Catching up with Chicagoans whose lives were forever changed by COVID-19

Some of them fought the new coronavirus from hospital beds, others at makeshift testing sites. © Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Joe Rau bakes a chocolate marble cake at home with his then-girlfriend, Astrid De Leeuw, on March 19, 2020 in Des Plaines. Some mourned their closest loved ones; […]

Some of them fought the new coronavirus from hospital beds, others at makeshift testing sites.

a man standing in a kitchen: Joe Rau bakes a chocolate marble cake at home with his then-girlfriend, Astrid De Leeuw, on March 19, 2020 in Des Plaines.

© Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Joe Rau bakes a chocolate marble cake at home with his then-girlfriend, Astrid De Leeuw, on March 19, 2020 in Des Plaines.

Some mourned their closest loved ones; others came to the aid of strangers.

And some saw the pandemic upend their lives and dreams.

Six months into the greatest public health crisis in a century, how are they now faring? Here’s an update on six COVID-19 stories of loss, heroism and resilience.

An Illinois Guard member staffed the state’s first test site. While on the front line, she lost her grandmother to COVID-19.

Army Pfc. Sabine Gonzalez’s life changed dramatically in mid-March when she answered the call, quite literally, to help the Illinois National Guard establish the state’s first coronavirus testing site.

a person standing next to a football ball: Greco-Roman wrestler Joe Rau goes for a run with his then-girlfriend, Astrid De Leeuw, in March in Des Plaines. Rau was favored to make the U.S. team for the Tokyo Olympics

© Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Greco-Roman wrestler Joe Rau goes for a run with his then-girlfriend, Astrid De Leeuw, in March in Des Plaines. Rau was favored to make the U.S. team for the Tokyo Olympics

Then 18 years old, the college student became one of the first — and one of the last — Illinois Guard members to serve as part of the state’s COVID-19 response, waging a war unlike any other the military has ever seen. The Tribune chronicled Gonzalez’s first few days at the testing site on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side, the only facility within city limits at the time dedicated to testing first responders and health care workers.

“I joined the National Guard so I could help wherever I was needed,” Gonzalez said at the time. “I figured it would be in another state or somewhere I’ve never been. But this is my home, and I’m able to do something to directly help my friends and neighbors.”

Troops conducted about 233,000 tests during the first four months of the pandemic before private contractors took over at state-run sites in July. Though the median deployment time was about 45 days, many voluntarily extended their service. About 150 soldiers spent more than 100 days at testing sites, and Gonzalez was one of them.

a person standing posing for the camera: Dr. Simone Liverpool has been treating COVID-19 patients at Loretto Hospital on the Far West Side since the early days of the pandemic.

© E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Dr. Simone Liverpool has been treating COVID-19 patients at Loretto Hospital on the Far West Side since the early days of the pandemic.

She made the decision to stay for the mission’s duration on June 16, the day her grandmother, Lupe Rios, died from the coronavirus.

“It was a very difficult time for me and my whole family,” she said. “But the mission gave me a chance to help save someone else’s grandmother, so I wanted to stick with it until the end.”

Rios, a doting grandmother who enjoyed cooking for her family and rarely offered a harsh word, had worried endlessly about her granddaughter’s safety during her pandemic deployment. She called Gonzalez often during the early weeks of her mission with reminders to be safe and, alternately, promises that everything would be fine.

a man and a woman standing in front of a brick building: David Boden and Nancy Frohman, flanked by their daughters Alexa, left, and Mariel Boden, both became seriously ill with COVID-19 and were placed on ventilators. Their daughters managed their care. The couple survived.

© Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
David Boden and Nancy Frohman, flanked by their daughters Alexa, left, and Mariel Boden, both became seriously ill with COVID-19 and were placed on ventilators. Their daughters managed their care. The couple survived.

Gonzalez believes those repeated assurances were meant to comfort grandmother and granddaughter equally.

On the day of her grandmother’s death, Gonzalez’s commanding officer gave her the day off from the testing site, where troops took up to 750 tests a day. She spent it in her hotel room, calling relatives to share stories about her grandmother and marvel at what a kind, positive force Rios had been in all their lives. Everyone told Gonzalez that she had inherited Rios’ smile, a compliment she proudly accepted.

The following day, Gonzalez was back at the testing site, helping patients — many of whom had fevers and awful-sounding coughs — fill out their paperwork.

“My responsibilities took on a whole new meaning that day,” she said. “I knew exactly why I was needed for this mission.”

a hand holding a fork and knife on a cutting board with a cake: Joe Rau bakes a chocolate marble cake at home.

© Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Joe Rau bakes a chocolate marble cake at home.

