From a Traumatic Childhood to a Life ‘Bigger Than Himself’

(Courtesy Simpson Family)

James Simpson, 28

Occupation: Mental-health technician
Place of Work: Sunstone Youth Treatment Center in Burien, Washington
Date of Death: April 10, 2020

James Simpson’s difficult childhood in the foster-care system led him to a career at a youth mental health center—where he worked with kids who reminded him of himself. “He had been through so much trauma and abandonment as a child,” said Chezere Braley, his cousin. “And he did not become a product of his environment.”

James’ sister Kamaria Simpson described him as the life of the party. “He was always smiling, even if he was having a bad day,” she said.

James’s family believes he contracted COVID-19 during an outbreak at work, where eight of the center’s 15 residents were infected. Sunstone waited over a week before telling James he may have been exposed to the virus, Kamaria said. She said the center also delayed in providing employees with adequate protective gear and that when her brother became sick, he was told to come in anyway. On April 6, he was sent home with a fever; he died in his apartment four days later.

In a written statement, Sunstone’s parent company, Multicare, said the organization “took early and aggressive steps to prevent the spread of the virus” at work, including “early access to PPE, sanitizer, training for staff and testing.” It added that the company’s policy was always to direct staff to stay home when sick.

Braley and Kamaria said they’re grieving, but they’re also angry. “He risked his life,” said Braley. “He deserved so much better.”

—Holly DeMuth

A Public Servant Who Was the Heart of Her Community

Priscilla Carrow, 65

Occupation: Coordinating manager
Place of Work: Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York
Date of Death: March 30, 2020

On March 10, when Priscilla Carrow attended her community board’s last in-person meeting, she brought masks, hand sanitizer and information on COVID-19 for every committee member.

“She was someone who you could go to if you had a problem in the community, and you needed answers,” said Ashley Reed, who served on the board with Carrow. “We always counted on her to be on the frontlines of what was going on.”

Carrow, who was born in Harlem and moved to Queens as a child, was passionate about giving back. In addition to serving on Queens Community Board 4, she was a shop steward in the local chapter of the Communications Workers of America union.

“She loved helping people. She knew she was blessed in her life, so she wanted to carry that blessing on to others,” said Gloria Middleton, president of CWA Local 1180. Her sense of civic duty, paired with a bubbly personality and ability to command a room, made her a natural leader.

Elmhurst Hospital was inundated with COVID-19 cases. Carrow, a year from retirement, managed the inventory and distribution of PPE to healthcare workers amid severe shortages. But friends say she was exposed to the virus at work and hospitalized in March.

Her death was met with an outpouring of grief on social media from neighbors, friends and her congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

—Isoke Samuel

Early Brush With Cancer Led Prankster Into Nursing

(Courtesy Darby Family)

Denny Darby, 31

Occupation: Certified nursing assistant
Place of Work: Fulton Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Gloversville, New York
Date of Death: May 20, 2020

Growing up, Denny Darby was a prankster who loved to watch World Wrestling Entertainment. At 14, he was diagnosed with cancer; he recovered, but his cousin Elizabeth Duplago said this early brush with illness influenced his decision to go into nursing.

As a nursing assistant at a nursing home, Darby cared for his patients at their most vulnerable: He brushed their teeth, and bathed and clothed them.

Duplago described him as sensitive, caring and selfless. “He would spend his money and buy [friends] a drink and go without a drink for himself,” she said.

Darby continued working even as COVID-19 tore through the nursing home where he worked—by May, some 130 residents and staff members had become infected. He became sick in early May and died on May 20.

Darby’s family believes he contracted the virus at work, and Duplago said Darby’s colleagues told her the nursing home did not have adequate PPE at the outset of the pandemic. A spokesperson for Centers Health Care, which owns the Fulton Center, denied that the center experienced PPE shortages.

Duplago said she’s looking into ways to help families facing pediatric cancer, in Darby’s name.

