Remembering loved ones lost to COVID-19 in Kent County

Coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Most of those who have died of COVID-19 in Kent County have been known as numbers: the first death, the second death, the third.

On Wednesday, that number stood at 33.

But death certificates help tell the stories of those lost, the worst part of the virus.

Target 8 obtained death certificates for 26 of those listed as COVID-19 victims in Kent County. They include homemakers, business owners, factory workers, a teacher, a retired fire chief, a secretary, mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers.

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Most had underlying conditions, but some did not.

The loss of life has been felt in southeast Grand Rapids and in other corners of Kent County, in places like Kentwood, Byron Township, Cascade Township, Sparta and Cedar Springs.

Among the dead: Jim Bird, a U.S. Army veteran who served in World War II with the occupying forces in Italy and Greece. He was in the signal corps, which means he tapped out Morse code.

“He was still very sharp,” his daughter, Rev. Kathy Bird DeYoung, said.

He died in hospice just last week. At 94, he was among the oldest that COVID-19 has claimed in Kent County.

“That could be attitude of some people, that, ‘Well, he was 94.’ But he didn’t have to go like this, and he went so fast,” his daughter said.

She still had plans with her dad — church every Sunday, then lunch, weekly dinners at Breton Woods senior apartments in Kentwood, where he lived.

“Full of life, very vibrant, funny,” she recalled him.
 
Her New Deal Democrat dad, who grew up in the Great Depression and retired as a social studies teacher, was looking forward to a trip this summer to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Big Rapids.

“We would have had probably, I don’t know, six months to a year more,” she said, even with his underlying condition, a long-time heart problem.

‘THEY CALLED HIM PAPA HANK’

Death records show the average age of the victims in Kent County was 78, but there were more in their 60s than in their 90s.

Among 25 confirmed cases:

A breakdown of ages of 25 Kent County residents who died after contracting coronavirus.

Among the youngest was 61-year-old Henry “Hank” Gignac, who lived with his wife in Cascade Township, was the owner of a veneer shop, an avid golfer, father of three and grandfather of three.

“They called him Papa. Papa Hank,” his son, John Gignac, said.

He coached his sons’ Little League teams and practiced T-ball with his granddaughter in the front yard.

“He was the first one to give you a hug after you struck out and the first one to give you hug if you hit a home run. He was always there for us,” his son said.

The last time John Gignac saw his dad was at his daughter’s baptism March 8.

Then, late that month, Gignac started to show cold symptoms, which led to gasping for air and then to a ventilator at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

Nobody knows how he caught the virus.

“He may have touched the wrong gas pump that someone may have had it and left a print on it, or something like that, or if he went to the grocery store and walked down the wrong aisle and someone had just sneezed, maybe he caught it like that,” his son said. “At that point, I wasn’t concerned about him losing his life or struggling with it. I knew that he was young, didn’t have any underlying symptoms. You know, hey, it’s going to be a couple of days, he’ll recover, you know.”

On Good Friday, Gignac called his wife from the hospital.

“He said, ‘Sue, I know what’s happening, I’m aware of what’s going on. I’ll be home soon,'” his son said.

The next day, he suffered abdominal bleeding. A week later, a nurse called the family and put them on speaker phone to his hospital room.

“We all got to share a couple words with him before he passed,” his son said. “He did hear us. He did know we were with him.”

‘THE STRONGEST PERSON WE KNEW’

Twenty-one of the 26 victims identified by Target 8 had preexisting conditions, death records show. But as many as five did not, including Gignac, though his son said he took medication to control his blood pressure.

“If it can happen to my dad, who was the strongest person that we knew, the strongest person that everyone knew, it can happen to anybody,” John Gignac said.

Health experts said the elderly and those with underlying conditions are still most at risk.

“Unfortunately, the virus does not just impact those who have underlying conditions,” said Brian Hartl, epidemiology supervisor at the Kent County Health Department. “Those individuals who’ve passed away, who were otherwise relatively healthy, the virus can ravage their systems and their bodies and unfortunately we’ve seen that that people who are otherwise healthy have died from the virus.”

A BREAKDOWN BY RACE

Records also show that while, statewide, the virus has hit blacks and Hispanics hardest, most of those who have died in Kent County were white — 20 of the 26 of those identified by Target 8.

Among the victims were a Vietnamese husband and wife in their 70s, who lived in a Kentwood mobile home park and died three days apart.

Health officials said they believe the numbers of white victims is higher because more whites are living in the hardest-hit nursing homes.

Eighteen of the 26 lived in nursing homes or homes for the elderly: 10 at Metron of Cedar Springs, four at Breton Woods in Kentwood and three at SKLD on the East Beltline.

Grand Rapids City Commissioner Rev. Nathaniel Moody, who owns Brown’s Funeral Home on the city’s Southeast Side, said he believes COVID-19 has claimed more black lives in the city than reported.

“This plague, virus, whatever we want to call it, is having a profound effect on the African American community, no matter where they are,” Moody said. “We believe that there are more cases that we have buried that had COVID-19, but there was no testing to prove it.”

The city commissioner handled the arrangements for Mamie Davis-Staten, who did test positive.

She is the youngest fatal victim identified by Target 8. She was 60, a former custodian who had been living in the SKLD nursing home for several years after suffering strokes and other problems, her aunt said. She also was diabetic and suffered from high blood pressure.

“She was a very thankful person,”, the aunt, Mary Staten, said.

She said Davis-Staten thanked her for everything she did for her — taking her care packages, doing her laundry.

“‘Thank you, Aunt Mary, for doing my clothes, thank you for washing my clothes,'” she would say.

Once, her great-niece counted 11 thank yous in one visit.

The last time she saw her niece was on Easter Sunday, when she brought dinner.

She believes she would still be alive if not for COVID-19, which took 60 hours to take her.

Click image to learn about Kent County residents who died after contracting coronavirus.

A MIRACLE, THEN DEATH

On April 10, nurses and doctors in masks lined the hallways and cheered as Catherine Yeaw was wheeled out of Metro Hospital. She was a COVID-19 survivor, the grand marshal of her own parade.

The 79-year-old grandmother of 27, great-grandmother of 43 and great-great grandmother of three had fought off bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia for years, her family said. But this was as close as she had come to death.

Nobody can say how she caught this virus.

“With all her health conditions, we thought it really was a miracle that she survived,” her granddaughter, April Tezak, said. “We weren’t expecting her to and she did.”

On Easter Sunday, after her move from the hospital to a rehabilation center, Yeaw stood in her room window and waved at grandkids and great grandkids with hand-painted signs outside.

“You’re a fighter,” one of the signs read. “We love you, grandma.”

No visitors were allowed inside.

“That was hard because everyone was so used to seeing her on a daily basis that when she was in the nursing home and most needed that comfort — because that’s the kind of grandma she was: ‘Sit on my lap, come lay with me, come cuddle with me’ — and when you’re not able to do that for her when she needs it, that’s hard,” her granddaughter said.

Three days later, family joined a conference call with a nurse holding up a phone to grandma’s ear. She had suffered an apparent stroke.

“We all got to say that we loved her before we got the news that she was gone,” her daughter, Marie Moran, said.

They livestreamed her funeral.

“This is serious. Just because it hasn’t affected you yet doesn’t mean that it won’t,” her daughter said.


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