Heather Hussli has mascara on her hands after wiping away tears while showing pictures of her sister, Heidi. Picture: Lauren Justice/The Washington Post
Heather Hussli has mascara on her hands after wiping away tears while showing pictures of her sister, Heidi. Picture: Lauren Justice/The Washington Post

'I said goodbye to my sister through a computer screen'

By The Washington Post Time of article published Jan 3, 2021

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Holly Bailey

Green Bay, Wisconsin. - Heather Hussli never realised how often she spoke to her sister Heidi until she couldn't anymore.

There are still times when Heather reaches for the phone to call Heidi, forgetting everything for the briefest of moments. How their beloved mother, Kim, died in late August after months of declining health. How their family and friends gathered to say goodbye. They wore masks; they stayed apart the best they could. But Heather now believes that probably wasn't enough.

Days after the funeral and a separate gathering afterward, the sisters developed headaches and fatigue. Tests soon revealed what they suspected: Heather, Heidi and Heidi's husband were diagnosed with the coronavirus. All three were told to take Tylenol and quarantine. But Heidi's condition dramatically worsened. Struggling to breathe, she was taken to the hospital. On September 17, a little over two weeks after her mother's death, Heidi died. She was just 47.

As with all the lives lost to the coronavirus, that was only the beginning of the story. In a pandemic that has claimed more than 330 000 Americans - a toll so large that some have grown numb to the incomprehensible loss of life - there are the families left behind to navigate the trauma of losing someone to a virus that can debilitate and kill with staggering speed, even as some in their own community insist it is a hoax.

Heather, waging her own battle with Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, said goodbye to her younger sister on a live stream, tears running down her face as she watched doctors unplug the machine that had helped her sister breathe. Heidi, in a hospital room just down the road, was suddenly gone. Heather longed to rush to her, to hug her and touch her one last time, but she couldn't. The feed went dark, and she sat with her head in her hands, crying.

"I said goodbye to my sister through a computer screen just like this one," she said recently over a Zoom chat, her voice thick with emotion as she wiped at her eyes. In just 19 days, "half of my family was gone."

In Green Bay, where many families have been reluctant to publicly identify loved ones who succumbed to Covid-19, omitting any mention of the disease from obituaries, Heidi, a popular high school German teacher, soon became the face of the pandemic. While her family mourned privately, Heidi's anguished students, both past and present, shared photos of their smiling teacher - Frau Hussli, they called her. They told of how she led them on annual study abroad trips to Germany and to Chicago's Christkindlmarket holiday street fair, and spoke of her lasting impact on their lives.

There was an ugly side to the public outpouring. Heather was horrified to see Facebook comments about her sister's death from strangers who argued the coronavirus wasn't dangerous, or that she hadn't died of the virus because Covid-19 wasn't real.

"Evil comments [that] just broke my heart even more," she said. She wondered how people could be so cruel. A friend ordered her to stop reading them.

Heather, 50, struggles to talk about the loss of her sister. She is still battling the physical and emotional effects of the coronavirus. She can't smell and feels anxiety at the pang of a headache or tickle of a cough, worried that somehow she has been stricken anew by a virus that has already taken so much from her.

"It's like this PTSD," she said. "If I have a cough or a headache, I'm like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to get it again. Oh my God, what do I do?' "

A good day, Heather said, is when she can get out of bed and work. But at night, she struggles to sleep, consumed with grief and lingering guilt over the gatherings after her mother's death and surviving her kid sister. She agonizes over the fact that Heidi worried at the beginning of the pandemic that she might not survive if she contracted the coronavirus, although she had no known health complications. Barely able to speak as doctors prepared to intubate her, Heidi had asked Heather to take care of her 16-year-old son in case she didn't wake up.

"You have to step up," she'd said, struggling to get the words out.

"Why her and not me?" Heather wonders.

Heather Hussli stands outside the Green Bay, Wisconsin, home of her sister, Heidi, who died of Covid-19 in September. Picture: Lauren Justice/The Washington Post

The first reported case of the novel coronavirus in Wisconsin was on February 5, an unidentified person who travelled to China. State health officials at the time urged the public not to panic, insisting "the risk of getting sick from . . . coronavirus in Wisconsin is very low."

The sisters had always taken the virus seriously, Heather said. At her job where she connects residents with community benefit services, Heather had been fielding a growing number of calls from people who said their relatives were ill, giving her a sense of how quickly the virus seemed to be spreading throughout the community.

At the time, Heidi told her sister she worried she might be at risk because she was a teacher, a job that would put her into contact with young, possibly asymptomatic people.

Because of the threat of the coronavirus, visits to their 78-year-old mother, who was in an assisted-living facility after suffering multiple strokes, were no longer allowed. Like many families, the sisters could only see their mother from a distance.

By August, their mother's health was failing. When the nursing staff realized Kim had reached the final hours of her life, they allowed Heather inside the facility, where she held her mother in the final minutes before she died - the first time she'd had close contact with her in six months. Heidi arrived just afterward.

Heartbroken, the sisters weighed how to honour their mother. Heidi told her sister she longed to have a traditional funeral for her mom. But Heather wasn't so sure. They met with the funeral home in Beaver Dam that was handling their mother's body.

"I remember asking the lady, 'Is this safe?' " Heather said.

While it was rare, the funeral home had held some in-person memorial services, where guests wore masks and were required to socially distance, following county health guidelines.

