Heartbroken widower Josh Willis remembers his late wife Samantha who passed away with COVID-19 as ‘an angel on earth and in heaven’

Samantha Willis was an ‘angel’ who would have ‘gone to the ends of the earth’ for others.

By Kevin Mullan
Friday, 27th August 2021, 6:01 pm
Josh Willis cradles his daughters Lilyanna (4) and Eviegrace (three weeks).
Josh Willis cradles his daughters Lilyanna (4) and Eviegrace (three weeks).

The Derry mother-of-four and care worker’s widower Josh Willis made the poignant tribute this week after laying his late wife to rest on Monday.

The 35-year-old tragically died with COVID-19 in the early hours of last Friday morning just two weeks after giving birth to a beautiful new baby daughter Eviegrace.

Derry was united in grief and solidarity as Eviegrace was baptised during Samantha’s funeral service at St. Columb’s Church on Chapel Road on Monday morning.

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As his family - especially her four children, Eviegrace, Shéa, Holly and Lilyanna - try to come to terms with their unfathomable loss - Josh spoke to the ‘Journal’ about Samantha’s innate goodness.

“As a wife, mother and person she was loving and caring. She would have gone to the ends of the earth for someone. She was an angel on earth and now she is an angel in heaven.”

The fact of her passing has not yet sunk in, Josh acknowledged, but for him it is now a matter of doing what is best for the children, as Samantha would have wanted.

“Things will never be the same and nobody can do anything about it. There is no point in saying what if...I could nearly hear her voice at the graveside [at Ballyoan cemetery on the Rossdowney Road] telling me to ‘go and sort everybody else out’. That’s what she would have wanted.

“Some day I may speak to her again. I won’t know until that time comes. I’m hoping that’s not for another 40 plus years at least.”

The Willis family’s nightmare began at the start of this month when both Samantha and Josh tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

After getting tested on Saturday, July 31, positive test results for Josh and Samantha came in on Monday, August 2.

“When both of our tests came back positive we planned. We did an online shop. I was working from home anyway and she was on maternity leave. We were hoping for a bit of good weather so I could do my work in the house and finish up early and sit out the back and enjoy the ten days.”

Josh was asymptomatic and Samantha initially felt as though she was suffering from a bout of influenza.

“She didn’t get really bad until Tuesday, August 3. It was a lack of breath. She was really tired. I had to help her out of bed and help her get washed and dressed. We checked her oxygen levels in the house. They were low but still not the worst but we were thinking - if she can’t breath properly the baby can’t breath properly.

“We took her to the doctor who checked her and said she was borderline but under the circumstances we should take her over to A&E.

“We went over to the hospital that tea time on the Tuesday. They took her in and I thought - they’ll take her in here and she’ll get a wee bit of oxygen and she’ll be back by the end of the week.”

Samantha however was gravely ill and the life of her unborn child in danger. Doctors decided to perform an emergency caesarean section to try to save the lives of mother and child.

“On that Thursday morning August 5 she had to get a section. Eviegrace was born and around lunchtime they took her into ICU.”

Samantha was treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) masks and various medications. She responded so well over the weekend of August 7-8 that she was released back into the COVID respiratory ward on the Monday.

But the unpredictable course of the illness subjected Josh and the family to a horrendous emotional roller-coaster as Samantha improved, then got worse, responded well, before descending again.

“I would ring and speak to them two or three times a day for updates. Everything was looking positive. Obviously she was still very, very ill. She was able to text me a wee bit but then as the days went on, we had a few Facetime calls and it started off that she couldn’t string a sentence together without being out of breath,” he explains.

“A couple of days passed. She was getting better at it and was looking a bit healthier and then on the Thursday she took a dip and had to be put on a ventilator in ICU. She was on that for a week. She was still showing positive signs for what was going on. We thought there was a long road ahead...then that Thursday she took a dip and I was called in to visit her.

“I went in on the Thursday afternoon, spoke to her, said I was here, told her we all loved her and were waiting on her and told her to fight through it. The fact was that she had no underlying problems, she had age on her side, she had everything to live for and everything to come home for.

“That evening I got another call to come over and bring some family. I was very worried that she wasn’t going to make it through the night. After 12 o clock that night me, her eldest son and daughter, Shéa and Holly and her mother [Mary] were by her side and she just slipped off.

“All her other organs were working right up to the end. It was just the COVID in her lungs. We were all around her when she slipped away. They told us she might have gone into cardiac arrest before we went in to see her but it was just like she went to sleep but wasn’t waking up again this time.

“They told me she wouldn’t feel anything and there would be no discomfort. When the oxygen was dropping they said there was a chance she could go into cardiac arrest and if we resuscitated her it might make her condition worse.

“I obviously couldn’t answer that question, around the do not resuscitate thing. The words just wouldn’t come out of my mouth. We didn’t need to contemplate that in the end. She went peacefully, just like falling asleep even though she was already sleeping.”

Samantha was out of the house 16 days when she died.

After burying his soulmate Josh said he wanted to speak out because Samantha had not been vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“I wanted to get her story out in the hope that it will save at least one person and a family from what we’ve been through. Because of her nature - the only other thing that she would have wanted, other than raising the children the way she would have wanted and carrying out our plans to renovate and buy the house, the only other thing she would have wanted would have been to help somebody else.

“That was the idea of telling her story in the hope that some day Samantha may be able to thank me for doing it for her.”

Over the past week there has been a massive outpouring of grief and solidarity with Samantha’s family across Derry and further afield and it’s easy to see why. A care worker whose beat spanned the cityside of Derry from Killea to Muff, Samantha was well-known and loved throughout the city, a caring person by nature and profession.

“She loved her job, out in the community, caring for people. People have contacted me to say how she went over and above her duty.

“In the last month before she finished up for maternity leave she won employee of the month. She put the hours in. She would have met a lot of people. She was well liked by the people she worked with and all the wee clients.

“It seems from the comments over the weekend from family members of people she looked after. She went over and above in her duties. The fact she won employee of the month the month she finished up for maternity leave says it all about her.”

Such is the high esteem in which Samantha was held a Gofundme fundraising page in her memory had yesterday already raised over £11,000. Donations can be made at the Friends of Samantha Willis Gofundme page.

Though it can’t lessen the pain of Samantha’s loss it is making a difference.

“Between the donations and the comments on Facebook it is helping a wee bit. I’ve been reading through everything and I just wish I had the time to reply to everybody but there’s just too many. Everybody has been great. Obviously it’s not going to change anything but it definitely helps.”

Josh felt it was his duty to tell Samantha’s story.

“She would have done anything for me and let me do nothing for her. She put her self last in every situation. I’m putting her first now.”