OGDEN — As Kristie Samuels lay dying, her family took turns talking to her via a speaker phone, sending their love.
“We were able to talk to her and say what we wanted to say. She heard us. She responded to us,” said Andrea Bair, Samuels’ stepsister.
Still, unable to touch or hug her because of the coronavirus, unable to be anywhere near her as a safeguard against the spread of the disease, it was hard. Really hard.
“I think we’ll never get over the fact that she had to die without us, die without our family,” Bair said.
Samuels, just 53 when she died on March 29 at an Ogden nursing home, went through a lot in her life. She was age 29 when she learned she suffered from spinocerebellar ataxia 7, or SCA 7, an inherited neurological disease that causes degenerative changes in the brain, affecting movement. Samuels was still sharp mentally, but given her declining physical condition she moved into a nursing home for care 18 months ago. Then, in mid-March, Samuels tested positive for COVID-19, which eventually killed her.
“Her life was challenging with having that disease,” Bair said, though her sister always kept an upbeat attitude. “Then to have to die that way... You know, life’s not fair. It was pretty cruel.”
Samuels was the first reported coronavirus death in Weber County and the fifth in Utah. When the Weber-Morgan Health Department reported her death, the statement didn’t name her, per federal privacy laws that have left many other victims around the state and country shrouded in anonymity. But Bair, who lives in Salt Lake City, and Samuels’ sister Stacie Finch, who lives in Bothell, Washington, agreed to talk, putting a face to one of the many tragic numbers connected to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s surreal, having a close family member die at the hands of a pandemic that’s the focus of near-constant discussion, deliberation and apprehension around the globe, Bair said. It’s also incredibly eye-opening, according to Bair, and underscores how deadly and dangerous the disease really is.
“I think it’s hard that a lot of people don’t take it that seriously,” Bair said. “For us, it’s serious. For us, it became very real, very fast.”
Similarly, Finch noted the many people out there like her and her family — mourning, dealing with the sad aftermath of coronavirus’ wrath. As of Friday, nearly 103,000 people had died due to coronavirus in the United States, according to the John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, while nearly 365,000 had succumbed worldwide.
“I think people forget there are thousands and thousands of people who are still mourning... It gets caught up in all this stuff,” said Finch.
She can attest to the fact that the virus is not to be scoffed at, though.
“It’s very real. It’s happening,” Finch said.
To this day, Samuels’ family still doesn’t know how she contracted COVID-19. Those who had been caring for her and regularly visited her were tested, but all the results were negative.
“It’s a mystery how she got it. We really don’t know,” Bair said.
Samuels, one of five reported COVID-19 deaths in Weber County and 107 across Utah as of Friday, left behind her stepfather Brent Bair, two kids and seven grandkids, among other survivors. Her mother, Janet Bair, who also suffered from SCA 7, died last August.
‘SHE ALWAYS SMILED’
Samuels grew up in North Ogden and graduated from Weber High School. She never moved away from Weber County. Throughout her 20s, she worked at a grocery store and at The Mexican Place, an Ogden restaurant that has since closed.
“She was such a good waitress,” Finch said. “She could carry those huge trays over her shoulder with plates on there and drinks.”
Later as Samuels’ health declined, she started selling Avon health and beauty products, because it allowed her a measure of work flexibility given her physical constraints.
Through it all, she never seemed to lose hope or get consumed with anger, according to family members.
“I have to say, for all of that, she always smiled. She always had a positive attitude. She tried to look at the positive and she did love life,” Bair said.
A line from her obituary attests to Samuels’ spirit: “She was silly and beautiful, she loved country music, dancing, Mexican food, butterflies, going to new places and her grandchildren.”
Likewise, though her speech suffered, and even as she lost her eyesight, Samuels always found a way to connect with those who visited her — at the South Ogden assisted-living facility where she previously lived, and later at the Ogden nursing home where she died.
“She loved to tease people, loved to laugh. She always told you about six times before you left that she loved you,” Bair said.
As the end neared, a staffer suited up in protective gear, called family members one by one, and let them talk one last time with Samuels via speaker phone.
“We each did it in our own home and called in,” Bair said.
A “very sweet nurse” attended to her sister, Bair said, and was there with Samuels when she ultimately died.
“She was with her when she passed and keeping her comfortable,” Bair said.
Samuels’ survivors are planning to hold a memorial, but they still haven’t picked a time given continuing coronavirus concerns.