—Kelsie Sandoval

An Urgent Care Physician Beloved by His Patients

(Photo/Nikki Friedman)

Arthur Friedman, 62

Occupation: Urgent care physician
Place of Work: Independent Physician Association of Nassau/Suffolk counties in Smithtown, New York
Date of Death: April 30, 2020

When Arthur Friedman did not get into medical school in the United States, he enrolled in a school in Tampico, Mexico, teaching himself Spanish. “He was willing to do whatever it took,” said Eric Friedman, his son.

Arthur went on to open his own urgent-care facility in Commack, New York. Though he was best known for his decades of work there, he was working at a clinic in Smithtown over the past year.

Arthur loved boating, the outdoors and hoped to retire soon in Florida, to be near his children. When COVID-19 hit, he put those plans aside.

“He seemed like a superhero to us. Nothing fazed him,” said Nikki Friedman, his daughter. Arthur began to experience symptoms on April 10 and tested positive shortly after. (His employer did not respond to requests for comment.)

He died on April 30 and was buried next to his youngest son, Greg, who died in 2014.

Scores of Arthur’s former patients reached out to his children after his death to express their love and gratitude for him.

—Madeleine Kornfeld

A Loving Bookkeeper Who ‘Had the Most Awesome Laugh’

(Photo/Sean Diaz)

Cassondra Grant Diaz, 31

Occupation: Nursing home bookkeeper
Place of Work: Chelsea Place Care Center in Hartford, Connecticut
Date of Death: April 29, 2020

Cassondra Diaz was a receptionist-turned-bookkeeper at a nursing home in her hometown.

“She was my therapist, my fashion consultant, my hair designer,” said her older sister, Takara Chenice. “I called her my ‘big little sister.’”

Loved ones described her as “an old soul,” loyal to her family, including her husband, Sean Diaz. In their free time, the couple would hit the highway for a long drive, venturing to parks, lakes and the beach.

Her family believes she contracted the coronavirus at work. A spokesperson for Chelsea Place confirmed that the nursing home had COVID cases among staff and patients. It said staffers were provided with personal protective equipment. Despite wearing protective gear, removing her work clothes at the door and showering after work, Cassondra developed symptoms in mid-April.

On April 29, she woke up having difficulty breathing and pain in her leg, said Sean, who called an ambulance. She died that day.

Sean keeps a photo of her in their car. “My six years with her were better than any lifetime I had before her,” he said.

—Madeleine Kornfeld

Psychiatric Nurse Planned to Host a Barbecue Once He Recovered

(Courtesy Chinwendu Family)

Gabriel Chinwendu, 56

Occupation: Registered nurse
Place of Work: Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
Date of Death: April 24, 2020

Gabriel Chinwendu’s family and friends remember him as a gentle man who was dedicated to his work as a psychiatric nurse.

“Love for one another was his mission, to care. That was why what happened, happened,” said his wife, Gloria Chinwendu. The couple, who had immigrated from Nigeria years ago, had four children together. “His love for his job and others led him to lose his life.”

Gloria said Gabriel was outfitted with personal protective equipment and always washed his hands after seeing patients he suspected of having COVID-19. But on April 17, he left work feeling tired. Two days later, he went to the emergency room.

Feeling better by the time his test came back positive, he even promised to throw a family barbecue after he recovered. He died a few days later.

—Sonya Swink

A Former Marine Whose Altruism Shined in the Operating Room

(Photo/Valerie Alford)

Jerry Alford, 60

Occupation: Licensed practical nurse
Place of Work: DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Date of Death: April 22, 2020

Jerry Alford brought the same meticulous care to nursing he’d learned as a reconnaissance Marine. He was a stickler for maintaining a sterile workspace and never passed on the chance to lighten a co-worker’s load.

Jerry dedicated 32 years to nursing and spent 27 of them married to Valerie, a trauma ICU nurse. Together they raised three sons and had three grandchildren.

When the pandemic hit, Jerry transferred to the emergency room, where Valerie believes he contracted COVID-19, despite access to personal protective equipment. Jerry’s employer did not respond to questions about whether he may have contracted the virus at work.

Jerry had celebrated his 60th birthday in January with a blowout surprise party. His wife and sons invited family he hadn’t seen in years.

“Not knowing that was going to be his last birthday,” said Valerie, “that’s the best thing I could have done for him.”

