Funeral held for Calvert County family stricken with flu

The caskets of Lowell Frederick Blake and and Lou Ruth Blake are moved out of Dunkirk Baptist Church.
The caskets of Lowell Frederick Blake and and Lou Ruth Blake are moved out of Dunkirk Baptist Church. (Baltimore Sun)

Lou Ruth Blake was the family's matriarch who sang in the church choir and organized gospel shows. Lowell Frederick Blake liked to make people laugh. Venessa Marie Blake was the ardent churchgoer with a contagious smile.

All three family members died within days of each other earlier this month from complications of the flu — a cluster that state officials acknowledged was unusual. Their deaths caused a stir in the community of Lusby in Calvert County, where Blake family roots run deep in the town of nearly 1,600.

Cousins, nieces and longtime friends packed the small Dunkirk Baptist Church on Wednesday, nearly 30 miles from their hometown, to say good-bye to the trio. Their three coffins lay side by side at the front of the church — a mother and her two adult children.

Even as family members said they accepted that God had decided it was their time, they were still shocked and saddened at the loss.

"We are devastated because we still don't know what caused this," said Vaughn M. Johnson Sr., who is married to one of Ruth Blake's four surviving children.

Families often all become sick from the flu or other contagious illnesses, but rarely do so many members die. A fourth family member, Elaine Blake, was hospitalized at Calvert Memorial Hospital but survived and is now home.

"We still have Elaine, and for that we are blessed," one of the many ministers who spoke at the funeral proclaimed.

The deaths are still being investigated, though state and local health officials believe they have a good idea about what happened.

Officials from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene say that all four had the H3N2 influenza strain, a type circulating this season.

Ruth Blake had been vaccinated, but it may not have been the higher dosage needed by seniors.

Underlying health conditions probably prevented her from fighting it off, and she died at home from some undetermined complication, said Dr. David L. Rogers, the Calvert County health officer. Autopsy results were not yet complete.

Her children also tested positive for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a staph bacteria that is resistant to some commonly used antibiotics and difficult to treat. They may have carried the bacteria on their skin or in their noses for years and it caused no harm, said Rogers, adding that 4 percent to 6 percent of the population carries MRSA. Or, he said, one may have spread it to the other with a cough.

In their flu-weakened state, the bacteria made it to their lungs, giving them fatal bacterial pneumonia.

Rogers said all the deaths weren't attributed at first to the flu, which hasn't been particularly bad this year.

"We didn't know what we were dealing with initially," he said. "But it became clear quickly and we knew there was no public health threat."

Including the Blakes, just five people have died in Maryland from laboratory-confirmed flu complications this year, compared with 34 at this time last year, though many illnesses and deaths don't get reported, said Frances B. Phillips, the state's deputy heath secretary for public health services.

Dr. David Blythe, the state epidemiologist, said even in an active flu year, the family represents a unique case. "The flu and MRSA are both common," Blythe said. "Family clusters are not as common, though it might, at times, go unrecognized."

State health officials have sent specimens from the family to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for further review.

But there was no talk of flu or MRSA as the three Blakes were memorialized at a standing-room-only service. The church program said only that Ruth Blake died of lengthy illness and her children from a sudden illness.

The family was well-known in Lusby, where people call each other "cousin" and "aunt" even if they if they aren't really related. Children were raised by extended family in the typical "it takes a village to raise a child" mentality of many small American towns.

"That is how things were back then in the country," said Charles K. Kinslow, a cousin who as a child lived across the field from the Blake house. "Families clustered together in small communities."

That family remembered 81-year-old Ruth as a woman who devoted her life to raising her seven children and sang with the gospel group the Eastern Jubilees. On Wednesday, the choir sang one of her favorite hymns: "You Can't Hurry God." She was buried in one of her grand hats, a staple of her wardrobe.

"She made sure everybody who got close to her felt her motherly presence," said the Rev. Samson Nortey during services.

Ruth didn't seek treatment for her flu, but days after her death her son Lowell developed upper-respiratory symptoms. He was taken to Calvert Memorial Hospital and later transferred to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where he died, according to the hospitals and health officials. He was three days shy of his 59th birthday. Although he didn't live with his mother, he often visited and helped take care of her.

Lowell worked in masonry and took in teenage foster children. He built model cars and, like his deceased father, enjoyed gardening.

"He made all of us happy and was always looking out for others," Nortey said.

Daughter Venessa, 56, died at Calvert Memorial. Active in her church, she also spent a lot of time with her daughter and two grandchildren.

Stevenson Foote grew up in Lusby and remembered Venessa from high school as a quiet soul. "She never changed," he said. "Even years later she was still quiet."

Singing filled the funeral service as much as crying. People jumped to their feet as favorite hymns were played. They worked to remember the lives that were, instead of the lives that were lost.

"God took all three at this point of time," Foote said. "For some reason he wanted them all called home."



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