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By Mike Hazlip—
As a former neonatal nurse and founder of a photography service for children with life-threatening illness, Diana Miller is no stranger to tragedy, but COVID-19 has made a lasting impact for her family.
Miller herself is recovering from the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus as she spoke with The Sentinel by phone about losing both parents to the disease. Miller’s father and stepmother, Hank and Gaddy Stoffers, both passed away last month after becoming infected with COVID-19.
Miller says her father and stepmother had been married for 40 years before their passing on December 13. They lived in Palm Springs where 92-year-old Hank was in good health but had early signs of dementia. Gabby, at 84, had some medical issues and used oxygen.
Hank started to feel flu-like symptoms and was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early December. Miller says the hospital diagnosed him with COVID-19 and sent him home in a taxi. Miller said her stepmother was surprised that Hank had been sent home and insisted he receive medical care. He was eventually placed in a nursing facility in nearby Banning.
Gaddy soon started developing symptoms and spent five days in a hospital in Palm Springs after testing positive for COVID-19 herself. Miller and her sister then flew to Palm Springs and arrived a day before Gaddy was discharged.
A few days later, the nursing facility transferred Hank to a hospital in Banning where he was admitted to Intensive Care. Miller said the hospital allowed her to visit her father.
“They were very nice, they actually let us go in,” she said. “We had to get all [of our] PPE on, the whole gown and mask and everything, and the shield. And they took us up to the ICU and we could kind of wave at him through the glass doors. That was the last time I saw him.”
Gaddy was still recovering at home on the night of Saturday, Dec. 12, when she said she wasn’t feeling well and went to bed.
“My sister came running into the bedroom early Sunday morning. She found my Stepmother in her bedroom down on the floor, face down. She had gone,” Miller said.
As Miller and her sister, also a medical professional, performed chest compression’s on their stepmother, Gaddy’s phone rang. It was the hospital.
“They said, ‘Your dad is doing worse, he’s going to be up for a ventilator now, or he’s not going to make it,” Miller said.
Still focused on Gaddy, Miller said she gave the hospital authorization to intubate Hank. Minutes later paramedics arrived and confirmed what Miller and her sister already knew. Their stepmother was gone.
A few hours later the hospital called to inform Miller that her father had a collapsed lung and was not expected to survive without life support. Miller and her sister had to make the gut-wrenching decision to respect Hank’s wishes.
“We both talked about it, prayed about it. No, he wouldn’t want that. His wife is dead,” Miller said.
Miller said she called grandchildren and family members to give them a chance to say their goodbye’s as a nurse put a phone to Hank’s ear.
“That’s how he died. That’s the saddest thing about COVID I think. Dying totally alone in the hospital room. You don’t have a nurse there with you or anything. Just there by yourself with a phone next to your ear.”
Miller sees it as a blessing that Hank and Gaddy passed together, albeit in separate locations.
“Makes you wonder if maybe somehow as she passed away, then he starts passing away too,” she said. “Neither one wanted to live without the other, so in a way it was a blessing.”
Although Hank and Gaddy were in their later years, Miller said she had yet to fully come to terms their eventual passing.
“I guess one thing I can say is my worst fear has happened and I lived through it. My parents passing away, I didn’t really expect that,” she said.
Speaking of her own battle with the virus, Miller said she had the full range of COVID-19 symptoms, eventually developing pneumonia. She is now regaining her strength at home, but still has lingering symptoms.
“This is different for sure, it really affects your brain,” Miller said. “For me anyway, I was really out of it. I was really sick. I was just in bed, I could barely get up. I remember some friends calling me and people praying for me, then I was just out again.”
Miller hopes sharing her story will help others in the community who might have a similar experience.
“If it helps somebody, maybe someone else is going through the same thing. Nothing I ever expected at all,” she said.
Miller’s experience is one of 22 million others in the United States who have had a confirmed case of COVID-19, although the degree of severity and symptoms varies by person. Her parents deaths are out of the more than 372,000 deaths in the US attributed to COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. More than 80% are known to have had comorbidities.
In Sacramento County, latest statistics show a sharp rise in both case rate and deaths attributed to COVID-19 beginning in November 2020, although daily deaths have dropped from a high of 22 deaths on Dec. 7 down to only one death reported on Jan. 4, the most recent date that data is available for. The county reported 71,841 total cases and 977 deaths as of Saturday.
Miller plans to continue her photography business, which is based in Citrus Heights and lists a number of prominent businesses and organizations as clients.
Helping families with children who have serious illnesses also keeps Miller going. She says her Little Blessings photography began when she was working as a neonatal nurse and her husband bought her a camera to capture images of babies with serious conditions. She now provides complimentary portrait sessions for children with life-limiting illnesses.
Prior to her father’s passing, she also put her photography skills to use in giving her dad an album of family portraits to keep with him during his hospital stay. She said her father was not known for showing emotions, but he cherished the little book of images of his family.
“He’s looking through the book, and he starts crying and hugging the album,” Miller said. “He said ‘This is the most precious thing I have in my whole life.'”
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