SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been just over a month since her mom, Bess Vetas, died after battling COVID-19.
Vetas — a longtime resident of Ogden’s East Bench — was 87 and had already been in delicate health. Still, that doesn’t diminish the hurt or lessen the anguish caused by her death on May 17 after contracting COVID-19 in the Salt Lake City care facility where she lived. If anything, her passing underscores a certain sense of helplessness caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which had claimed 166 lives across Utah as of Friday, around 125,000 nationwide and nearly 500,000 globally.
“I miss her so much. I’m so heartbroken” said Ismene Vetas, one of Bess Vetas’ five kids.
Ismene and other family hadn’t been able to touch or hug their mom since early March, when officials at the care facility where she lived closed it off to visitors as a safeguard against the spread of COVID-19. Instead, they would visit and say hello to Bess Vetas on the inside of the facility from the outside, via a ground-floor window. Later, after she contracted COVID-19 and her condition worsened — she tested positive in early May — they had to use a stepladder to reach the upper-level window of her room so they could look in and say hello.
“The whole thing has been so surreal,” said Ismene, a filmmaker now living in Salt Lake City. “It hit so fast I don’t even know what happened. It was just like a horror show. ... The gloomiest part is I couldn’t protect my mom. I couldn’t get her out of there.”
As her mother languished, Ismene would sometimes visit a hill overlooking her Salt Lake City facility, The Ridge Foothill, trying to sneak a look at her mom inside with the help of binoculars. “I felt comforted. I just wanted to be there,” she said.
It’s still raw, though, and, more generally, the whole turn of events makes Ismene Vetas question the COVID-19 response across the country, particularly in facilities that care for the old and infirm. It makes her think officials should have and could have been more aggressive earlier on in trying to contain the virus, maybe through increased efforts to distribute protective equipment like masks and gowns, in short supply as the pandemic broke.
Word about the gravity of the situation as things deteriorated in April going into May “just wasn’t getting out there,” she said. “I just don’t think they managed it well.”
There were numerous cases in the facility where her mom lived, with as many as 12 deaths among residents there related to COVID-19, according to a blog The Ridge Foothill kept to inform family members. Ismene isn’t sure how her mom contracted COVID-19 but says it had to have come from inside the facility. As many as 17 employees and 34 residents there tested positive for COVID-19, according to a May 13 blog entry, all of them from the facility’s memory care unit.
Reps from The Ridge Foothill didn’t immediately respond to a query from the Standard-Examiner seeking comment. But all the COVID-19 cases in the facility had been cleared as of June 10, according to the blog entry from that date.
‘SHE LOVED OGDEN’
Not much is publicly known about many of the COVID-19 victims from around Utah as health officials don’t identify them due to privacy laws.
Ismene, though, shed some light on her mother, born Vasiliki Vetas but better known as Bess. Her mom, she said, was the 80th victim in Utah, at least according to a tally maintained by a friend.
Bess was born in Salt Lake City to Greek immigrants and grew up in the capital. After marrying Basil Vetas, who died in 1988, the couple moved to Ogden, his home, and that’s where the family grew and thrived. The Vetas children grew up in the family’s East Bench home and attended Wasatch Elementary, Mount Ogden Junior High School and Ogden High School.
“She loved Ogden,” Ismene said of her mom. “She loved that home. She loved working in the garden.”
Ismene and her sister Eleni remember their mom as fiercely dedicated to her children. “My mom was wonderful. She was tough. The Greek mom. She protected us. That’s the thing I remember, she would really protect us,” Ismene said.
She was a homemaker as the children grew, carting Ismene to tennis tournaments and Eleni, a musician, to piano lessons. “She was just totally dedicated and involved,” Eleni said. “My mom’s life was her family, her children.”
She also helped her husband with his business interests, was active in the Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Ogden and later took a job at the former Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution in downtown Ogden.
“Despite battling memory loss in her later years, Bess never lost the charisma and joy of her youth, as she maintained many warm friendships and never failed to brighten every room,” reads her obituary.
Health issues eventually prodded family to uproot Bess from Ogden and move her to Salt Lake City, around 2017 or 2018. That’s where three of her kids live and where she could get more focused care and attention.
After she contracted COVID-19, Ismene held out hope her mom would somehow overcome it. “My mom is so strong. I thought she could beat anything,” she said.
Good memories remain in the wake of Bess’ death. But her surviving kids are left with plenty of pain and trauma as well at seeing her succumb to an ailment causing shock waves around the world. “It was so scary and horrible. Words don’t do it any justice, the grief you go through,” Ismene said.