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Mary Lou Retton’s daughter recalls saying goodbye to mom in ICU: ‘Things went south really fast’

Retton and her daughter sat down for an exclusive interview with TODAY's Hoda Kotb that aired Jan. 8.
/ Source: TODAY

Mary Lou Retton is detailing for the first time what happened leading up to her sudden hospitalization with a life-threatening rare form of pneumonia back in October.

The day before Retton first went to the hospital, she was getting her nails done with her eldest daughter, Shayla Schrepfer, she told TODAY's Hoda Kotb in an exclusive interview that aired Jan. 8. They were preparing for a "girls' trip" and were set to go to Dallas, Texas, to see Retton's daughter Emma Jean's boyfriend play an away game, both getting red nails for the University of Arkansas.

During the manicure, Schrepfer recalls her mom saying, "I just can't keep my eyes open. I am so tired." Later that evening, another one of Retton's daughters thought something was off when she started "to say things that don't make a whole lot of sense."

But Schrepfer didn't think anything of it, and they shrugged it off as dehydration. Her mom was "like a little pistol," she said during the interview, which was filmed at Retton's home in Boerne, Texas.

Retton was supposed to meet her daughters at the game the next day. But she never made it.

The former Olympic gymnast was found by a neighbor lying on her bedroom floor the day after the manicure, struggling to breathe.

"I didn’t know what was wrong with me," Retton said, adding that she was trying to take in a "big, deep breath," but couldn't — something she said she still can't do as she remains on an oxygen apparatus in recovery from her monthlong stay in the intensive care unit.

Retton said she was laying on the floor for 15 minutes, awake but struggling, before her "dear friend," a neighbor who lives across the street, noticed that one of the cars in Retton's driveway had the door open.

"She came in the house. She knows my code, and saw me and found me," Retton said. "And Magda pretty much saved my life."

At first, Retton was taken to an emergency room, before they advised her to go to a hospital. The neighbor called Schrepfer, who headed home.

Retton's daughters — Schrepfer, McKenna Kelley, Skyla Kelley and Emma Jean Kelley — first shared news of their mom's illness with the public via a fundraising site on Oct. 10, writing that Retton was "fighting for her life" in the ICU.

But before Retton was admitted to the ICU, she was hospitalized for a "couple of days" and then sent home.

"I wasn't being treated. I kept saying, 'I can't breathe,'" Retton said.

At home, she reached a dangerously low pulse oximeter level, which is a measure of the amount of oxygen circulating in the blood. A normal pulse oximeter reading is between between 95% and 100% oxygen saturation, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Retton's was in the 70s, she recalled.

Her condition quickly deteriorated, and she was rushed to the hospital and admitted to the ICU.

"Things just went south really, really fast," Schrepfer said.

The night Retton was admitted, a doctor approached Schrepfer and her two sisters — the youngest, Emma, was at college — and said they were considering "taking the next step" and putting Retton on a ventilator.

"Life support," Retton clarified.

The doctor then told the sisters to get Emma to the hospital.

"'We don't know if she's going to make it through the night,'" Schrepfer recalls a doctor telling her.

Schrepfer and McKenna Kelly put their hands on their mom and prayed.

"They were saying their goodbyes to me," Retton said.

Then, after trying one more breathing apparatus, Retton was able to reach an oxygen level that prevented her from going on a ventilator.

"Emma was able to get there," Schrepfer said. "So that was a huge blessing, a huge sigh of relief, being there that night.

After Oct. 10, Retton's family began regularly updating the public on her recovery. Retton was home by Oct. 23 and shared her first statement since her hospitalization on Oct. 30, writing that she was "with family continuing to slowly recover and staying very positive."

Retton said doctors still don't know what caused the pneumonia. She said she tested negative for COVID-19, the flu and RSV. Doctors also determined it wasn't bacterial or fungal.

When she gets stronger, she said doctors want to do a biopsy on her lungs to try to figure out what happened. But because the cause of the illness is a mystery, the timeline on Retton's recovery is unclear, Schrepfer said.

"You don’t get to see the light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "So it’s a day by day recovery period."