Tamra Demello had been begging her son Tyler Gilreath to get the COVID-19 vaccine for months.
And for months, the 20-year-old resisted getting the shot, telling his mother he was young, healthy and didn’t have any pre-existing conditions, and therefore he didn’t need the vaccine’s protection.
“When they’re 20, you can’t make them do what they don’t want to do anymore,” Demello said in an interview Tuesday with The News & Observer. “You can cajole, you can threaten. I can’t physically pick him up and put him in the car.”
Finally, Gilreath agreed, just in time for his mother’s 60th birthday on Aug. 30. He told her he would get vaccinated once he reached the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he would be a sophomore and planned to major in computer science.
But he never got a chance. Within days of Demello driving him from their home in Cary to Wilmington, he tested positive for the coronavirus around Aug. 20, she said. On Sept. 27, after going through three weeks of severe illness, Gilreath died.
The pain of her son’s “senseless” death is immense, but Demello is urging parents of children who haven’t yet been vaccinated to get them to do so immediately.
“It’s not just a young person’s life, it’s their family and everybody around them,” Demello said through tears Tuesday. “Everybody cares about him, I can’t tell you how much outpouring we’ve had of people who were praying for him and care about him.”
Gilreath grew up in the Triangle, and attended Wake STEM Early College High School, where he spent a year completing college courses at North Carolina State University. He spent his freshman year at Virginia Tech, where he was in the Corps of Cadets, before COVID shut down classes. He transferred to UNC-Wilmington this fall.
While he was sick, he developed a sinus infection that made its way to his cranial cavity. Eventually Demello’s brain experienced too much swelling. On Sept. 26, doctors confirmed he was not going to survive, and a day later, they took him off life support.
“We’re just hoping if we can just convince these young people who think they’re invincible, you know, that this active, healthy, not ever really sick kid — if this can happen to him from those complications, that it can happen to them too,” Demello said.
“I told his stepmom, we’re supposed to be planning graduations and weddings, not funerals.”
Over the three weeks after Gilreath tested positive for COVID-19, he was “extremely sick,” his mother said, running a 102 degree fever and experiencing nausea and other symptoms. Around Sept. 7, his fever and other major symptoms had mostly abated, and he had tested negative for the coronavirus.
“We thought he was over it, pretty much,” Demello said.
Still, he had headaches, and his feelings of lethargy seemed to be “leftover effects of COVID,” she said.
When he went to the doctor’s office, however, Gilreath found out he had a sinus infection. It was a few days before he could get a prescription for oral antibiotics filled and start taking the medicine. By that point, the infection had combined with a staph infection and had started to move toward his brain, Demello said.
During the weekend of Sept. 18, Gilreath began acting “erratic.” His mother hadn’t been able to reach him for a few days, but it wasn’t unusual for him to not return calls “especially when I’ve been calling him every day.”
On the night of Sept. 20, Gilreath was feeling significant weakness on the right side of his body, almost as if he had lost control of it, Demello said. His roommates took him to the emergency room around 10 p.m., and by 1:30 a.m., surgeons were performing a craniotomy, creating an opening in his skull to use a catheter to drain excess fluid.
Demello drove down to Wilmington, and Gilreath’s father drove from Ohio. Doctors told them the sinus infection had gone to their son’s brain, and had ruptured.
Over the course of the week, Gilreath’s condition got worse, though there was one day when he seemed to be aware of his surroundings.
“He would open his eyes for a second, and most of the time he wasn’t tracking, but one time, he looked directly at me, and he would squeeze our hands,” Demello said. “So I know he knows we were there.”
The swelling in his brain continued to worsen, however. After one more operation, at around 3 a.m. on Sept. 25, doctors informed Gilreath’s parents that he likely would not survive.
On Sept. 27, doctors took him off of life support.
Having registered as an organ donor, doctors harvested Gilreath’s heart, liver, both kidneys and pancreas on Sept. 27. Hospital staff lined either side of the hallway for a ceremonial “walk of honor,” as Demello watched her son be wheeled off.
During the ceremony, Demello remembered her son’s “beautiful” and “surprisingly deep voice,” his red curly hair and “beautiful blue eyes,” and his “ability to talk to anyone about almost anything.”
“We’re very thankful that he’ll live on,” Demello said. “He would’ve been just really happy to have at least helped somebody else.”
On the night of Sept. 26, after it was certain her son wasn’t going to survive, Demello wrote a goodbye on Facebook.
“He will live on in my heart and through those recipients. I know he is with God, but the hole in my life he leaves will never go away. I love you, Son. Rest in peace,” she wrote.
Gilreath is survived by his parents, Tamra Demello and David Gilreath, his step-mother Cheryl Gilreath, his brother Alex and step-sisters Rachel and Nora.