COVID-19 losses: the story of Rick Pianca

Contributed
Roni and Rick Pianca of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport, are pictured at Froedtert Hospital & Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wis. Rick was being treated for COVID-19 and passed away on Nov. 11.

 

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

“Faith over worry” became the go-to phrase of Roni Pianca of Davenport and her close-knit family as they journeyed through 94 days of her husband Rick’s fight with COVID-19. Rick succumbed to the vicious disease on Nov. 11, at 3 p.m., the hour of the day Roni prayed the rosary and the hour that Christ died on the cross, she notes.

Roni and her family, relatives and friends, never gave up hope for a miracle. Rick had been healthy, active and full of life before contracting coronavirus. They remember Rick, 62, as the life of the party, the caring guy who practiced hospitality par excellence.

The Catholic Messenger asked Roni to share her family’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 265,000 lives nationwide and more than 2,426 in Iowa (coronavirus.iowa.gov.).

Focused on family and hospitality

First, we begin with the love story of Rick and Roni and the bonds they formed with family, friends, faith community, priests and the healthcare workers who dedicated their skills and compassion to a valiant effort to save Rick’s life.

“I met him on my 18th birthday. We’d been together ever since,” recalls Roni, 61, of their first encounter, at Uncle Sam’s, a long-ago nightclub in Davenport where Rick worked at the time. He was a year older than Roni. The couple married on June 30, 1979, at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in Davenport, the church that Roni’s grandfather helped build.

Rick and Roni honeymooned at Disney World, which became their favorite go-to destination with family and friends. Rick provided tips and tricks to family and friends on navigating Disney World to gain the maximum enjoyment. “Rick always wanted to make sure everybody had a good time,” Roni said. “Rick was the first one who would say, ‘Let’s go. Don’t wait for tomorrow.’”

Family man is perhaps the best descriptor for Rick. He and Roni raised two daughters, Rachel (married to Brian Gartner), 33, and Chelsey (married to John O’Donnell), 30. “We are very close with our kids,” says Roni. “We have two wonderful sons-in-law and two granddaughters. They were at our house on weekends. (Rick) would do the grocery shopping, the cooking and the cleanup. He loved to have all of us together.”

The Piancas have been active members of Our Lady of Victory Parish and its school, John F. Kennedy. Their daughters graduated from JFK and Assumption High School in Davenport. Rick and Roni helped start the committee that organized the annual fundraising gala for the parish and school.

They developed a lasting friendship with Father Apo Mpanda when he served as parochial vicar at Our Lady of Victory two decades ago. Father Apo prayed daily for the family as they endured their COVID-19 experience. “He and Rick had a special bond,” Roni said.

“Rick was a great friend who cherished our friendship,” Father Apo said. “He had a good sense of humor. He wanted to help anyone. He cared for people.” Roni recalls a humorous story involving Father Apo and Rick at the 60th wedding anniversary celebration of Rick’s parents, Richard and Betty Pianca. Every time Father Apo turned around to pick up his glass of wine, it was full. When he wondered how that happened, Rick quipped, “The good Lord did it again!” (Rick’s father died on Thanksgiving Day this year, two weeks after his son’s death).

Coronavirus journey

Employed in product support, sales and service for Altorfer Co., Rick worked from home during the pandemic. On Aug. 9, coughing and not feeling well, he visited an urgent care clinic where he was told he had a mild case of COVID-19 and that he should self-isolate at home.

Contributed
Roni Pianca wrote adjectives to describe her husband Rick so that hospital workers could know him a bit better.

“By Aug. 13, he was not getting better … I said, ‘Rick, I want you to call your doctor today,’” Roni recalled. After listening to his cough over the phone, the doctor advised Rick to go to the emergency room. Roni drove Rick to Genesis West in Davenport, but had to drop him off in the parking lot because of pandemic restrictions. Genesis did not have a bed available for Rick, so he traveled by ambulance to UnityPoint in Rock Island, Illinois. Roni followed the ambulance, but had to wait in the parking lot because of pandemic restrictions.

The healthcare pro­viders and Rick kept her posted, Rick by text. “He was texting, ‘Don’t worry. They’re going to keep me a few days.’ But (his condition) went downhill quickly,” Roni said. Rick required a ventilator to help him breathe. Doctors treated him with plasma and Remdesivir and had him on a pronating bed to improve ventilation. His healthcare providers determined he needed advanced care at a larger hospital.

Rick and Roni’s niece, Jordyn Werderitch, a nurse practitioner at Froedtert Hospital & Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, called on a regular basis to get updates on Rick’s condition. When his lab test results continued to show a decline in his condition, she worked with doctors at her hospital to transfer him to Froedtert. Flight for Life Emergency Transport System flew Rick to Froedtert on Aug. 18.

“My uncle and I have always had a close relationship. He would greet me with a joke or an incredible story every time I saw him. He was one of a kind and the life of the party, but also a really caring guy too. I prayed and researched for him every single day of his hospital journey,” Jordyn said.

