Earlier this year, Gary “Cotton” Whitworth died at age 63 of complications associated with COVID-19. The nurse’s friends and loved ones reveal that he literally gave his life for those patients he served at a local nursing home. While a patient at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville last winter, loved ones note he was scared; he often asked if he was going to die...
Earlier this year, Gary “Cotton” Whitworth died at age 63 of complications associated with COVID-19. The nurse’s friends and loved ones reveal that he literally gave his life for those patients he served at a local nursing home.
While a patient at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville last winter, loved ones note he was scared; he often asked if he was going to die.
“Cotton” did pass on Jan. 9.
They describe what it was like to see “Cotton,” as he’s affectionately known here, deal with the excruciating pain associated with the deadly virus. They also saw others they did not know suffer while visiting their loved one in the hospital.
**Who was Gary Whitworth?
“Cotton” was born in Shelbyville and was the son of the late William Thomas and Sally Louise May Whitworth. He was preceded in death by his twin brother, Terry Whitworth, who died in a car accident years ago; they now rest together at the old Blanton Cemetery.
The family jokes that brother Terry had dark hair and Gary had blonde hair. So, he was given the nickname “Cotton” early in his life.
He attended SCHS and earned an associate’s degree from Motlow State Community College and received his nursing and licensed practical nursing degree from Tennessee College of Applied Technology. He actually began his career as a nurse in his 50s.
“Cotton was a caring and devoted nurse,” said his life partner, Hollie Bowman, as he choked back tears. “He was a special person and will be forever missed.”
“Cotton” is also survived by a brother Ronny and a sister, Karen Swing, several nieces and nephews and his cherished dogs, Heidi and Mary. He had two dogs, whom he dearly loved, that preceded him in death, Mickie and Rosie. (Cotton’s memorial donations were given to New Destiny Dog Rescue.)
**Services during COVID-19
While many friends wanted to say their last goodbyes to Cotton during his service, which was a private graveside, his loved ones stayed within the recommendations of the law. But they admit, it was tough to have to turn hundreds away from the service.
Bowman said while he’s read a lot of stories about the heroes who worked hard during COVID-19, he believes nurses like “Cotton,”—those who succumbed to the virus—aren’t being as highly recognized. “Nobody has said anything in support of those who’ve lost their lives. A hero is a person who pays the ultimate price.”
Bowman said “Cotton” was dedicated to his profession of 9 years. “Never once did he say he was having second thoughts.”
Sister Karen added, “He was dedicated to his profession.”
Facebook exploded upon his passing with kind and loving remarks, Bowman added.
One person posted, “Today, I’m getting my COVID vaccine in memory of my Uncle Cotton . . . who lost his life earlier this year due to COVID, which he contracted taking care of his elderly patients who had COVID.”
Angela Rasnick, director of First Choice Pregnancy Center, had a heart on the post.
“Everybody loved him,” said Bowman.
“He was an easy person to love,” said his sister.
“Cotton” had worked for several years as an LPN with local and area nursing homes. He had also worked as a pharmacy technician.
Bowman said he talked him into taking a certified nursing assistant (CNA) course. “He had almost credit enough to finish Motlow in business. He really excelled at it. He took care . . . loved those patients. If he went to Dillard’s and saw something on sale and saw something he thought you’d like, he’d get it for you.”
Now in his grief, Bowman said he’s still finding gifts “Cotton” had purchased for others.
Bowman, a nurse also, said he has some regrets about talking him further into nursing. But he believes nursing was his calling.
“He worked as a CNA and went to school. That’s really hard . . . did both at same time. He finished in Aug. 2011, when he graduated from nursing school.”
Bowman said his partner excelled at nursing. “When he went in to take care of the patients, he took care of them. He took care of his friends and everybody.”
**Grief is strong
In tears, Bowman talks about holidays, especially Christmas, that “Cotton” spent in the hospital. He was in critical care for six weeks.
“He went in the Friday after Thanksgiving,” said his partner.
Bowman recalls how friends had gone out for dinner in Shelbyville. From that point forward, it was downhill for “Cotton.”
“He started feeling bad and his O2 saturations were running low. They did two quick [rapid] tests at his work and they came back negative. He couldn’t have been, no way. He was symptomatic.”
Bowman still has nightmares about how those tests were administered.
While it is a mute point now, Bowman said his partner suffered the consequences. He believes employees were allowed to work at the facility where “Cotton” was employed.
“He actually was working the day he got it; he should have had the day off,” Bowman explained.
“The next week, they had the explosion. My understanding is everybody in the building ended up testing positive—except six or eight people.”
Soon, “Cotton” was admitted into Vanderbilt. He could not breathe on his own, so Dec. 22nd, “Cotton” was put on a ventilator.
“He never came off,” said Bowman. “He was on dialysis.”
Bowman said “Cotton” had diabetes, which was controlled by oral medication. That was his only prescribed medications.
“He never overcame it.”
Bowman said everyone who has fought this fight should be recognized.
“He was the very first person I ever heard that put the words “pandemic” and “COVID” together. He said in the very beginning, ‘this is going to be a pandemic.’
Bowman said “Cotton” was the strictest when it came to precautions (mask, hand sanitizer, etc.) He talked to Vanderbilt doctors about he and his partner’s proximity every day, and he not get the virus.
That is still hard to explain, except some people have more compromised immune systems, Bowman, also a nurse, said.
He believes people need to get the vaccine, because there are so many unknowns.
For “Cotton,” his body shut down while he was on the ventilator. There was an infection which could not be pinpointed.
“One of the hardest thing in the world . . . sit and watch them remove all that equipment. Again, you have to have hope.”
His partner remembers him crying. Vanderbilt’s policy was that you could visit two hours a day. Once “Cotton” came out of the COVID unit, someone could be there all the time.
“We were blessed in that sense,” said Karen.”We had that time. He was negative, so they moved him out of ICU.”
Bowman notes “Cotton” tested negative after about two weeks of his hospitalization. But the staff kept him in the same ward, because they were familiar with his case.
“People can say what they want . . . they were the greatest people in the world. They were attentive to not only him, but us. They looked out after us. As soon as you walked in, one of the doctors would update you. They’d call me every morning. They gave me their cell phone numbers, in case I wanted to call them. The nurses were unbelievable.”
It came to a point when “Cotton”—the man who cleaned and diapered elderly patients, hugged them and saw to their every need, was being taken care of himself by medical professionals.
Bowman remembers his last text from his partner.
The family was very careful while in the COVID unit hallway. They did not contract the deadly virus from “Cotton.”
Sister Karen said she took the vaccine, as well as Bowman. They know a lot of people aren’t planning to get the vaccine.
“If you could only see what my eyes saw during that time, you would change your mind,” Bowman said.
He reveals how a lot of people have advised him they took the vaccine, because of what “Cotton” went through. Now, those personal items of Cotton’s are at home are there for this family to see everyday.
Bowman said he would like for his partner and the community’s nurse to be remembered for being compassionate and as a “true hero.”
“He was a true hero, to more than just us, his family. He was a hero to everybody who knew him. He never strayed away from taking care of patients, until he just had to. He would buy clothes for some of the women at the nursing home. He found his calling.”
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