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Faces of COVID: 12 hours after losing mom to the coronavirus, Independence woman battles virus in the same ICU

Karen Strejnowski battled COVID-19 at the same time as both of her parents.

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Currently, in Ohio, nearly 40% of adults have received their first coronavirus vaccine. However, while millions more Americans continue to get vaccinated against the coronavirus – cases and hospitalizations are rising in many states. For Karen Strejnowski it is a grim reminder that we are still in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 568,000 Americans including Strejnowski’s mom. 

Strejnowski was faced with endless shock when the coronavirus came knocking on her family’s door. It all started with her mother Pat who was infected by a home healthcare worker. Pat quickly wound up in the intensive care unit at University Hospitals Parma Medical Center. The coronavirus infection led to serious complications with Pat’s heart. 

Strejnowski says she wanted nothing more than to be by her mother’s side in the hospital and the separation was devastating. 

"The thought of her fighting this virus alone in the hospital where we couldn't be with her is absolutely heartbreaking," Strejnowski said. "Every day, I'd go to my parents' house and my father and I would sit by the phone waiting for every latest update...it was torture."

After a few days in the hospital, Strejnowski received a devastating call - her mother Pat did not survive the virus. 

Credit: Karen Strejnowski
Pat Strejnowski

“It was the worst moment of my entire life to know that that call was going to be coming, to know there was nothing we could do, to know it was happening and we couldn’t stop it,” said Strejnowski. 

Strejnowski says within 12 hours of her mom's passing, she too ended up in the ICU with COVID-19.

"Battling the deadly virus while simultaneously grieving the loss of my mom was unbearable, and just when I thought I couldn't handle anymore...I learned my dad was in the emergency room also being admitted with coronavirus," she remembered. "To say I was terrified and distraught is an understatement."

Strejnowski understood the feeling of loneliness that so many coronavirus patients experience in hospitals throughout the country. 

“When you lose someone close to you, you want to be around other people, you want someone to hug you and hold you and someone to tell you it's going to be okay, and to be in an isolation chamber where the only people that come into your room are wearing hazmat suits and gas masks, it’s so surreal,” she said. “To know that I just lost my mom and I might lose my dad in the same week, it was too much. It was too much to bear.”  

 However, little angels, like nurse Lindsay Wells helped bear some of the burden. A simple smile with the eyes through Lindsay’s pink gas mask or a touch of the hand helped Karen in more ways than one. 

“I have very long hair and long hair gets very tangled when you are laying in a hospital bed and you are hooked up to all the machines and oxygen masks and tubes and all these different things. Then one day [nurse Lindsay] came into my room and she said, let’s brush your hair, let’s put it in a ponytail and she brought me a hair tie and she brushed my hair out,” she said. “That was like one of the first moments that I was like oh, she actually believes I am going to be okay because she’s trying to preserve my hair right now.”

 Wells said she wanted to make Karen feel as comfortable as possible. 

“I wanted her to know that I was there for her, period. I sat down and talked to her for a while in the room, not about her mom, but that she needed to stay strong,” said Wells. 

Karen eventually made it out of the ICU and said, “as they were wheeling me through the Covid floor they stopped in my dad’s room and I got to see him.”

Credit: Karen Strejnowski
Karen Strejnowski and her dad Charles "Chuck" Strejnowski

A few days later both Karen and her father were discharged from UH Parma Medical Center and today she carries her mom in her heart. She relives beautiful moments of her mom making the perfect smiley-faced pancakes, or the fact that she never missed a softball practice. She spends many days looking through pictures of her parents and the decades they spent together. 

“I wake up and I pray and I think god that’s I’m still here and thank god my dad is still here. I feel my mom is with me. I feel her presence; I feel her watching over us. I still feel her.” 

Credit: Karen Strejnowski
Pat and Karen Strejnowski

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Editor's note: The video in the player below is from a story published on Feb. 17, 2021.