A Rochester woman who lost 3 family members to COVID has a message for the community | WHEC.com

A Rochester woman who lost 3 family members to COVID has a message for the community

Deanna Dewberry
Created: May 07, 2021 09:41 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — I've been a journalist for almost 30 years. I've interviewed all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. But I've never had someone ask me for this before the camera started rolling. This Rochester mom asked me and photojournalist Jack Diamond to pray with her. She asked God to use her, speak through her so that her mother's day message would help someone else. That's who Renee Pitts is. Now read the rest of her story.

Renee Pitts is one of nine children, and when her siblings get together, it is always a party. And birthday parties are their favorite. Each sibling's birthday is not only a celebration of another year of life, it's a celebration of love. It's a celebration of family.

Pictures of parties past are absolutely joyous. Pitts keeps albums of them. At one birthday party a few years ago when their father was still alive, Pitts’ big sister, Deborah Tanksley and her Dad smile broadly while posing in front of a big birthday cake.

"We basically used to play cards together. We liked to play cards and just laugh and have fun,” Pitts said. "Just like to do that with the family all the time."

On April 3, Deborah Tanksley turned 67, and family members were eager to see each other and celebrate with their sister, a cancer survivor, after a year of separation during the pandemic.

"They probably got tired of being closed in and decided to have a little get-together for Deborah's birthday," Pitts said.

But Pitts didn't attend this year, because her husband suffers from underlying conditions that put him at risk of COVID complications, she's been extraordinarily careful.

Not long after the party, Renee got a phone call.

"My brother had called me and said everybody got sick at the party," Pitts said.

Within a week, the virus had infected eight members of this family. And then on April 15, just 12 days after the party, Pitts’ phone rang again. It was one of her sisters.

"Gina called me and said Jackie had to be rushed to the hospital. And then she called me five minutes later and said, Jackie had died, and I broke down at work," Pitts said.

Her sister, Jackie Hannah, was 57-years-old.

"She just was a sister that just we had such a bond. We all had such a bond with each other," Pitts said tearfully. 

But Hannah’s funeral was not the only one this family would have to plan.

"Deborah died last Thursday, and Corey died that Friday," Pitts said.

Deborah Tanksley, the sister whose birthday they'd celebrated weeks before died weeks after her birthday party. And her nephew, Corey Tanksley also died. The two-time author was just 49. Three loved ones gone in just over three weeks.

"We just was [sic] a really close family. We can laugh and joke and have fun you know," said Pitts as she fought back tears.

But in her grief, Pitts holds fast to faith, finding comfort in scripture. She’s studying the book of Ruth and shared the story of Naomi Ruth’s mother-in-law.

"When she lost her husband and her two sons, and she said don't call me Naomi; call me Mara which means bitter," Pitts recalled. "And right then and there I said Lord, I don't want to get bitter because I know this is all in your plans. I just want to serve you."

It's in that spirit of service that she's sharing a message she prays will resonate with the community.

"Please get the shot. Please get it because if you don't want to do it for you, do it for others," she pleaded.

That's why she got vaccinated, for the love of family.
"We got our first shot so we're all going back on mother's day to get our second," Pitts said.

And that, she says, is the ultimate mother's day gift to herself and all those she loves.

Pitts attended her nephew's funeral on Friday and another family member is in the hospital on a ventilator. But Pitts deeply believes in the Biblical scripture in Romans that says all things do work together for good. And the good she wants to come from her story is that the lives of others are saved.

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