After the Guard concluded its work in mid-July, Gonzalez returned home to Glendale Heights and resumed her job at a local sporting goods store. She is taking classes at College of DuPage again this semester and is working toward a degree in criminal justice. Because of her military service, she is eligible for grants that will help pay for college.

a person taking a selfie in a room: Army Pfc. Sabine Gonzalez helps operate the state's first coronavirus testing center, for first-responders, in March. She later lost her grandmother to COVID-19.

© Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Army Pfc. Sabine Gonzalez helps operate the state’s first coronavirus testing center, for first-responders, in March. She later lost her grandmother to COVID-19.

She is expected to be promoted to specialist later this year, and she is contemplating switching to full-time active duty. It’s a testament, she said, to the profound impact her pandemic mission had on her life.

“The experience changed me,” she said. “It showed me that a group of people can come together and really make a positive difference in this world.” — Stacy St. Clair

The struggle to move forward after losing her husband and both parents: ‘As much as I’m suffering, I know I’m not the only one’

Some mornings, in her first waking moments, Mayra Velazquez imagines hearing her father making breakfast in the kitchen.

Later in the day, she instinctively thinks to call her mother to see if she should stop at the store on her way home from work. And she still catches herself glancing out the window, expecting to see her husband’s truck pulling up in time for dinner.

The moments are fleeting before the 38-year-old Hanover Park woman is jolted back into a harsh reality that all three are gone, casualties of a pandemic that took a devastating toll on her family.

It has been about four months since her father, mother and husband died weeks apart of complications related to COVID-19. Velazquez said her feelings of emptiness, loneliness and longing for the life she once had are often overwhelming. It is getting harder, not easier, despite what well-intentioned friends keep telling her.

Still, she said her faith in God and the support her family has received from friends, co-workers, neighbors — even strangers who reached out after hearing about her family’s tragedy — have sustained her through unimaginable grief.

“It’s like a roller coaster,” she said. “Sometimes when I’m talking to my sisters, we remember certain things and are able to laugh, and then there’s days when I’m more emotional and all I can do is cry.”

Her father, Francisco Gomez, 81, was the first to die on May 2. Her husband, Saul, 39, died May 12. And her mother, Maria, 78, hung on for nearly two more weeks, but the family’s hopes were dashed May 23 when she, too, succumbed to the virus.

Velazquez said the family has not pinpointed how it all began. In a cruel twist, it was their closeness that perhaps made them more susceptible. She and her husband lived with her parents and two siblings. She said they followed strict safety precautions, but the fast-spreading virus proved inescapable.

Her large family has not yet gathered to console one another for fear of losing another loved one. But this month, before the ground freezes, relatives are meeting in a northwest suburban cemetery to bury their loved ones’ ashes and officially say goodbye.

Velazquez said she is not sure if the intimate service will provide a sense of closure. For now, she keeps her anxiety at bay by focusing on one day at a time, reading the Bible and praying. She tries to be strong, recalling the strength she saw her parents and husband display during times of adversity. She hopes to make them proud.

“They would want me to be strong and to be there for my family,” she said. “They have been there for me through my good and bad times, and I want to be there for them and all the people who have supported me and stood by me.”

The older couple married in Mexico, then immigrated to find better opportunities. Francisco Gomez often worked two jobs to support his family. Maria Gomez worked in the home, raising eight children. Velazquez met her husband through friends two decades ago. Their friendship grew into love, and the couple celebrated their 13th anniversary one month before he became sick.

Despite all that she has lost, Velazquez said she is thankful to be alive. She asked the public to continue to follow safety protocols because each death “is someone’s family member.” She fears people are letting their guard down as the pandemic continues.

“I know as much as I’m suffering, I’m not the only one,” she said through tears. “And I pray whoever is going through this, they will also find the strength to move forward.” — Christy Gutowski

Couple whose daughters arrived from college just before they became gravely ill have both survived. ‘You can recover, and it’s incredible for people to hear that.’

As the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed its wrath last March, Nancy Frohman and her husband, David Boden, landed in the intensive-care unit at a suburban hospital, hooked up to ventilators and fighting for their lives.

With the couple both unconscious and unable to receive visitors, the couple’s two college-aged daughters found themselves running the household and taking on the role of patient advocates, making urgent decisions on behalf of their critically ill parents.

Since the Tribune wrote about the family’s COVID-19 odyssey, both Frohman and Boden survived their bouts with COVID-19 and have been reunited with their daughters at their Vernon Hills home. They couple said they’re grateful to their health care providers and hopeful others will remain vigilant about preventing the spread of the deadly virus.

“It’s such an important time to tell people this is real, take it seriously and wear your masks,” Frohman said during a break from her job as an administrator at a nonprofit.

