Journal Staff
 |  The Providence Journal

They were bankers and coaches, teachers and nurses, knitting enthusiasts and war veterans, a corrections lieutenant and two inmates. A Teamster, a pizza shop owner, an animal welfare activist. Loving mothers. Devoted fathers. Beloved sisters, dear brothers.

They lived in Foster and Central Falls and Providence and Pawtucket and Warwick and Cranston and Bristol and East Providence and Warren and Westerly and Johnston and North Providence and Barrington and Exeter and Woonsocket, just about everywhere in the state, in cities and towns and suburbs, in nursing homes and family houses. 

For the most part they were older, fussing over the grandchildren who put a twinkle in their eyes, drinking cocktails and playing cards with their late-in-life romances, living out their twilight years before a preventable disease caused them to die too young. 

They are the more than 2,000 Rhode Islanders who have died since the COVID-19 pandemic began not quite a year ago. 

Elizabeth Freethy, died of COVID on her way to hospital: 

They included Elizabeth Freethy, creative and witty, a lover of puzzles who was uentflay in Pig Latin, who had a sense of humor as dry as the fake Christmas tree they used to put up as kids.  

“She was the kindest person I knew,” said daughter Gina Palazzo, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Growing up in Rhode Island, they’d do very Rhode Island things. They’d go to the beach. They’d go to Newport Creamery. They’d go to the fabric store; both Gina and older daughter Kristen Palazzo, who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, picked up their mom’s crafty and creative side.

“She could always find the humor in things that weren’t really supposed to be funny,” said Kristen.

Such as? Well, such as the time when their dad was going under that fake Christmas tree to try to fix something. He accidentally knocked over the tree, and broke it.

“For some reason, my mother and I thought that was hilarious,” Kristen said. “We could not stop laughing to the point of tears.”

Gina, the younger daughter, recalled being upset and in tears, not tears of laughter, over the tree incident. She also recalled her dad, Anthony Palazzo, Elizabeth’s high-school sweetheart and close friend even after their eventual divorce, going out and planting the top of the fake tree in the front yard. 

Like many people who have died from COVID, Freethy, who was 73, had underlying health problems later in life. She had lived for a few years in the Grace Barker Nursing Home in Warren. Throughout her life, she’d persevered through a lot: depression, diabetes, and later, early-onset dementia.  

On Dec. 20, she started having symptoms of COVID, but got multiple negative tests back. On a test taken Christmas Eve, she was positive.

Over the next nine days she continued to get fevers. Her oxygen got low, but not critically low. She was having problems with her blood sugar. On Jan. 3, she was stable, but her blood sugar was still a little too high. Daughter Gina, who lives in Arizona, got a call that in the evening she was unresponsive. They decided to send her to the hospital; if this was a terminal disease, like cancer, she had a do-not-resuscitate. But this was a virus that someone could recover from with the right treatment.

She died in an ambulance on her way.

Due to COVID-19, burial will be private:

Kristen and Gina were with both their grandmothers and their father when they died, and were able to spend time with them before and after their passing. A photographer, Kristen tried to capture those indelible moments.

That didn’t happen with their mom. Instead Kristen, there with her son Oliver, took photos of the private burial at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence while Gina watched from Arizona on FaceTime with her husband Michael. It was a beautiful setting, Gina said, and she took screenshots to document because she couldn’t be there herself. 

“But then it was just over,” Gina said. “It all felt unreal and completely tragic.” 

They were alone in their mourning, but not alone in being alone: Search the obituaries of The Providence Journal and the phrase comes up over and over, whether or not someone died of COVID. Due to COVID-19, burial will be private. Due to COVID restrictions… Due to COVID restrictions… 

The first COVID death in Rhode Island was on March 19. The 100th on April 13. The 1,000th on July 12. Nine deaths were reported Friday, bringing the state’s total to 2,005. This was two weeks into 2021, while a vaccine is out but not widely available. A spring wave had come and crested. A fall wave has come and not yet gone away. Since the first death, through Thursday, the state has had an average of more than six COVID deaths a day. 

Some of the deaths were among people who tested positive for COVID, but died from unrelated causes. But the vast majority — upward of 90% — died from the disease, rather than just with it, according to the state Department of Health. 

Per capita, Rhode Island has the fourth-highest death toll among states in the nation since the pandemic began, behind New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, according to a New York Times tally. 

May was the deadliest month, with 463 COVID deaths in Rhode Island. December was the second-deadliest, with 452. January so far has 167, including nine reported Friday. A year after a mysterious cluster of pneumonia cases started emerging in China, COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus, continues to kill Rhode Islanders. 

Claire Andrews who had 3 weeks at home: 

Claire Andrews died on Nov. 8, at her daughter’s home in Foster. She was 78, and surrounded by love, her daughter Susan Rapoza said.

“Everyone loved her,” said Rapoza, 52, who lives in Foster. “We had a beautiful relationship. A lot of friends lost their moms earlier in life. She was everybody’s mother.”

Children were Andrews’ life and she later opened a daycare in her home in Cranston.

“Her grandchildren were everything to her,” Rapoza said. 

Rapoza said her mother was also crafty, a perfectionist. She even sewed Rapoza’s wedding dress.

Andrews had Huntington’s disease, so when she tested positive for COVID-19, Rapoza knew that things could unravel quickly. She was living in the Scandinavian House in Cranston when she contracted the virus. 

“She was sick in the hospital for a week,” Rapoza recalled. “When I finally got her from the [hospital], the doctor told me, ‘She’ll never be the same if she comes out of this.”

But when she came home, she started to get better. 

“We had three weeks of joy and three weeks of watching her pass.”

Rapoza sang her mother’s favorite songs, “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” and a ukulele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” while she was curled up in bed with her.  

“It was a beautiful homecoming, a beautiful death,” Rapoza said. “We were all there at the end. She suffered zero.”

On the day her mother died, Rapoza had just made a quick trip to Matunuck Beach, where the family had grown up. 

“I had just gotten back from a sunrise visit,” she said. “I said,  ‘Hey mom, I found you these little things. sea glass and stones, twigs.”

Five minutes later, Andrews died.

“I say to her in heaven, ‘I adore you. You are one of my special people.’ I know she hears me. She went knowing I adored her. That’s all that matters.”

Front-line workers strive to save the sick: 

On the other side of all of this are the doctors and nurses and medical professionals trying to help sick people. They are exhausted, not just from witnessing the deaths — that’s something that goes with the territory of working in medicine, though not at the pace of the past year — but from knowing that a handshake can transmit a deadly disease. 

Dr. Raymond Powrie, the executive chief of medicine for Care New England, thinks of it like a marathon. The Boston Marathon, in particular. Heartbreak Hill is a half-mile incline at mile 20 of 26.2, when people are closer to the finish than the start but still have some ways to go on tired legs. We’re at Heartbreak Hill right now. 

“Rhode Islanders, we’re good fighters, we’re scrappy,” Powrie said. “They’re climbing Heartbreak Hill but they’re going to finish this race.” 

Of the more than 2,000 people who have died, upward of 80% were over the age of 70. Every one of them is a tragic loss.  

“People got less life than they were supposed to if it was not for COVID,” Powrie said. “Whatever your health problems, whatever your age, any extra months or years, they count. For you and your family. These are deaths that would not have happened, and they happened sooner, and they matter. That’s a huge number of Rhode Islanders we’ve lost. Every single one of them has a story.”

–With reporting by Brian Amaral, Linda Borg and Mark Patinkin. 


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