The staff at the Lakeland, Florida nursing home called them “Romeo and Juliet.” They both died from COVID-19 within weeks of one another. And the responsibility for their deaths almost certainly lies at the feet of Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Sam Reck, 90, was frail but relatively healthy. His wife, JoAnn, was not so lucky. She began suffering from dementia. For a year, Sam had spent hours every day with his wife, holding her hand, talking to her, and trying — and sometimes succeeding — in triggering her memory.
Sometimes, during those long daily visits, JoAnn would come back from the mists of dementia, and Sam would see his wife’s face light up as she recognized him.
JoAnn died on July 12 from the coronavirus. For the weeks preceding her death, Sam was prohibited from seeing her due to the pandemic restrictions in place at Florida Presbyterian Homes. DeSantis, in his endless thrashing about, decided weeks before that visitors could not visit thieir loved ones in nursing homes. (While Florida’s death tolls spiral upwards, DeSantis is now considering opening the nursing homes to visitors.)
Sam lived in a small apartment nearby. With help from the staff, Sam set up a “perch” on his second-floor apartment balcony while JoAnn sat in a shady dining area below. He stayed out on his balcony three days a week so he could see his wife below — leading the staff to affectionately nickname them “Romeo and Juliet.” Sometimes she would look up and see him. Sometimes she recognized him. And sometimes she would speak to him. Of those times, she recalled, “Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? The moments we have — it’s amazing. I can’t even tell you how amazing they are.”
But mostly she suffered, unable to understand why her Sam no longer came to see her.
“I think they had gone through so much emotional stress the prior three months because they couldn’t see each other, really, they couldn’t touch each other,” Sam’s daughter Holly recalls. “Even though they were able to see each other from the balcony, it wasn’t the same. My father would go every day and spend eight hours or more with her, and then COVID happened. So I think it really took an emotional toll on both of them.”
In July, JoAnn began displaying symptoms of the virus, and she was moved to a nearby hospital. She tested positive. Family members decided not to unduly prolong her suffering by having her placed on a ventilator. Moreover, the hospital allowed family members to visit her in her final days.
On her last day, Sam, in full protective gear including a gown, two face masks, and surgical gloves, sat for hours with her, looking into her upturned face. She died a few hours later.
Days later, Sam was diagnosed with the virus. He died on August 1, in the same hospital room his wife had lain in during her final days. It’s almost certain that Sam contracted COVID-19 from his wife.
“[H]e knew the risks,” Holly says. “There wasn’t anything any of us could have done to have talked him out of that. He would have gotten himself there one way or the other to see her. I do believe that.” Scott Hooper, JoAnn’s son from her first marriage who was also by her bedside, agrees. “After Sam tested positive for COVID, I asked him if he regretted his visit to the hospital,” Hooper wrote in a Facebook entry. “Without pause, he replied, ‘Not one second.’ He said no matter what happens, he was very happy he had the opportunity to say goodbye and hold her hand one more time.”
Sam said after his final visit: “They suited us all up in all protective gear. We might have looked rather ominous, but we could hold her hand and talk to her to try to reassure her that we loved her.”
Holly could not visit her father because she cares for her elderly mother and refused to risk bringing the virus into her home. She says she spoke with Sam daily via video chat after he entered the hospital on July 24.
After Sam retired from the National Park Service, he met JoAnn at a church event in Jacksonville, Florida. JoAnn had lost her husband not long before, and, saddened and depressed, took her pastor’s advice to attend the event. Sam asked her to dance, and, Hooper writes, “they immediately connected.” Sam was a fan of bluegrass music, and loved to travel in his Winnebago to attend bluegrass festivals as far away as Canada. JoAnn willingly joined in. Their children have photos of them playing at events, with JoAnn singing and playing autoharp while Sam accompanied her on guitar or banjo.
They moved to Lakeland in 2005 to be near to their children, and lived for years at Florida Presbyterian Homes until JoAnn’s dementia forced her to move to the skilled nursing area at the hospital.
The couple moved to Lakeland in 2005 to be closer to their grown children in Central Florida. They lived in an apartment at Florida Presbyterian Homes before JoAnn’s dementia forced her to move into the skilled nursing area.
When she moved to the nursing home, Sam wrote to DeSantis asking for an exception so he could visit her. DeSantis did not reply.
Their cremated remains will be interred together in a memorial garden on the campus of Florida Presbyterian Homes.
There is no way to know if JoAnn Reck would have contracted the virus had Trump and DeSantis acted quickly and decisively to curb the spread of the virus. But they did not. It is likely, however, that Sam would not have had to hold his wife’s hand for the final time wearing a plastic glove, or had to say her name for the final time through a nitrile mask.