“The positive to all of this is the amazing support we’ve gotten from the community, which is beyond belief,” Frohman said. “So many people we talk to say, ‘If it happened to you, it can happen to anyone.’ But we’re also their silver lining, that you can recover from COVID, and it’s incredible for people to hear that.”

It all began shortly after the couple’s daughters, Mariel and Alexa Boden, learned their universities were shutting down due to the coronavirus.

Their mutual disappointment that they would have to finish the spring semester from home was replaced within days by fear and worry, after both of their parents — who’d initially assumed they were battling nasty sinus infections — were hospitalized in critical condition.

Despite the couple both being healthy and active prior to contracting COVID, Frohman said it’s miraculous that she and her husband, an IT sales representative, have both now returned to working from home. So far they are facing only a few lingering health issues; Frohman has a strained vocal cord, and her husband, who suffered a stroke while hospitalized, has some residual vision challenges.

The couple’s homecoming happened after spending five weeks hospitalized at Condell, followed by weeks of intensive rehabilitation therapy at a suburban care facility.

“When we were finally able to be wheeled out of our rooms, we had not seen each other for two months, so it was quite an emotional experience,” Frohman said.

David Boden also spent three weeks in therapy at Chicago’s Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, where he relearned to walk, gradually moving from a walker to crutches and now relying only occasionally on a cane.

A lifelong musician who plays in local rock bands, Boden has also resumed playing the guitar, his wife said.

“What’s really amazing is our doctors have told us that it does not appear that we have permanent damage to our lungs, heart and other organs, especially as so many patients don’t walk back from this,” Frohman said.

As for their daughters, Frohman said Mariel is looking forward to starting graduate school in London later this year, and Alexa is busy completing her online college coursework for the fall semester.

Frohman said she knows her daughters are looking forward to the day when they can leave the nest and resume their studies in person. But she said having the close-knit family back together again has in many ways been an unexpected gift.

“We realize as a family that these are precious moments, and we don’t usually have this ability to spend so much time together,” Frohman said. “We’re just so proud of our girls. … You can’t prepare your children for everything that will happen in life, and all you can hope for is that they will be resilient, and our daughters did it in spades.” — Karen Ann Cullotta

Chicago news anchor Kathy Brock’s parents both landed in the ICU. Her father’s recovery is beyond what ‘we dreamed about.’

Frank Brock spent 53 days in the hospital fighting COVID-19 and was placed on a ventilator. During that time, Carol, his wife of 65 years, succumbed to the virus.

In April, when the Tribune wrote about the Brocks — the parents of longtime former Chicago TV news anchor Kathy Brock — Frank was still in an intensive care unit in his home state of Washington.

He survived, but the ensuing months have been “really difficult.”

“Losing my wife was really difficult. And (the recovery has) been a slow process,” he told the Tribune.

The couple, who shared a birthday and turned 87 last November, were still working their farm and were rarely apart after more than 70 years together.

“It took a pandemic to separate them,” Kathy Brock told the Tribune shortly after her mother died on April 5.

Due to COVID-19, the family has not yet held a memorial for Carol Brock. They hope to install a headstone and celebrate her life on the one-year anniversary of her death.

“This is a big, unresolved ache we all have,” Kathy Brock said.

Frank Brock still lives in the same house where the couple raised their family, walks about a mile and half each day, and is driving. He had 24-hour care when he first returned home from the hospital but has reduced that to eight hours a day and says he doesn’t think he really needs the caregiver now.

“The fact that he has come back in the way that he has isn’t even something we dreamed about happening,” Kathy Brock said. “He got really good care, is a fighter and pushed through all the obstacles he was facing.”

Kathy Brock said it’s been hard for her dad — not only dealing with his own recovery but also adjusting to life without her mom. She said her dad remains active, but it’s hard when activities and visits with friends are limited because of the pandemic.

Frank Brock is immensely proud of his daughter, whom he described as a “very hard worker.”

As for the pandemic, Frank Brock said, “It’s one of those things I will be glad when we are on the other side of. I feel sorry for people who were hit so hard.” — Susan Berger, freelance reporter

Lessons from the coronavirus hospital ward in a ravaged neighborhood: ‘We’re not there yet, but we’ve come a long way’

As COVID-19 ravaged Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, Dr. Simone Liverpool bore witness to virus’ often-unbeatable strength.

“People don’t understand how sick the patients are and how rapidly they can decline,” Liverpool told the Tribune in April. “They don’t see what we see every day. It has always been a difficult job, but our burden is now tenfold.”

After six exhausting months, Liverpool, who works in the COVID-19 ward at Loretto Hospital on the city’s Far West Side, sees a reason for hope.

On the day she first spoke to the Tribune, her 12-bed ward had 15 positive patients in need of acute care. Within 45 minutes of arriving at work, she had intubated one patient and made plans for another to begin kidney dialysis.

