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‘A devastating shock’: UNCW student dies due to COVID-19 complications, funeral arrangements in place

Tyler Gilreath contracted COVID-19 two days after moving to Wilmington to attend UNCW.
Tyler Gilreath contracted COVID-19 two days after moving to Wilmington to attend UNCW.(Tamra Demello)
Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 2:11 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2021 at 9:04 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Many of the unvaccinated hope the odds are in their favor, and if they do catch COVID-19, they won’t get that sick. That was the case with Tyler Gilreath, a 20-year-old UNCW student who died Tuesday morning due to complications he suffered after contracting the virus in mid-August.

“I cajoled, encouraged, threatened, and nagged for him to get vaccinated,” Tyler’s mother, Tamra Demello, told WECT. “I did everything I could possibly think. I think he did some research where he was thinking that it was going to hurt his heart long-term or something… I’m not even sure where he was getting his information which is super frustrating. Sometimes, I felt like the harder I pushed the more — he basically said to me, ‘mom, leave me alone. I can take care of myself.’”

After catching COVID-19 two days after moving from Cary to Wilmington to attend UNCW, Tyler got extremely sick. Demello said Tyler’s COVID infection morphed into a sinus infection combined with a staph infection, which later passed into his brain.

An abscess on his brain ruptured last week and he was rushed to the hospital by his roommates. Tyler briefly regained consciousness, but continued to lose brain function. On Friday, a CAT scan revealed there was no blood flow to his brain and the damage was irreversible.

Tyler was taken off of life support early Tuesday morning. According to his family, his heart, liver, pancreas and kidneys were able to be saved and donated to others.

“This is just such a devastating shock. It’ll just leave such a hole in our heart forever that can never be filled,” Demello told WECT through tears on Monday. “If these kids could just realize not only what this could do to them, but how devastating it is to everybody around them. I’m just begging them to please go get their shots.”

Demello said she was with her son all summer, encouraging him to get vaccinated. As a 60th birthday present to his mother, Tyler had agreed to get vaccinated after he got to Wilmington to start his junior year. By then, it was too late.

“Two days after he moved in with brand new roommates, he got COVID from them. He was very, very sick for three weeks. He got over COVID but it left him with a horrendous sinus infection that somehow penetrated his brain,” Demello explained. “So he wasn’t even able to go to school on campus. So he never even started except what he was able to do online which is very difficult when you have 102 temperature and you’re vomiting and having everything else unpleasant that comes with COVID.”

Before he got sick, Demello said Tyler was healthy and vibrant, with no pre-existing health conditions. He was studying computer science, loved to wake board, water ski, and snow ski. He was in the Corps of Cadets at Virginia Tech his freshman year, before COVID shut down classes. He decided to come back to North Carolina, and transferred to UNCW.

When asked what advice she would have for other parents trying to convince their own children to get the vaccine, she said to do whatever it takes.

“Legally, they are adults. You really can’t actually make them go. But I would use whatever guilt tactic I could possibly come up with. I would try taking them to see if they would go. My kid was much bigger than me so that was pretty difficult to do. I would say just get this message out and if it can even save one person who is on the fence, or if a parent can use it to say, ‘look how shattered this whole family is.’ This probably won’t happen to you but if there’s any remote possibility that it could — it’s a shot,” Demello said.

“I’ve been told by parents of children who have lost their [kids] that it’s a club you never want to be in. That it just really doesn’t get much easier,” Demello said of the impact of losing a child. She said Tyler’s father, stepmother, and 3 siblings are all devastated over the senseless loss.

Demello takes some solace knowing Tyler is an organ donor.

“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,” Demello wrote in a Facebook post marking her son’s death.

The family held a celebration of Tyler’s life at their church on Saturday, October 9th.

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