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Losing one of their own to COVID-19: McLaren nurses, doctors mourn "Santa Baby"

Ryan Garza for the Detroit Free Press

Sophia Staples stood silently next to her family, holding a candle as she listened to nurses and surgeons memorialize her sister, about 50 of them laughing and crying together in the dark parking lot across from McLaren hospital in Flint on Monday night.

Her name was Santa Staples, and she died from complications of COVID-19 on Saturday at age 59. Born on Christmas Day, Staples was a masterful nurse who ran the operating room with military precision, showing up at 3:30 a.m. on her day off to handle a particularly complex surgery. Not one to suffer fools, she had a flintiness that could intimidate even the neurosurgeons.

“At first when I met her, I was also scared!” Dr. Hugo Lopez admitted, to laughs from the crowd. “I might not show it, but I was scared.”

But beneath that exterior was a woman who loved dirty jokes, teaching card games in the break room, a good Michigan tailgate party, and the coworkers with whom she built decades-long friendships.

“Once you meet her and work with her and see how efficient, how kind and [what a] loving person she was, I started calling her ‘Santa Baby,’” Lopez chuckled, referring to Staples’ nickname. “I felt so welcome, coming in in the morning for a 7:30 a.m. case. And the first thing I wanted to do was give her a hug. And that would make my day go well, knowing she was in the room with me.”

Several said Staples took them under her wing, persuading them to come work in the OR, take on a leadership role in the union, or just sitting down with them to go over their 401(k) plans.

“Amongst the chaos, Santa was the calm [in the OR],” said Jessica Romanowski, a surgical technician. “It was her laugh that was her true trademark. Her giggle always had a hint of mischief in it, and made you wonder what was really going on in that head of hers. Spoiler alert: it was usually naughty, much to my delight.”

Just before her death, Staples had been recovering at home from an unrelated surgery, friends and family said. Her prognosis was promising, but then, she started having trouble breathing. It was then that she was diagnosed with COVID, and admitted to the same health system she’d worked in for 33 years.

Her sister, Sophia Staples, finally stepped before the small crowd just before the group walked across the street to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ in front of the hospital, where coworkers who were still on their shifts gathered in front of the windows, waving cell phone lights in the dark to show support.

“All my life, she's always wanted to be a nurse,” Sophia Staples said. “And she loved her job. She was her job. The job was her. She just loved what she did. She loved her coworkers. .. and I know me and my family is going to miss her. And I know you guys are going to miss her, too. But know that she really cared about you guys. She talked about you all the time. It's almost like you’re an extension of our family.”

Losing one of their own as the virus resurges

Staples lost her life to a virus she’d worked so hard to fight this past spring, Romanowski said. In March and April, when other members of the operating team took furloughs or stayed home, Staples was tireless.

“She was one of the few nurses that worked the whole thing,” Romanowski said. “She stayed true to her profession.... She loved taking care of the community. And she did it the whole time, and she never wavered.”

Now, with cases rising across the state and 2,800 Michiganders currently hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID diagnoses, it’s a frustratingly familiar feeling to those who worked alongside Staples during the initial surge.

“People don’t understand: you have to wear your masks,” said Ronda Cavalry, an RN who knew Staples for years. “You have to. You have to use your hand sanitizer. People are dying and it’s senseless. She shouldn’t have died. And those nurses in there, they are working with them every day. We have two floors now that are full with COVID patients again. We’re going right back to where we were last March,” she said, her voice wavering.

“She didn't deserve to die,” Sophia Staples said. “COVID shouldn’t have took her. She was 59 years old. She would have been 60 this Christmas Day. She didn't get that. She didn't get to do that. You know, it's a lot of stuff she left undone that we have to pick up. She had every intention of coming home [when she was hospitalized with COVID]. She didn't think this was going to happen.