While Heather felt uneasy, she and Heidi decided to move forward with the service, followed by a reception at a nearby tavern. Some of their friends and family members called with concerns. The sisters reassured people that it would be okay if they decided not to come because they felt it was too dangerous.

On September 3, five days after Kim's death, the sisters gathered for an afternoon funeral and the separate reception. Heather and her sister were surprised to see more than 100 people show up for both - far more than they had expected. While everyone wore masks and tried to keep a distance, it grew increasingly hard. Throughout the day, guests let down their guard and gave them hugs. Heather does not know where she, Heidi and others contracted the coronavirus, or even if it happened that day.

Though it was a sombre afternoon, Heather noticed that her normally reserved sister seemed to be more ebullient and outgoing than usual.

"Who are you right now?" she jokingly asked her sister at one point.

The day after Labor Day, Heidi had returned to the classroom. Classes had resumed with a hybrid model, where a small number of students attended class in-person on alternate days, while others watched online at home.

According to the school, Heidi wore a cloth face mask along with a plastic face shield. Her desk was fitted with a plexiglass shield and positioned far away from her students. But she quickly left the school that morning, telling colleagues that she felt ill. Heather, Heidi and Heidi's husband and son were tested for the coronavirus. They all tested positive, except for Heidi's son - though he was also showing symptoms.

By then, Heather said they began to hear of several others who had been at the memorial gatherings who were feeling sick and would later test positive for the virus. Among the stricken were an aunt and uncle who had questioned if gathering was the right thing to do, along with a close family friend - but they still can't say for sure where and when they all contracted the virus.

An official with the funeral home said it followed all CDC and state health guidelines, and was never contacted by county health officials during their contact tracing efforts.

Knocked off her feet by a painful headache and the worst fatigue she had ever felt in her life, Heather felt scared and anguished about what was unfolding.

Heidi's cough was horrific and grew worse by the day. Labouring to breathe and unable to eat, she began to fade in and out of consciousness. Her husband, who was also sick, struggled to care for his wife. By the weekend, Heidi was admitted to the hospital. She had been scared to go - worried she wouldn't come home.

At the hospital, Heidi tried to stay upbeat about her condition. She told her family and colleagues she planned to teach her classes the following week via Zoom from her hospital room. But she grew sicker, and by Sunday, doctors told her family they wanted to intubate her to help her breathe.

Heidi's husband called Heather to tell her what was happening, and she raced to her sister's house, where he and her nephew were talking to Heidi on a video chat.

When she saw her sister, Heather began to cry. Heidi, who had been so vivacious and alive at her mother's funeral a little over a week earlier, looked and sounded nothing like herself. A woman known for her mastery of languages now struggled to enunciate each syllable.

They passed Amir's phone around so they could each speak to Heidi for what doctors warned could be the last time if the intubation didn't work. Heidi had made clear to her family that she didn't want to be kept alive by machines, and they had promised to honor her wish.

Less than two weeks before, Heather had held her mother as she took her final breaths. Now she was staring at her baby sister through a screen, unable to touch or hold her. She was stunned by how quickly things had gone wrong.

Heather thought back to how days earlier, she had driven home with her sister from their mother's funeral and hadn't wanted to leave. It had been such a long, hard day, but somehow, near Heidi, she felt peace.

"I don't want to go home," Heather told her sister, in what would turn out to be one of their last moments together.

"You don't ever have to go, Heather," Heidi had replied.

For a moment, the women stood there looking at one another, a long, comfortable silence that wasn't typical of their relationship. The way Heather remembers it, Heidi seemed to be staring at her, studying her face as if she knew this might be one of the last times they'd see one another.

"The way she looked at me, it wasn't like her," Heather recalled. "I just have this gut instinct she knew something was going to happen."

Exactly two weeks later, Heidi was gone.

Heather has gratitude for the nurses who held her sister's hand as she died, and the workers who facilitated the live stream, but it is not the way she ever imagined saying goodbye to anyone, much less the person she was closest to.

"I have never felt this kind of pain," Heather said. "No one should."

A loss that always would have been hard has been made harder - by her own struggle with the coronavirus and the lingering aftereffects; and the intense guilt she feels, not only for her sister's death, but for others who had gotten sick. Why had they gathered at all?

She doesn't blame the funeral home or anyone else involved in the events that day, knowing that she or others may have contracted the virus elsewhere.

"We decided to go through with it. It was our choice," she said. And others have told her she can't feel responsible for the people who came to honor her mother because they chose to come. But that's easier said than done when you are lying in bed at night, unable to sleep and wondering how life could have unravelled so swiftly.

She hasn't talked to any other families who might be experiencing what she's going through because she doesn't know anyone else. There are no local support groups, no secret club of those who share in this uniquely horrible sense of loss. She understands why.

"Talking about it is like reliving it," she said. "And it hurts."

Haunted by the Facebook comments, she is fearful of talking about her sister's death publicly. But at the same time, she longs for Heidi to be more than just a statistic - more than just Brown County's 60th victim of a ruthless virus that continues to rage. She wants people to know how wonderful her sister was. And she wants people to understand what it is like for those left behind.

Heather spends most days at Heidi's home, where she and Heidi's husband care for her sister's son. The teen is reserved, like his mother was, and she watches and worries, concerned about how the loss of his mother will shape his life. She keeps hearing her sister's last request and knows she has to be strong for her nephew, even if sometimes she feels like falling apart.

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