Sundee Rutter — a mother of six from Everett, Washington, who survived breast cancer — fought hard to remain strong and optimistic after being diagnosed with coronavirus, the disease that would eventually claim her life at age 42, her family tells PEOPLE.
Alexis Rutter, Sundee’s oldest child, says her mother first showed symptoms of the virus two weeks before her death when she experienced a spiked fever, fatigue, headaches and trouble breathing.
“She was taken to the hospital, and they sent her home without testing her for COVID-19 but said it was possible she had it. They told her not to come back unless she was feeling worse,” the 21-year-old tells PEOPLE. “Sure enough, the next few days it got worse, so she was taken back to the hospital.”
Once there, doctors administered a coronavirus test that confirmed Sundee had contracted the disease. Despite the dire news and her worsening condition, Sundee kept brave for her family.
“She stayed so strong and so positive through it, I really couldn’t tell how sick she was because of her joy and strength,” Alexis says. “That is, until things took a turn for the worst.”
The following days would be filled with a “rollercoaster” of emotions for the family, as Sundee quickly became in need of more assistance as her breathing worsened. Then came the heartbreaking call from doctors that asked the family to come to the hospital to say their goodbyes, which they would do using walkie-talkies.
“My siblings, grandma, aunt and mom’s boyfriend all had the opportunity to say our last words to her through a glass window over a radio,” Alexis recalls of that unimaginable day on March 16. “She ended up passing that afternoon.”
Sundee’s death is especially painful for the family as she was recently getting the upper hand in her long battle with stage 4 breast cancer.
“We were just reaching the light at the end of the tunnel,” Alexis says of the battle. “She finished chemotherapy, went through a double mastectomy and had finished radiation and things were just starting to seem like they were taking a turn for the better.”
Throughout her battle with cancer, Alexis says her mother focused more on the wellbeing of her six children — three of whom are in college, while the others are either in high school or middle school — than herself. She assured them she wanted them to follow their dreams regardless of what was happening to her. She would be okay, she told them.
“Being the selfless and loving mother she was, some of the major concerns she expressed to us when she was initially diagnosed with breast cancer is her worry about us,” she recalls. “She was dealing with a whole new chapter in her life as far as health and what her life is going to look like, and she’s not even thinking about that. She’s thinking about us. It’s just crazy how much she put us first no matter what.”
Today, Alexis, and her two sisters and three brothers, have to navigate a future without either of their parents. Their father died in 2012 from cardiac arrest.
“When things get hard, we just have to remember that the reason it hurts so much is that we were blessed with the opportunity and privilege of being loved so well by a woman whose joy was so peaceful and comforting,” Alexis says.
“Not everyone gets to experience unconditional love from their mother like we did,” she continues. “We can be at peace knowing she’ll always be in our hearts and that she gave it all she had and fought as hard as she could. She did such a great job raising six kids by herself and now we just have to hold each other close and continue what she started.”
A GoFundMe page set up to help the children has raised more than $474,000 as of Thursday afternoon.
For Alexis, she hopes her mother’s story can serve as a testament to the love she showed to her family and everyone around her.
“I would like people to remember the way she humbly put others before herself,” she says. “She didn’t keep track of all of her good deeds and those she helped, she just loved others because that’s where her heart led her.”
“I hope people don’t remember her as a victim of COVID-19, but instead the joyful, selfless, loving, light-hearted woman she really was,” Alexis adds. “A mother, a friend, a sister, a daughter… she truly valued her relationships.”
At least 5,700 people in the United States have succumbed to coronavirus and there are 200,000 cases in the nation as of Thursday afternoon, according to the New York Times. The virus, which attacks the body’s respiratory system and can lead to death, has brought much of the world to a halt since it first was detected in the closing weeks of 2019. The U.S. saw a dramatic rise in cases throughout March, and Washington alone has seen nearly 5,984 cases and 249 deaths so far.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.