Coronavirus CT: Remembering Those Lost In 2020

Rich Kirby

CONNECTICUT —There is a danger to reporting on a deadly pandemic for nine months. Of course, it's nothing like the dangers faced by health care workers and other first responders who have been knee-deep in the infection since March. We don't risk losing our lives in our work, but we can lose perspective.

Coronavirus deaths went from "breaking news alerts" in March to obituary ledes in July to just spreadsheets of numbers fueling "red zone" graphics and other colorful charts in September. But as we became more proficient at communicating the spread, we misplaced our sense of the dread at what the new disease was doing to the families it pillaged.

There were no red zone choropleth maps in 1918-19, when about 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish Flu. Today, with a death toll of about half that, roughly halfway through the same period, the jury is still out on deciding whether these pages from a macabre coloring book have made us more informed or just powered a collective paranoia.

So for this one day at least, the first in a year of new hope, Patch will put aside its graphs and spreadsheets, ignore the #trends, and remember the people we have lost.

What we also have today that we didn't have in 1918 is social media. Certainly, Facebook and Twitter have added a new and more immediate dimension to the pandemic. For some, social media has made them better informed; for others, it may have been a source of dangerous disinformation. For Earla Dawn Dimitriadis, it was the medium through which she gave a blow-by-blow description of the battle for life.

In a post written Dec. 1, Dimitriadis included a selfie from her hospital bed, with an oxygen tube attached to her nose.

"I'm losing the battle with COVID," Dimitriadis wrote in a post two days later. "It is now just a matter of trying to keep me comfortable 'til I pass. I'm ready to go and not be in pain anymore … This will probably be my last post. Be kind to each other. I love you."

Two days later, Dimitriadis, a longtime Stamford resident who moved to Stratford about 10 years ago, died at St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport.

In May, social media became the messenger for the most staggering news of the year for friends and family of the Aceto family of Branford:

"No words. I woke up five days ago and had a loving mother, father and godmother and aunt," Deborah Aceto Larsen wrote on Facebook. "Tonight they are all in heaven and our entire family is heartbroken."

On May 3, the Aceto family matriarch died. On May 6, her sister, the family's beloved aunt, also died. And on May 7, the family's patriarch was gone, too. All were victims of COVID-19.

The Aceto Family (Photo courtesy Deborah Aceto Larsen)
The Aceto Family (Photo courtesy Deborah Aceto Larsen)

Philomena Petruccelli McKinstry, longtime Portland resident, and former kindergarten teacher, died in April at age 93. Another beloved former teacher, Audrey Carretta, 86, of Wallingford, passed on in March.

COVID-19 ravaged Connecticut nursing homes and elder care facilities early in the pandemic, and coronavirus fatalities still primarily occur among the older population. That doesn't mean the young are immune, however. Sheryll Enriquez, 21, a member of the Class of 2017 of Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, succumbed to the virus in April, as did Yasmin Pena, an 18-year-old senior at Waterbury Arts Magnet School.

Around the time the U.S. was recording COVID-19 death number 300,000, Patch asked readers to recount the lives of loved ones lost to the virus. What flowed into our database was a stream of epitaphs and photographs, courage and tears. As the nation now steels itself for its 350,000th coronavirus-associated fatality, we have revisited those responses, and remember.

"My dad was an Army vet, loved his family and friends, feeding the birds, walking his dogs, and kept his sense of humor through dementia and early Covid. He is dearly missed," wrote Deborah Chernoff, of Newtown, about her father Robert.

Robert Chernoff, of Newtown (Photo Courtesy Deborah Chernoff)
Robert Chernoff, of Newtown (Photo Courtesy Deborah Chernoff)

"Sal was kind and gentle man with a great sense of humor, who always put others before him," wrote Rosella Stevenson about Portland's Salvatore Pitruzzello.

Salvatore Pitruzzello (Contributed Photo)
Salvatore Pitruzzello (Contributed Photo)

"Laurie was the life of the party, she was so smart, funny, talented and loved by all her friends and colleagues. I worked with Laurie for 14 years and we had so much fun together. She because very special to me. In spite of any problems she had, she always asked how you were doing. We will all miss her so much," Diana L. D'Amelio wrote about her friend, Bethel's Laurie Pearl.

COVID-19 ended lives, but it also made us more keenly aware of the lives well-lived. Fred Geier, who served for 31 years and retired a lieutenant in the New Haven Fire Department, was married to Patricia Gilmore Geier for 56-1/2 years when he succumbed to the coronavirus. She remembers him as the "proud father of 2 sons, Tim (married to Eileen) and grandfather to Dan, Sam and Ben and son Keith."

Another military veteran, George Gaylord of Bethel, joined the U.S. Navy at age 17 and served in the Korean Conflict. Daughter Cathy L. Schaniel told Patch that "He served on the USS Black for a short period and then he served on the USS Ross. He was very proud of his military service and was a member of both the local Korean War Veterans and the American Legion. He was married to the love of his life for 65 years before her passing in 2018 from Parkinson's disease. His battle with COVID started after emergency surgery in February. In March, he was sent to a nursing home for rehab. He passed away on May 5, 2020 after being transferred from nursing home to hospital four additional times. He was a great father to me and my four other siblings. He had a great smile and he is missed every day."

Dancer and choreographer Andrew DiGiambattista was remembered by Frank Kimball as "a very loving, caring, giving and gentle soul. Andrew enjoyed life, traveling, spending time at the Jersey Shore, the Adirondacks, and Maine. He especially enjoyed good food, and spending time with family and friends."

Tony Spadaccini, a Stamford resident and former member of the city's Board of Representatives, was among the first to succumb to the virus, back in March.

Jennifer Archambault in Southington is missing her grandfather John Hall: "The most important thing to him was family. He is up in heaven singing and playing the piano with his late wife. We will miss you but know you are happy where you are."

Deb Gedney told us about her father, Trygve Robert Angell of Trumbull: "Dad's philosophy was to do good works anonymously. If you're found out, it won't count in heaven because you've already received your reward here on earth. It's only with his passing that we are learning of all the people he helped, and that's an amazing example to us all."

A retired school superintendent, Jerry Nolan of Old Lyme is remembered by Chelsea Nolan as "the strongest man I knew and loved his family more than anything. He was also a superintendent of schools for many years and would go to bat for what he knew was right."

Jerry Nolan (Contributed Photo)
Jerry Nolan (Contributed Photo)
Linda Grayeck (Contributed Photo)
Linda Grayeck (Contributed Photo)

All told, just under 6,000 Connecticut residents have died from coronavirus-associated conditions in 2020.

Plenty will be written in the next week about how "we are slowly going back to normal." But for those who lost their friends and family to the coronavirus in 2020, there is no longer any "normal." There isn't even any "going back." Patch honors them, and we grieve with them.

Al Branch, Anna Bybee-Schier, Brian McCready, Ellyn Santiago, RJ Scofield and Vincent Salzo all contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on the Across Connecticut Patch