately during the pandemic. Courtesy Elda McNew

McNew also hopes that their story offers hope to anyone else who is mourning.

“As a family, our legacy will be trying to help people deal with grief,” she said. “You go from just this intense anger and sadness. Luckily, I’ve been drawing a lot on my faith.”

A quick, intense illness

The McNew family thought they were doing everything they could to protect themselves from COVID-19. If they left the house, they wore masks. Elizabeth and her brother, Liam, 15, went to virtual school because it seemed safest.

“We had taken all the precautions,” McNew said.

Brad McNew, Elizabeth's father, works in law enforcement and every time he returns home, he sanitizes his shoes, put his clothes in the wash and immediately takes a shower. In early September, Brad began coughing but thought it was his annual bout with bronchitis. He visited the doctor who suspected the same but urged him to get a COVID-19 test. Around the same time, Elizabeth felt congested, which started off like seasonal allergies.

When Brad learned he had COVID-19, it seemed that Elizabeth’s health worsened.

“Even though my husband tested positive, his symptoms were very mild to moderate,” McNew explained. “It became very clear that Elizabeth was not just having allergies ... She came and said, ‘I can’t breathe exactly good.’”

McNew took her daughter to Wolfson Children's Hospital and comforted her. McNew said she never tested positive for COVID-19 and did not have a fever so the hospital allowed her to stay.

“I never left for 10 days,” she said.

Elizabeth had a tracheostomy and was on medications to manage her symptoms and pain. She could answer questions with ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and McNew tried explaining how much support her daughter had from friends and family. But sometimes that made Elizabeth cry.

“I wanted to tell her how many people loved her and that Daddy’s praying and (her) brother’s praying,” McNew explained. “She would start crying … So I just began touching her and saying, ‘I’m here.’”

While it was overwhelming watching her daughter battle with the illness, McNew felt awed by the staff who worked tirelessly to save her daughter’s life. They invited her to the team meetings where they’d talk about Elizabeth’s care so her mom could understand what they were facing.

“Her (infection) seemed to just be more intense and a little more complicated,” she said.

12-year-old Atlantic Beach girl dies of COVID-19
Elda McNew finds comfort in knowing that Elizabeth, 12, took the positive lessons she learned from her parents to become a kind and generous friend. Courtesy Elda McNew

Then on September 25, Elizabeth died. According to NBC 6 South Florida, 13,915 Florida State residents' deaths have been coronavirus-related, as confirmed by the state. COVID-19 has had a lesser impact on children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which reported that 109 children have died of COVID-19-related complications as of September 24.

“Each one of the doctors or nurses ... said, ‘I’m so sorry that I couldn’t do a better job,’ or ‘I couldn’t save her,’” McNew recalled. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I saw you in there. You were doing everything.’ I was just absolutely stunned at the humbleness and veracity they had. They wanted to save her.”

A lasting legacy

Elizabeth loved art and was often working on art projects. The family garden has a village of fairy dwellings that Elizabeth made from houses once used for dolls and stuffed animals. She painted an old wooden ladder her mom found and along with her Girl Scout troop made stepping stones for the family’s yard. Often her family would hear Elizabeth humming or singing. This Christmas she'd hoped to try out for a solo. The memories of her kindness, generosity and willingness to chat with just about anyone brings comfort to her family.

“She had friends everywhere,” McNew said. “She didn’t care if you were just born or 100 years old. She would stop and talk to you and give you a hug or help you.”

At a memorial over the weekend, one of her classmates shared how their peers often turned to Elizabeth for advice.

“He said, ‘I saw her go to children that were just having a bad day and she would comfort and talk to them,’” McNew said. “She took all the things that I had taught her — and her father had taught her — and she created a world that we had no idea existed.”

12-year-old Atlantic Beach girl dies of COVID-19
While Elda McDew worked in the garden, Elizabeth, 12, would work on art projects to beautify the yard. Courtesy Elda McNew

The support from loved ones has touched the McNew family.

"These mothers, I'm calling my warrior angels. They looked into a GoFundMe page," McNew said. "They organized luminaries in our yard. They set up meals ... That is really amazing."

McNew hopes that Elizabeth’s compassion and selflessness lives on and that those who hear her story strive to embody her best qualities.

“We all need to think about each other,” she said. “Masks are uncomfortable and they’re annoying, and here in Florida, they fog up your glasses. I know it is hard. But it’s harder to plan a funeral. It’s harder to watch your daughter struggle for breath for 10 days.”