Separated by the pandemic, an elderly Florida couple meets for one final farewell

The elderly Romeo and Juliet of a Florida senior community reunited for a final time.

Sam Reck, who had been separated from direct contact with his wife, JoAnn Reck, during the ban on visits to nursing homes, held her hand and peered into her eyes as she lay in a hospital bed Saturday night, just hours before she died of COVID-19, her family said.

JoAnn, 86, resided in a skilled nursing area at Florida Presbyterian Homes, while Sam lived in an apartment. Unable to be in close proximity, they forged a routine of distant visits, as Sam sat on a balcony outside his second-floor apartment and JoAnn talked to him from a garden below.

The couple became known as Romeo and Juliet in the senior community for their meetings, which mirrored the assignations of the young lovers in Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy. JoAnn was diagnosed with dementia about a year ago, and Sam described the anguish his wife endured because she failed to understand why he had ceased spending most of his days with her, as he did before the suspension of visits issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in March. That order has been extended until Aug. 29 to reduce the spread of COVID-19 infections.

‘I can hold your hand again’
JoAnn developed a cough, a fever and extreme drowsiness and was transferred to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center, where a test Friday confirmed she had COVID-19, said her daughter, Linda Hennessey. Family members decided not to have JoAnn put on a ventilator, and instead she moved to the hospital’s palliative care unit.

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Though visits to patients with COVID-19 are largely restricted, the hospital makes exceptions for end-of-life situations. Sam, 90, decided to risk possible exposure to the illness in order to be with his wife of nearly 30 years a final time Saturday night. He donned full protective gear, including a gown, two masks, a head covering and gloves, and stayed with JoAnn for about four hours.

“They suited us all up in all protective gear,” he said. “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.”

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