Donegal woman Fiona Whelan speaks bravely about her final hours with husband John Prine

"I told him I would be OK and would hold our three boys close"

John Prine

Singer John Prine who sadly died from Covid-19 in April

Ardara native Fiona Whelan Prine has spoken candidly and courageously about her late husband John Prine and his final days and hours.

The Grammy award-winning singer died from Covid-19 last month, sending shockwaves through the music fraternity and his many fans around the world.

Ms Whelan Prine spoke recently on BBC Radio 4 current affairs show Today.

She said: “My husband died on April 7th after 12 days in ICU, his organs ravaged by a virus that travels between humans in tiny unseen droplets. I look at the daily numbers and wish in vain that the number on the screen was minus one.”

She spoke of the couple’s plans for 2020, including spending time with their precious grandchildren.

“They sure loved grandpa and his famous fluffy sweet pancakes,” said Ms Whelan Prine.

The Ardara woman who was also her husband’s manager told how they had begun a ten-city tour of Europe despite John’s hip pain.

“Stockholm and Oslo were the first shows and though he had to sit for the performances, John didn’t disappoint. He delighted and mesmerised audiences both nights. 

“Next stop was Paris which John absolutely adored. He didn’t speak a lick of French, and understood less, but he felt perfectly at home there.  

“His hip pain now made walking impossible so we stayed in, enjoying our lovely suite at his favourite hotel the George V. The rest of the tour would have to be cancelled but he really wanted to play his already sold out first ever show in Paris. 

“He did, and it was magic.

“We were not to know then that it would be his very last show.”

The couple then flew home to Nashville where John underwent a hip replacement. He was recovering well but on March 11 during a routine check-up, a GP suggested that both John and Fiona get tested for Covid-19. This was due to the fact that they had been travelling in Europe.  

“On March 16 we learned that his result was indeterminate and mine was positive,” said Ms Whelan Prine. “You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had no symptoms and no idea how to react. 

“I quarantined away from John. That was tough. We were constant companions, business and life partners, best friends and confidantes.”

She developed symptoms in the days that followed and adhered strictly to quarantine.

But the real hammerblow came the evening before her quarantine ended, while Facetiming her husband.

“He told me he felt unwell,” said Ms Whelan Prine. “My heart sank. My stomach churned. I hardly slept that night. 

“March 26 I was released from quarantine and raced downstairs to be with John. He was weak and his blood pressure was low. I helped him dress and drove him to the ER. I stood on the sidewalk outside the hospital doors as they wheeled him away and wept behind my face mask.”

She describes the next 13 days as an emotional rollercoaster, with good and bad days, and some periods where John was stable. 

“But as the days went by his organ function steadily declined,” she said. “At around midnight on April 6 - our wedding anniversary -  a doctor called and said I should come to the hospital immediately. I felt like throwing up. 

“I spent the next 17 hours with John. He was in deep sedation and hooked up to all kinds of machines.  

“I talked to him. I held his unresponsive hand. I sang and played messages from our boys and from his brothers.  I played Iris DeMent playing gospel songs she sent to me that night just for him. 

“I told him things I’d forgotten to tell him, things I had never told him. I told him that he was beloved by the world, that he had done wondrous things with his life, and in the end I told him that my heart would be broken forever but he could go on ahead and be with his Mom and Dad, with his brother Doug, with all those aunties that loved him. I told him I would be OK and would hold our three boys close, that we would talk about Grandpa all the time with the little ones.  

“John passed at 5.25 that evening. Later at home I watched and listened as the world responded to his passing, an avalanche of love for this man whose songs meant so much to so many.”

The family are now working on an online tribute to honour John Prine’s life, music and legacy. Their pain is still very fresh.

I think about the grieving families around the world, each with their own story of loss,” said Ms Whelan Prine. “I cry in real time with them, knowing that we share a common bond. Our loved ones will have their very own chapter in the history books to come. My heart goes out to all of them.”

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