Since Rita Caver’s boyfriend died several years ago, Caver’s traveling companion has been her big sister, Patricia Jacuzzi. And so on Feb. 29, the sisters and four other friends made a trip to The Bahamas, to a tiny island called Cat Island. They were there nine days, for what Caver said was a great trip. Jacuzzi, 72, did tai chi on the beach; they ate conch fritters and just “hung out,” Caver said.
“At that point, there was barely any information out there” about COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus that was traveling the world. “There were a few people in airports wearing masks. There was not this urgency,” Caver said, but still they wiped down their food trays on the plane with sanitizer.
“We knew there were germs around. In retrospect, Patti had lung cancer twice; she was a perfect candidate to get this. In retrospect, maybe if our president had told us more. It wasn’t really on the radar.”
Jacuzzi was the only one of the six travelers to become infected with the virus. “We can’t know if it was the plane or the gas station on the way home,” or some other way, Caver said.
Jacuzzi thought she had the flu when she first got sick. Her temperature was going up and down. She called a couple of her doctors and “finally someone said go get tested,” Caver said. She went through the testing drive-through at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. It was early in the testing process, so it took five days to get the test results, Caver said. Jacuzzi’s pulse oxygen was getting lower, and one of her doctors sent her to the hospital. It was mid-March.
“I just kept being optimistic,” Caver said. “She beat all these other things. She still had a lot of life in her.” Caver described her sister as someone who threw herself 100 percent into every job, whether as a floral arranger for Ann’s Candle Shop years ago, or a loan originator at First Commercial Bank, training employees in arrangements at Candy Bouquet or at her last job, at Park Hill Interiors. She was a master gardener who took care of the gardens at Bryant City Hall, and adopted the street to her house to keep it clean. She said yes to everything that was asked of her, Carver said. “I would practice with her,” Caver said. “It’s an easy word, just two letters: No, n.o.”
But Jacuzzi was not going to master COVID-19. She agreed to go to the hospital, she told her sister, rather than “wake up dead.”
Caver talked to her sister a few hours after she was admitted to UAMS. It was their last conversation. That evening, she was put on a ventilator. Her son, Casey, was able to see her via FaceTime, but she was heavily sedated and Casey Jacuzzi found it unsettling. Casey Jacuzzi, Caver and a cousin “tag-teamed” calling the nurse assigned to Jacuzzi. Caver said her sister’s caregivers were “so good, answered every question. … They were so professional. I can’t say enough about the nurses and doctors.”
“Every time I called, I asked, ‘Are you optimistic?’ and most days, it was ‘cautiously optimistic.’ Then it started to be not so much.” Still, when the DNR issue was raised, “the impression I got was they were still optimistic, but wanted to know her wishes.”
Caver called her doctor to ask how to make a decision on whether to resuscitate. He gave her a list. And then the doctor called, and Caver started asking. “Does she have acute respiratory failure? Yes. Do you think she’s going to come off the vent? And the doctor said, ‘No, ma’am,’ so it was like, ‘Shit.’ ”
Jacuzzi’s loved ones asked if they wanted to FaceTime before she was unplugged from life support. “They said they were going to keep her really sedated,” Caver said, and the answer was no. “I asked her to play Willie Nelson’s ‘Blue Skies’ as they were unplugging.” A friend of a friend on the unit was with Caver’s sister at the end, and related that she passed away peacefully. She had been on a ventilator for two weeks. Casey Jacuzzi had lost his job as a salesman for Booth Medical to the COVID-19 pandemic; now he’d lost his mother.
The family had a small funeral service at Holy Souls, where Jacuzzi’s ashes were interred in the columbarium, as were Jacuzzi’s son Clay, who died at 13 of a brain tumor. “It was a beautiful day,” Caver remembered.
Caver and Jacuzzi started doing sister weekends after their mother died, and they had been doing that for a while. Then when Caver’s boyfriend died, Jacuzzi drove her out west to Canyonlands in Utah to scatter his ashes. Last April, they met in South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. “It was one of the things on her bucket list, for some reason I never understood,” Caver said. They rented a cabin, and Caver and a friend planned to ride bikes with Jacuzzi driving the sag wagon. Instead, it snowed 2 feet and the power in the cabin went out. “It was an adventure,” Caver said.
“Patti was the best sister anyone could ask for. She took care of me from the moment I was born (except the time she tried to give me away). When my boyfriend died, she was up here in a flash to take care of me,” Caver said.
“What really pissed me off was, we traveled a bunch. After my boyfriend died, my sister started filling the gap, started doing more traveling with me. And now she’s gone off and left me.”
Jacuzzi’s obituary asked those who wanted to make a memorial give to a charity of their choice, a local botanical garden “or to one of the many small businesses suffering through this crisis.”