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La Crosse woman mourns loss of brother to COVID-19
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La Crosse woman mourns loss of brother to COVID-19

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During the coronavirus pandemic, celebrations for weddings, birthdays and graduations have the potential for devastating consequences, causing rapid viral spread, sickness, and, somberly, deaths.

Alice, 80, of La Crosse, recently lost her last living sibling to one such occasion, and the grief is at times overwhelming.

“My faith is getting me through it, but in the morning I have my tears,” Alice says. “And then I pray.”

Requesting not to have her last name used or to be photographed out of respect for her family’s privacy, Alice chose to share her story as a caution to others, many of whom are growing restless amid stay at home recommendations and some who are eschewing coronavirus precautionary guidelines as a result.

The ache of being away from loved ones and friends for months on end is very real, but for the health and safety of everyone, Alice says “I would encourage everyone to just try and follow the rules: Avoid crowds and always wear a mask.”

The large celebration was originally scheduled for early summer but postponed until late the end of August due to the pandemic.

Despite the steady climb in coronavirus cases, the hosts decided to proceed with the gathering, which was held in a neighboring state, though they cut down the guest list. As the gathering was for a member of his immediate family, Alice’s brother, Mike, 84, was in attendance, which worried Alice.

“My brother is older and we were concerned here in Wisconsin about them attending, but the family is close knit,” Alice says.

Tragically, Alice’s fears for her brother were realized when he tested positive for the coronavirus in mid-September, one of 18 immediate family members at the event to contract the virus. Alice is unsure how many others became infected due to attending.

Mike was hospitalized for three weeks, his symptoms ebbing and flowing — “I’m told this corona is like a roller coaster — one day you can be fine and the next you’re right back sick again,” Alice says — and learned that “his lungs were shot” and Mike would be leaving the ICU to go home for hospice.

On Oct. 14, Mike died from COVID-19, the last of Alice’s 13 siblings to pass away, with her sister Rose, 85, dying just five months earlier. While Rose was not positive for COVID-19 when she died, Alice says her sister was sick and having trouble breathing before passing and she “feels in her heart” the coronavirus may have played a role in her rapidly declining health and death.

Alice and her daughter recognize they may have saved their own lives by staying home from the celebration.

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“We both said, ‘Thank God we chose not to go,’” Alice says.

Alice’s physician at Gundersen Health System, Dr. Robyn Borge, is grateful for patient’s choice, noting following social distancing guidelines is the “compassionate thing to do” for the health and safety of one’s self and others.

“We’re so sorry for her loss,” Borge says. “Unfortunately there are a lot of stories similar to this...It is so important for people who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 to make those tough decisions. We need to especially avoid large gatherings. We are seeing the impact of COVID-19 on entire families.”

The loss has hit Alice and her family hard, with Mike’s wife of over six decades now a widow. Alice, a woman of deep faith, feels compassion for all her loved ones and holds no ill will.

“I don’t have anger. What I have is sorrow for being the last in a large family,” says Alice, who wasn’t able to see either Rose or Mike during their last days due to the coronavirus. “I pray for all those who lost their families due to the corona and (the patients) dying alone.”

Alice, Borge says, “Is strong and resilient,” and notes that Gundersen, Mayo and other local health care facilities have “mechanisms to help people cope,” such as counseling or support groups conducted on a virtual format.

Borge stresses that with the holidays approaching, “Now is the time to ramp up the efforts” of distancing, hand washing and mask wearing, especially as case numbers and related hospitalizations continue to climb locally and statewide.

Alice and her daughter, though apprehensive, attended Mike’s funeral, which was held in accordance with precautionary guidelines. Attendees were spaced three pews apart, and Alice sat in the very back for maximum distancing.

“We thank God we did not get anything from (going),” Alice says of the funeral.

Alice, who has six children, including a son currently living with her, says Thanksgiving and Christmas will not be celebrated as a large group this year, and she leaves her house infrequently, going out for groceries and volunteering at her church once a month to count cash donations, which sit out for three days before being touched to decrease risk of contamination. Rather than attending church services, she watches Mass on YouTube.

Alice says “2020 has been difficult for all of us,” though her sorrow is greater than most, with one of her nieces recently dying as well. Alice made the heart wrenching choice not to attend the funeral, with the Midwest experiencing higher than ever coronavirus case rates.

With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, Alice does her part in masking and distancing and turns to a higher power for comfort and guidance during this tumultuous period.

“I say a lot of prayers,” Alice says. “Prayer is what we all need at this time.”

Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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