Flash forward to the end of September, when Loretto’s coronavirus ward held only two patients and neither required a ventilator to breathe. With both patients stable, Liverpool was able to sit down for a few minutes in the middle of her 12-hour shift, a short break that still felt like an indulgence after those grueling early months.

She credits the medical community’s better understanding of the virus for the drop in both hospitalization and death rates. While the virus’ many unknowns made the illness tougher to treat initially, Loretto, like many other hospitals, has seen good results from the medications remdesivir and dexamethasone in recent months, Liverpool said.

“They’ve been helpful measures to shorten the course of the coronavirus, but they’re not a cure or a guaranteed treatment,” she said. “We’re not there yet, but we’ve come a long way.”

The safety-net hospital — which provides medical treatment regardless of a patient’s ability to pay — also has significantly shortened the amount of time it takes to receive COVID-19 test results. In April, it took patients a week to get them back. Now it’s about three days, Liverpool said.

Any progress, however, comes after an extremely painful period for Austin residents. The neighborhood’s main ZIP code has the third-highest death rate in the city, with nearly 2 out of every 1,000 residents killed by the virus, according to data maintained by the Chicago Public Health Department. The neighborhood death rate is nearly twice that of the city, a reflection of the deadly consequences that underserved Black communities have endured for generations.

As the virus laid those racial inequities bare, Liverpool believed the undeniable truth would lead to real change in how society cares for its most vulnerable populations. But after the plans to close Mercy Hospital & Medical Center — a safety-net hospital in Bronzeville — were announced this summer, the doctor is no longer confident about public health care reform.

“Health care workers have always known about the disparity, but now everyone is aware of it unless they have closed their eyes,” she said. “The policymakers know now, too, but they don’t seem to be learning.” — Stacy St. Clair

Despite setbacks, wrestler Joe Rau is still prospecting for Olympic gold: ‘You just have to accept what’s going on and do your best’

Olympic hopeful Joe Rau had been on the cusp of realizing a lifelong dream. Then the pandemic hit.

In late March, then-Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the International Olympic Committee reached an agreement to delay the Summer Games until 2021. The move marked the first time since World War II that a global crisis prevented the event from opening.

Just two weeks before the decision, Rau won gold at the Pan American Games in Canada, a victory that ensured the U.S. could send a Greco-Roman wrestler in his 87-kg weight class to Tokyo, where the opening ceremony had been scheduled for July 24. It was a crucial, emotional win for Rau, the Chicago native who won the Olympic trials in 2016 but did not compete in Rio because the American team had not qualified in his weight class.

“I was expecting this to happen. You could see it coming,” Rau told the Tribune after the Games were postponed. “I’m just relieved there is a decision and I can start figuring out what my next steps are going to be.”

The relief was short-lived.

In the six months that followed, Rau lost his job, gained about 25 pounds and struggled to find a place where he could train with other wrestlers. With his first national tournament in nearly seven months scheduled for later this month, he has lost the extra weight and is just now regaining his rhythm.

“I’ve definitely gotten really frustrated with some things, but I’ve got to remember everyone is going through it,” Rau said. “You just have to accept what’s going on and do your best.”

Shortly after the Olympics were postponed, Rau learned his contract with the Chicago Regional Training Center would not be renewed because of a pandemic-related drop in sponsorship money. With the Olympics still a year away, he lost both his monthly stipend and his access to Northwestern University’s wrestling facilities.

Rau contemplated moving out of state before signing in May with the Champaign-based Illinois Regional Training Center. The team typically trains at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but the school’s COVID-19 restrictions prevent the group from using campus facilities.

The team — which did not start group training until June in accordance with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-home order — now works out at a private wrestling gym a few miles away. Housed in shed-like building, the facility is smaller than the ones where world-class wrestlers typically train, and the mats are a bit more slippery than those used for international competition, but Rau says he’s grateful for the opportunity to simply wrestle again.

“I’ve got it a lot better than some other guys,” he said. “Some guys are still looking for places to train.”

And there’s more good news.

When Rau won the Pan American Championships in March, he secured the United States a spot in 87-kg weight class in Tokyo and earned himself an automatic berth in the best-of-three finals at the U.S. Olympic trials. Both qualifications will still be honored in 2021, making the potential path to his first Olympic Games slightly easier.

He also got married to his girlfriend, Astrid De Leeuw, who was visiting Chicago from Belgium when the pandemic hit and spent the next six months quarantined in the United States. The couple wed on Cape Cod, with only Rau’s parents and brothers in attendance. De Leeuw’s parents could not travel to the U.S. for the wedding, so they watched via a livestream.

“We’re making the most of this crazy time,” he said. — Stacy St. Clair


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