This past summer Leslie Gould, executive director of the Greater Beverly Chamber of Commerce, interviewed North Shore Music Theatre’s Karen Nascembeni via ZOOM about her ordeal with COVID-19. Karen brings her experience to Northshore magazine in her own words.
St. Patrick’s Day…a holiday my husband, Steven Richard, and I normally celebrated at his family’s dining table, eating corned beef and cabbage and wearing green plastic hats, or drinking a Guinness in an Irish pub, a tradition we often topped off by joining friends at Chianti Jazz Club and listening to Los Sugar Kings perform Latin music. March 17, 2020, was different. It was the day I said my last goodbye to my husband.
A week earlier, both of us were rapidly spiraling downward to the sickest we had each ever been. High temperatures, body aches, and exhaustion came at us in a physical storm like we had never before experienced. Steven and I were in a state of confusion from what I now understand was oxygen deprivation. We had heard of the coronavirus, but this was not yet something we worried over—or even thought a great deal about. After all, it was the very beginning of America awakening, practically and emotionally, to this new disease. The country was just beginning to start to shut down. Still, Steven and I were each diagnosed with a sinus infection and prescribed antibiotics.
On the morning of March 17, it became clear that this was no sinus infection. Steven was particularly unwell. I told him I was going to call an ambulance. He asked that I drive him to the hospital. My doctor called ahead for clearance, and then, in a delirious state, I drove us to Winchester Hospital. There we were instructed to wait in the parking lot next to the ambulance bay so we could be taken, one at a time, for critical assessment into a special area of the emergency room. Steven, by now gravely ill, was helped out of the car by a medical professional. He turned around, blew me a kiss, and said, “I love you.” I smiled, blew him a kiss, touched my heart and said, “I love you, too.”
That was the last time I saw him. A week later he was dead, one of the first Massachusetts residents to succumb to this strange new viral enemy.
I did not know that Steven died. I did not know my father-in-law, Earl, and my friend, Don Kelley, died five days later. I did not know these things because I was fighting for my own life. I did not know that my sister, Sandra McArthur, was having to make life-or-death medical decisions on mine and my husband’s behalf. I did not know that my friends and family were not only enduring the loss of our beloved Steven and Earl, but also hanging onto Sandi’s every word in her nightly eloquently written Facebook post updates.
I did not know that people were praying for me around the world, that the North Shore Music Theatre costume department was sewing masks, or that t-shirts, wine glasses, and coffee mugs were being designed by my friend, Nate Bertone, with my portrait on them and two of my favorite sayings, “Hello, Darling” and “Come On Party People,” and that these were being sold to raise money for the Steven Richard Memorial Scholarship Fund, which Nate also created, along with a “Postcards for Karen” campaign. I did not know that homes and businesses were placing candles in their windows in honor of Steven’s passing and in the hope that I would survive this dreadful virus.
I did not know any of this, because for 31 days, I was sedated, intubated with a machine breathing for me, and given paralytics to place me in a medically induced coma; I also received a blood transfusion and multiple medicinal combinations to help me fight the infections and to preserve my major organs—all in an effort to save my life.
During that time, I nearly died twice—once with a very serious cardiac episode that resulted in the hospital requesting a DNR from my family, and then again as a result of a secondary infection. For 35 days, I had horrific hallucinations and nightmares. Throughout all those visions, Steven appeared quietly and reassuringly in the corner of the room, never saying a word, just smiling peacefully at me, knowingly, saying, “You are going to be all right.” Even though I did not consciously know that my 58-year-old, healthy husband had died, I was sure of it, as a result of him coming to me in that way.
During this entire 65-day ordeal, I was in the ICUs of both Winchester Hospital and Lahey Hospital and Medical Center. After I came out of Lahey, I spent three weeks of therapy at Spaulding Rehab in Cambridge, where I worked on getting my strength back, learned how to walk again, and began preparing myself to navigate my new, COVID-19 world. On May 21, I was released into the loving care of my sister, Sandi, and her family, where I continued to recuperate in the safety of their home for another four months. Throughout this time, I was trying to process the deep losses I had endured.
Now, as I return to my home in Lynnfield, I am getting ready for re-entry into my life, or at least what we are calling “the new normal.” I am working on strengthening myself, both physically and emotionally, for this next chapter. I recognize that I am entering uncharted waters. I know that in the wake of this extraordinary experience, life is going to be markedly different now, without my husband, and in the wake of having been so ill.
But I walk forward, taking one day—and sometimes, one step—at a time. Until we have a vaccine, or a cure for COVID-19, I will continue to tell my story, because if it saves even one life, it will be worth the pain of reliving the emotional landscape of these past six months.
I am eternally grateful to the countless people who were there for Steven’s and my families. You lifted us up and sustained us in our darkest moments. Your support fostered strength and resiliency in us that we did not know we were cable of harnessing. We could not have survived this horrific ordeal without the outpouring of love and support from the North Shore community and from around the world.
I would be remiss if I did not say that I owe my life to the many medical professionals who risked their own lives during this pandemic to bring me (and many others) through the ordeal of COVID-19. These loving strangers stood in for my family and friends; they held my hand in my darkest hours; and they spoke to me so lovingly during the achingly remote isolation I experienced while in their care. I am blessed to have found a grief counselor, who is carefully and competently shepherding me through this process. I am living in the balance of facing this unimaginable grief and, at the same time, experiencing extraordinary gratitude not only for having survived my near-death illness, but also for having had the great love I shared with Steven for almost 30 years.
As I said when I woke up, tomorrow is promised to no one. Please wear your mask. Be safe, for yourself and for others. At the close of my interview with the Greater Beverly Chamber of Commerce, I said something that resonated with so many people: “You do not want to have to have your niece make you a mask for your husband’s funeral with his initials monogrammed on it. I love this mask. I treasure it, and I hope you never have to have one made.”