Upon his arrival at Froedtert, surgeons operated to provide Rick with a life-support option, Extra­corporeal Membrane Oxygen­ation (ECMO) to oxygenate his blood. “He became ill so quickly,” Roni said. “That’s what is so unbelievable, because he was so alive.” He had no underlying medical conditions but contracted a lethal strain of the virus, she said.

For the first 21 days of his stay at Froedtert, Rick remained in isolation, meaning his family could not visit in person. He used the social media app “FaceTime” to visit with his kids. He had to have a tracheotomy and occasionally had a speaking valve. “They would put it on and take it off during speech therapy,” Roni said.

Most of the time, he couldn’t talk, and relied on physical gestures and an occasional written note to convey his thoughts. One message he wrote on a piece of paper, “Rick loves Roni.” “That was on his mind; he wanted to let me know,” Roni says tenderly. She wrote descriptive adjectives about her husband on a whiteboard in his hospital room to help his healthcare providers know about him.

Prayers, faith and togetherness

Even as his condition deteriorated, “He tried so hard doing his therapy,” Roni said. She expresses gratitude to all of the healthcare providers who cared for her husband at the hospitals where he fought for his life. Nurses who worked 12-hour shifts at Froedtert got to know and love Rick, she said. After Rick died, “I got a text from one of his nurses. She said she couldn’t stop thinking about Rick and us. She’s so sad Rick lost his battle.”

Roni stayed first at a hotel and then at Kathy’s House, a hospital guesthouse, during Rick’s hospitalization at Froedtert. She continued working remotely as vice president of relocation and business development for Ruhl&Ruhl Realtors. Her team and the company’s owners provided all the support she needed, she said.

Her pastor, Father Jake Greiner, along with Father Apo and other priests also provided moral and prayer support. “That’s what helped us on this journey,” Roni said. “Father Apo kept telling us, ‘I be­lieve in miracles.’ We did, too.”

Rick died on the third wedding anniversary of his younger daughter and son-in-law. “We decided it will be a remembrance. We’ll celebrate his life every year on their anniversary,” Roni said.

“We will all miss him, but we all have so many fun and unforgettable memories to share of him,” his niece Jordyn said.

“We did everything here on earth we could to help him,” Roni reflected. “I really feel it was his time and there’s a better place. It’s so sad for us. We’re left without him but we remember him as the fun one who took care of all of us. He’s in a beautiful resting place at Mount Calvary. I just know he’s watching over us.”

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Schools on reopening: ‘It’s definitely been a learning experience’

Karen Witt
Prince of Peace Catholic School-Clinton student Baya Perryman gets a temperature check from Mrs. Hansen-Wauford before school on Sept. 25. Schools in the Davenport Diocese have been working to make their school environments safe for students and teachers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Barb Arland-Fye, Anne Marie Amacher and Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

When Assumption High School in Davenport celebrated its all-school Mass on Oct. 1, it required four separate liturgies held simultaneously in different parts of the building to maintain pandemic protocols. Four priests presided, one each for Mass with freshmen (small gym), sophomores (cafeteria), juniors (large gym) and seniors (auditorium). Four musicians, including two faculty members, played a musical instrument at their designated Mass.

The Mass builds faith and community, says Assumption President Andy Craig, explaining why the school devoted so much energy, planning and coordinating with the priests. “We normally have one priest and one Mass. Now we’re trying to coordinate with four priests who have busy schedules.” While he prefers having everyone together in one Mass, the change is “something we have to accept to have in-person learning” during the pandemic.
Assumption is one of 15 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Davenport learning on the fly how to safely educate students during a pandemic now in its seventh month and showing no signs of letting up. “In a lot of ways, we feel like we’re in our first year (of educating),” Craig says. “We’re trying to figure things out” in terms of the myriad of possibilities that arise when striving to mitigate the spread of a virus that defies school and home boundaries.
All of the schools developed return to learn plans, which must provide 50 percent of the instruction in-person in brick and mortar buildings. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds made that ann­oun­cement July 17, which gave schools — some of which opened in mid-Au­gust — about a month to prepare for in-person learning.

This week “will be our 10th week of school of everyone being able to attend face to face and five days a week,” said Bill Maupin, principal of Notre Dame Elementary and Junior/Senior High Schools. “This is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of all of our staff.”

“We are on week six of school, day 28 and we are grateful,” Celeste Vincent, principal of Regina Ele­mentary School in Iowa City, said last week. Teachers have “gone above and beyond to help in-person learners and online learners.”

“Our students and parents have helped in making sure our guidelines have been followed,” said Glenn Plummer, principal of Regina Junior/Senior High School. “Teachers and staff have done a great job in enforcing guidelines and protocols.” One of the biggest challenges, especially in the upper grades, is helping students to understand the importance of social distancing, Plum­mer noted. “You can’t ac­count for every situation. You need to communicate chan­ges and communicate that things will change as better and more current information is released. People need to be patient, flexible, and understanding.”

Craig of Assumption also praises faculty, staff and students for their resilience and ability to adapt to unprecedented changes. At Assum­p­tion, for example, classes take place in a variety of spaces, in additional to traditional classrooms now configured to adhere to the six-foot social distancing space requirement. Students clear their desks after each use and limit their close exposure to fellow classmates to 15 minutes or less. Last Friday, Craig observed a speech class outdoors. “The students have done an amazing job of adapting. It’s a testimony to them and their parents.”

