MOUNTAIN CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Anywhere you go in Johnson County, you’ll hear a story about Martine Hope.
For some, that name is tied to a memory at the Hope homefront, playing in the sun on a Friday afternoon. Others remember the stern yet kind teacher’s aid who worked with special education students at Johnson County High School for 32 years.
Martine’s husband, Bobby, and her three adult children – Kathy Schwarberg, Donna Nelson and Dale Hope – sift through piles of photographs on the dining-room table two weeks after Martine’s death from COVID-19 complications.
In one photo, Martine is strapped into a Dollywood ride aside two of her grandchildren, her face alight with laughter. “I can’t believe she got on that ride,” her daughter, Donna Nelson, says with a laugh.
“It was always about the kids”
When she was in the first grade, Martine would meet a second-grade boy named Bobby Hope. Decades later, she would write, “Knew right then that he was the one for me!”
Bobby says the pair got together in grade school. Bobby’s stint in the U.S. Marine Corps broke the pair up for several years, but a 49-year marriage waited for them on the other side of the split.
They moved to Mountain City in 1981 as Bobby chased down construction jobs after he left the service. They fell in love with the area and settled down, perched among the hills of Johnson County.
Her days usually began at Kids Country, a childcare center for preschool kids. After opening the center, her day at Johnson County High School began, where she worked for 32 years as a teacher’s assistant for special education students.
She took her work with special education students out of the classroom for a work program that sought to help special education students prepare for life after high school.
“She definitely loved her job,” Dale said. “I don’t think she would have been happy doing anything else.”
She took some hours at the local grocery store. On Friday nights, you’d spot her in the ticket booth for little league games. During the summers, she’d fashion her home into her own childcare center, filling the house with 15 children at a time.
“This was the babysitting spot,” Donna recalls. “Everybody in the surrounding communities would bring their kids here, and they knew they were took care of.”
The Hopes opened their home to foreign exchange students three different times throughout the decades, housing two Japanese students and one Spanish student in a now-defunct foreign exchange program through Johnson County Schools.
Thirty years later, the students still come to visit their international family, bringing children of their own. Martine’s obituary lists the three students as her “special foreign exchange children.”
“It was kids all the way around,” Donna said. “It was the daycares, it was babysitting it was the kids at the school.
“It was always, just always about the kids.”
As the novel coronavirus spread across the northeast Tennessee region, Martine’s children say they begged their mother to stay home. But it just wasn’t in her nature – she was back in the classroom when schools reopened to in-person instruction.
Her family doesn’t know where she contracted COVID-19, but the test came back positive on October 16.
The parking lot.
At 70 years old, Martine fit into an age demographic considered to be vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. She also suffered from asthma, placing her at high risk for severe complications from the illness.
Less than a week after receiving a positive test, Martine was hospitalized.
“She just, she couldn’t stop coughing,” Kathy said.
Bobby also tested positive for the virus, but never showed any symptoms of the illness. Martine would spend the next few weeks at Watauga Medical Center in Boone, North Carolina, as the virus overwhelmed her body.
COVID-19 regulations at the hospital kept Martine’s family from visiting her. The hospital staff set up an iPad in her room for the family to maintain a digital connection with Martine for the next two weeks.
The family remained in near-constant connection through an ongoing FaceTime call, but it wasn’t enough.
“The nurses were very good with her . . . They would stroke her hair and stroke her face and talk to her . . . things that we could have done if we were in there,” Donna said through tears. “They’d hold her hand . . . but it’s nothing like being with her.”
The family received a call from hospital workers on Nov. 3 – Martine’s condition continued to worsen. Her husband and three children got 30 minutes by her side to say goodbye.
In her final hours, Martine was at peace, her family recalls.
“She said she was ready to go home,” Bobby said, pointing his finger upward.
She died the next morning. Bobby, Donna, Dale and Kathy never left the hospital parking lot that night, connected to Martine by a screen.
“That was the hardest, the hardest thing,” Donna said.
“It’s real. This virus is real.”
Out of the 349 people who have died from COVID-19 in the northeast Tennessee region, 18 have been reported in Johnson County.
Last week, an emergency room nurse in South Dakota took to Twitter in exasperation, detailing her experience treating patients who deny the virus’ existence as they lay on their deathbed.
“It’s like a (explicative) horror movie that never ends,” the nurse wrote. “There’s no credits that roll. You just go back and do it all over again.”
Local health officials continue pleas for community members to take precautions as cases surge in the region, stressing the hospital system and devastating families like the Hope’s.
On Wednesday, Alison Johnson, the Nursing Director for Johnson City Medical Center’s COVID-19 unit begged community members to take the COVID-19 threat seriously.
“I wish you could see what we see, I wish you could see what we feel,” Johnson said. “Every day is like a battlefield. How, oh how could this be real?”
For the Hope family, and 348 other families in the northeast Tennessee region, COVID-19 is all too real.
“We’re living proof of that,” Dale said.