—Suzannah Cavanaugh

A Nurse for Whom Family Was Everything — And Patients Were Like Family

(Courtesy Mazzarella Family)

Kelly Mazzarella, 43

Occupation: Clinical nurse manager
Place of Work: Montefiore Mount Vernon Hospital in Mount Vernon, New York
Date of Death: May 8, 2020

Even as a girl, Kelly Mazzarella had her sights set on helping others. She turned this innate altruism into a 16-year career at a community-based teaching hospital.

Karen Jedlicka was blown away by the care her big sister showed every patient. “People would be going through the worst things in their lives and she was just there for them,” Jedlicka said.

Mazzarella showed that same compassion with her husband, Ronnie Mazzarella, and daughters, Hailey and Kristina. She never missed an opportunity to tell her daughters how proud they made her, Jedlicka said.

In July 2019, Mazzarella was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that brought on painful bouts of swelling. She worked on and off through March, helping with the influx of COVID patients. She was diagnosed on April 2 and died five weeks later. Her employer did not respond to requests for comment.

Nicol Maursky, a lifelong friend, organized a GoFundMe for the family. A staggering outpouring has brought in close to $75,000.

“She just had such a love and a light that emanated from her,” Jedlicka said. It’s “very comforting to know everybody felt the same way that we did.”

—Suzannah Cavanaugh

A Proud New Orleanian and Community Caretaker

(Photo/Talisa Pace)

Jana Prince, 43

Occupation: Case manager
Place of Work: Salvation Army in New Orleans, Louisiana
Date of Death: April 6, 2020

A “natural New Orleanian,” Jana Prince was bubbly and loving, her brother Paul Prince said.

Since high school, Jana knew she wanted to be a social worker. She grew up with cerebral palsy, wearing a leg brace and diligently practicing physical therapy so she could walk. Kids bullied her about her disability, but nothing would stop Jana from connecting with her community.

“She was trying to share her strength with other people, because she just didn’t want to see people suffer,” cousin Talisa Pace said. “She really wanted to help the Black community.”

One day in mid-March, Jana had trouble breathing, Paul said. She was hospitalized for more than a week before she was intubated and died the next day. The family said they did not know whether she was infected at work, especially given how early she became infected; the Salvation Army declined to comment.

Her mother, Barbara Prince, died of the virus three days later.

The duo lived together and got on like Laverne and Shirley. They often took care of Paul’s twin 6-year-old boys. “I don’t know how one would have survived without the other,” Paul said.

Jana and Pace had dreamed of opening a coffee shop and counseling center. “She would have been the highlight of the whole place,” Pace said.

—Theresa Gaffney

At 65, Nursing Became Her Second Act

(Photo/Jenny Winkler)

Karon Hoffman, 69

Occupation: Licensed practical nurse
Place of Work: Alden Terrace of McHenry, Illinois
Date of Death: May 18, 2020

Karon Hoffman’s daughter Jenny Winkler paid for her first college class, to encourage her. That same year, Hoffman’s son, Karl, returned home from the Army and also wanted to take a course. Mother and son ended up in the same introductory computer class.

“She had the No. 1 grade in the class, and he had No. 2,” Winkler said.

Hoffman had previously worked as a 911 dispatcher, EMT and, most recently, a real-estate appraiser. At 65, when most of her peers were thinking about retirement, she graduated from a local community college with high honors and an associate degree in arts. She took the nursing licensing exam and passed.

She never let others tell her what to do, said daughter Jessica Allen. Hoffman’s hobbies included canning dandelion jelly, gardening and going to garage sales with her grandchildren.

In January, Hoffman started her first nursing job at the Alden Terrace rehabilitation center, after taking a few years post-graduation to tend to both her husband’s health and her own. She needed the income to afford their medications that weren’t covered by Medicare, her family said. Her family believes she was infected in early April, shortly after she completed orientation training.

Her family said that the facility’s nurses were not provided personal protective equipment unless they were working on the designated COVID-19 floor, which Hoffman was not. Yet all staff used the same break rooms, Winkler said. Alden Terrace did not return repeated requests for comment.

—Theresa Gaffney

Kaiser Health News (KHN)  is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.