One year ago, a family in Freehold, New Jersey, lost a loved one to COVID-19. It was just the beginning of their heartache. A total of five members of the Fusco family died in the early weeks of the pandemic. Nikki Battiste reports.
NIKKI BATTISTE: Exactly one year ago, a family in Freehold, New Jersey lost a loved one to COVID-19. It would just be the beginning of their heartache. A total of five members of the Fusco family died in the early weeks of the pandemic. The people they left behind shared with me how they got through the toughest year of their lives.
Grace Fusco was a devout Catholic who nourished her large Italian-American Family, body and soul.
GRACE FUSCO: Want another one?
NIKKI BATTISTE: Mama Fusco, as she was known, raised 11 children in Freehold Township, New Jersey.
- The only thing we're guilty of is being a close-knit family. We were always together.
NIKKI BATTISTE: We talked to four of them, Joe, Tony, Adrianne, and Liz one year after what would be their last family dinner.
During the dinner, were you even thinking about the coronavirus?
- Not a thought in any of our minds.
- Everything was good until we were sitting in the thing. And my brother commented, anyone else got the chills? And unknowing and unbeknownst to us, we were spreading this horrible disease to people, to us in our family.
GRACE FUSCO: [SPEAKING ITALIAN]
NIKKI BATTISTE: The following week, Grace Fusco and six of her kids were in the hospital.
- And before you knew it, mom, Carmine, Vinny, they were all on a ventilator.
NIKKI BATTISTE: It was seven days of heartache.
- You just want this magic pill. And at that point, that magic pill didn't exist.
NIKKI BATTISTE: Their sister Rita was the first to die at age 56.
- Rita was a funny character, very intelligent woman, my sister Rita, unbelievable.
NIKKI BATTISTE: Big brother Carmine, 55, followed five days later.
- He was like a best friend to me. I could talk to Carmine about anything under the sun.
NIKKI BATTISTE: And in a few more hours, their 73-year-old mother Grace took her last breath.
- And I remember just saying, ma, you fought the best you can. It's OK.
NIKKI BATTISTE: The next day, another brother, Vinny passed. He was 53.
- My brother Vinny, he was a storyteller. And it would take hours for him to tell you a story.
- Don't worry Beau, the donkey's got it.
- But he left you captivated.
NIKKI BATTISTE: A month later, their aunt Maria.
- You just can't replace them in our lives.
NIKKI BATTISTE: Tony, now 55, was battling COVID in the same hospital that week.
- And I was petrified of everything because in my mind, I'm thinking, I'm going to die. And we're all just going to die. And they're going to take our whole family. I don't know if you remember. He texted me and said I'm going on the vent, Tony. I can't breathe. And I was like, this is it. I'm next.
- I just remember pounding into my head, just over and over to myself, you got to wake up, you have to wake up.
NIKKI BATTISTE: After 30 days and 30 nights, Joe did wake up on Easter Sunday.
- I'm lucky. I'm lucky to be alive.
- Up the stairs.
NIKKI BATTISTE: Two weeks later, he finally went home.
- Physically, I'm not the strong guy I used to be. I used to be much stronger. And I have to learn my limitations now. It's tougher, the breathing. It's still there, the breathing issues. I have numbness down my left side.
NIKKI BATTISTE: How are you emotionally?
- I'm all right. I learned to rationalize. But then sometimes, it gets the better of you. And you're like, no. Why did it have to happen? Why did it have to be us?
NIKKI BATTISTE: It's a question researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine are trying to answer, studying the family's DNA. There's no telling how many people, how many families were saved by the story of the Fuscos and the amazing Grace.
- Her passing, in a way, helped the world immensely. They learned a lot from her and her children of what to do and what not to do. Yeah, it's unfair. But she wouldn't have had it any other way.
NIKKI BATTISTE: They take comfort from that. But one year later, the pain is still fresh.
- How I wish I could just walk down those steps and see her making us lunch and my sister walking through that front door or my brothers just busting our chops at the dinner table. Just one more day, I would just give my last breath for it just to hug them one more time.