Proia

Angelina Proia with her late father Richard Proia who died of COVID-19 April 16, 2020 in Rochester, New York. 

Living in New York City, only five hours away from her father, Angelina Proia, 34, never expected to have to say goodbye to him over the phone as he lay unconscious. She never expected to say goodbye to him when he was 66, and she never expected to have to defend the battle he fought in his final days.

Proia’s father, Richard Proia, died of COVID-19 in Rochester, New York, on April 16, 16 days after he went to the doctor for a urinary tract infection. Proia said she thinks that he contracted the novel coronavirus during his doctor’s visit. Richard was in good health – good enough health to have run marathons two years prior, and Proia did not believe him when he complained of fatigue on April 1.

“I didn’t take him seriously, and I’ll regret that for the rest of my life,” Proia said.

Proia wanted to have a wake prior to her father’s funeral, but because of COVID-19 restrictions and transmissions fears, he was cremated. She did not get to be with him when he died, and this has interrupted her grieving process.

To make matters worse, Proia feels as though she is constantly defending the facts of her father’s death from people who believe President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the virus not being a serious threat, she said.

“On top of that it’s just, you know the people who don’t believe [COVID-19 is] real or don’t take it seriously or don’t want to wear face masks, it just makes me angry,” Proia said. “It makes grieving a lot harder. I feel like I’m always defending his legacy.”

Supporters of President Trump have told Proia that “everyone’s going to die eventually” when talking about her father’s death, she said. Remarks such as that have inspired her to form a Facebook support group named COVID-19 LOSS SUPPORT FOR FAMILY & FRIENDS, with over 3,000 people from around the world who are coping with similar pain.

“[Trump supporters] say very callous, cruel things, and that’s kind of why we created the collective grieving space,” Proia said.

Haden Shepherd, a doctor at Ozark Guidance who provides counseling to school children in Washington County, said he recognizes that grieving during the pandemic looks different because people are mourning for the life they had pre-pandemic.

“What we do as a coping mechanism is to connect with others even through conversations or being in close physical proximity,” Shepherd said. “Seeking out a hug from somebody or an arm around your shoulder, that kind of stuff. And then whenever you don’t have those resources, then it makes it that much harder.”

Funeral services, like grieving, have taken on a different form during the pandemic. Losing a loved one to COVID-19 has had negative impacts on families, as has losing someone to unrelated causes during the pandemic, said Scott Berna, owner of the funeral homes Nelson Berna, Moore’s Chapel and Stockdale-Moody.

“I think the hardest part has been these people have lost loved ones and they hadn’t been able to see them, hadn’t been able to be there to see them in their last days,” Berna said. “It’s had a real effect emotionally on people.”

The majority of the COVID-19 funerals that Berna has worked on were people who were elderly or had underlying health conditions, he said.

Proia said she was in complete shock when her father died because Richard did not have any underlying health conditions.

Even with no underlying health conditions, adults face more frequent hospitalizations and a higher mortality rate from COVID-19 than children and teens, said Jessica Snowden, chief of infectious disease at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

“While we know that there are some conditions that make you more likely to get seriously ill, we’ve also seen patients who have absolutely no underlying health conditions get critically ill,” Snowden said. “So everybody needs to make sure they’re taking this seriously because we can’t predict that just because you’re previously healthy doesn’t mean you’re not going to get significantly ill.”

Richard was within the 65-74 age group, which has the third-highest number of deaths in the U.S., with 46,988 as of Nov. 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Richard had 30 nieces and nephews, 11 siblings and two children, including Proia.

“He was just a very happy-go-lucky, fun, life-loving, genuine, sweet, gentle soul,” Proia said. “I’m a very abrasive, aggressive New Yorker and my father was the exact opposite.”

In her large Italian family, Proia was used to her father acting dramatically and the women in her family doting on him. That is why she did not take Richard seriously when he complained about being fatigued, she said.

She knew it was serious when Richard called the paramedics because he felt fatigued April 5, and again, one day later when he was delirious with a fever of 103 degrees.

“They immediately put him on a ventilator, and he was on a ventilator for 10 days, never came off, and he died on April 16 at 8:25 a.m.,” Proia said.

It is hard for doctors to tell exactly when a person was infected with COVID-19, Snowden said. The response is different in every person’s body, and there is a wide range in the time a person may fight the virus, she said.

“It seems to be that, at least in adults, the mortality rate we’re seeing follows a couple of weeks after the hospitalization rate, but that’s not universal,” Snowden said. “There’s also some people who, at the time of presentation, very quickly died thereafter. So there’s a wide variety that we’re seeing.”

Proia remembers her father, who was an accountant and baseball umpire, as always smiling and having fun.

“To know my father is to know an 8-year-old in a 66-year-old man’s body,” Proia said.

Richard was gentle, kind, sweet and caring. One of his favorite activities, other than playing sports, was to ride the Slingshot, a roller coaster at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.

“He was really, really, really cool,” Proia said. “He is sorely missed, like sorely missed. My father was awesome. He was a good person.”

Proia continues to grieve her father’s death, seven months later, and still finds it difficult because of the political climate.

“The politics at the center of the country [have] made [grieving] 20 times more difficult.” Proia said. “[Trump supporters] constantly minimize his death because the virus is so politicized and it shouldn’t be political at all. It should be about science, but it’s not.”

Proia said she wants people to know that dying from COVID-19 is a genuine danger, and it could happen to anyone, including her beloved father.

“He just was so vivacious and he was always ready to have fun, and didn’t take the world too seriously,” Proia said. “He did not deserve to die the way he died.”

Abby Zimmardi is the multimedia editor for the Arkansas Traveler, where she previously worked as a staff reporter.

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