“But, you know, she was a good nurse. I think when she made her mind up to go on the respirator, I think she knew her outcome. Because like they said, she knew her job. It's just hard for us not being able to be there. You have to rely on somebody else to tell you how she's doing, and you want to see it for yourself. My mother hasn't seen her in over forty days, before she went in the hospital. So she didn't get a chance to see her, you know, and that's the hard part.”

While the state doesn’t keep track of how many healthcare workers have died from COVID, AFSCME Local 875 spokesperson Kelly Indish said they knew of at least three hospital staffers at McLaren Flint who’d died, as well as three spouses of healthcare staff.

A spokesperson for McLaren Flint didn’t respond to questions about how many healthcare workers had died of COVID, or how many were currently quarantined, but offered a statement on Staples’ passing via email.

“It is with profound sadness that McLaren Flint shares the loss of a co-worker, Santa Staples, RN,” Sherry Farney wrote. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Santa’s family, friends, and our team members who worked alongside this health care hero. She has compassionately served the community for 33 years at McLaren, most recently as an operating room nurse. Santa’s coworkers shared that she was truly devoted and compassionate.”

Meanwhile, the Michigan Nurses Association confirmed the passing of  Maribel Tabanguil-May, a nurse at Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, from COVID last week.

“Maribel was an amazing nurse, active union member, and loving parent,” said MNA president Jamie Brown. “She has worked at our hospital for about four decades and never stopped advocating for her patients. She will be deeply missed and was taken from us too soon.” 

As more providers get sick, several health systems say they’re concerned about staffing shortages, and the impact that could have on patient care.

Credit Ryan Garza for the Detroit Free Press
Nettie Staples of Saginaw sits in a wheelchair with other co-workers and friends of her daughter outside of McLaren Flint on Monday, November 9, 2020 in memory of Santa Staples, an operating room nurse and an executive board member of Local 875, who passed away Saturday from COVID-19.

“We are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases among our employees, consistent with increases we are seeing in our patient population,” Beaumont spokesperson Mark Geary said in an email last week. “Right now, out of our 38,000 Beaumont Health employees, we have approximately 225 employees out with COVID-19 or are awaiting test results. [Of those,] 131 are awaiting test results. During the months of August, September, and October we had a daily average of about 100 employees out with COVID-19 or COVID symptoms.”

For Romanowski, the technician who worked closely with Staples, the dangers of this job are real.

“We’re all a little scared, obviously, for our own personal safety and the safety ... of our loved ones,” Romanowski said. “It hits home. I have a mother with stage-four lung cancer. So I take risk by coming into surgery every day and operating on COVID patients. And sometimes that means I can’t see my own mother and my own family, because I don’t want to risk them getting sick.”

Toward the end of the evening, the group gathered to honor Santa Staples lit paper lanterns and released them into the night sky. “Miss you already,” Staples’ sister, Sophia, wrote on one. Her mother, Nettie Staples, led the procession back across the street to McLaren hospital, pushed in her wheelchair by her son, Clinton Staples Jr.

Credit Ryan Garza for the Detroit Free Press
McLaren Flint staff wave from the windows of the hospital as others stand outside of the hospital during a vigil on Monday, November 9, 2020 for the late Santa Staples, an operating room nurse and an executive board member of Local 875, who passed away Saturday from COVID-19.

In front of the place Staples had worked for more than 30 years, the small crowd sang “Amazing Grace,” as coworkers still on the job gathered at the hospital windows overlooking the street below, flashing their cell phone lights and waving in support.

“We love you, Santa!” several coworkers said as the song concluded.

Get involved: Kristen Jordan Shamus and Robin Erb contributed reporting to this story. The Detroit Free Press, Bridge Magazine and Michigan Radio have teamed up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact Kristen Jordan Shamus at kshamus@freepress.com, Robin Erb at rerb@bridgemi.com or Kate Wells at Katwells@umich.edu at Michigan Radio.

McLaren Health Plan is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors.

Correction: the original version of this story incorrectly identified Kelly Indish as an SEIU spokesperson. She is a spokesperson for AFSCME Local 875. 

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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