Families desire in-person learning, Craig said. They view the socialization as critically important to their students’ development, more so after all schools had to move to remote learning when the pandemic took hold in Iowa in mid-March. “I saw it as a parent,” he added. “I think it’s important (for students) to have a connection with adults outside of their parents.”

The state of Iowa has advised schools against releasing specific statistics about COVID-19 cases. The leaders of Catholic schools interviewed for this story provided some generalized information about incidences of COVID-19 in their schools’ populations.

“I can tell you today (Oct. 2) that we have zero-positive faculty and zero-positive students that we know of, but that could change at any time,” Craig said. Assumption adheres diligently to the social distancing and cleaning protocols because families want in-person learning to continue. Due to the ability to safely distance students and teachers for all classes throughout the day, face coverings are not required at Assumption, except for attendance at Mass. Masks are strongly encouraged during passing times, and a number of students and faculty wear face coverings during the school day, he said.

No students, faculty or staff at Regina Catholic Schools have tested positive for COVID-19 so far this school year, Vincent and Plummer said. A few students were participating in remote learning as a safety protocol because of possible exposure. None of those potential cases turned out to be positive, the principals said. Some students from Notre Dame have tested positive for COVID-19 but no faculty or staff, “as of today” (Oct. 1), Maupin said.
Each school observes safety, health and cleaning protocols that include frequent sanitizing of  work spaces, physical distancing, use of hand sanitizer, avoidance of close contact exceeding 15 minutes and other steps tailored to the school’s needs. The use of face coverings varies from school to school because it is not a state mandate. Regina and Notre Dame require them.

Vincent said staffers carry extra masks in case a string breaks on a student or teacher’s mask. Students have more space between desks and all face the same direction. Multiple exit doors and staggered drop-off times help mitigate exposure to the virus. All elementary students participate in cohorts and remain in them throughout the day. Regina established mask break times and areas. Some learning occurs outdoors, when weather cooperates. The schools also have plans in place for students who choose remote learning or must do so because of exposure to the virus.

“It’s tough not to be cognizant that there’s a threat out there and we are mindful of that. But you also don’t want to be paralyzed by fear,” Craig said on behalf of the Assumption community. “We’re constantly evaluating what we’re doing as more guidance (from county, state and diocesan officials) becomes available. We’re not anywhere near the end point with having to make adjustments to our plans.”

He spoke with The Catholic Messenger during homecoming week, a ritual significantly altered to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The traditional pep rally, usually celebrated in the packed gym, moved outdoors to the practice football field at the St. Vincent Athletic Complex. Parents watched the rally from the bleachers and witnessed the crowning of the homecoming king and queen. A “socially distanced social” substituted for the homecoming dance on Saturday night.

As winter approaches, precluding many if not all outdoor activities, some tweaks will be necessary. “It is a constant rededication and mindset each day to look at the big picture and see what is working well and what we need to ‘change-up’ to make it even better,” Vincent said. “We can never let our guard down.”

The spike in COVID cases shows “You have to be respectful of the virus and what it can do. There’s a reason why we do these mitigation strategies,” Craig said. “It’s meant to keep people healthy and to slow the spread.” All of the schools have different challenges, he noted. “You have to construct a plan that reflects your community’s values and needs.”  “We hope we are getting everything done for our students and families that we can,” Maupin said.

Each of the schools’ leaders say their plans are working and they are grateful to their communities in and outside the school for making that happen. “It is such hard work. We take it one day at a time and pray regularly for God’s grace to keep everyone safe,” Vincent said.

“I am very hopeful that together, we will make this work. Catholic education was never more important than it is right now.”

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Sixth-grader made masks to protect teachers, classmates – Persons, Places and Things

Contributed
Julia Gilbert of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport makes masks for faculty, staff and students at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School.

By Barb Arland-Fye
Editor

DAVENPORT — Teachers at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School received an unusual gift from a student when they returned to school to prepare for the new academic year during the ongoing pandemic.

Sixth-grader Julia Gilbert presented the teachers with 30 fabric face masks that she and her mother, Rachel, made. They created another 180 masks for the school to distribute to Julia’s schoolmates as needed.

“She wrote us a sweet note with instructions on how to wear them,” said Octavia Houtekier-Boyd, the school’s assistant principal, referring to the masks for teachers. “She also delivered masks the next day, this time in student sizes so that if one of her schoolmates forgot a mask they could have a fun homemade one, instead of a disposable mask from the office. We just love how she was thinking of others (us) while she was away from school.”

“I wanted everyone at school to have a comfortable mask with a tie instead of elastic so it wouldn’t hurt their ears,” Julia said. “It’s important to wear a mask to protect others and to wear it over your mouth and your nose because your mouth and nose are connected,” added Julia, the daughter of parents who work as emergency room nurses.

Sewing face masks has provided Julia with an opportunity to help protect others, spend quality time with her mom and reduce worries about her parents, Rachel said.

Julia’s dad, John, works full-time in the emergency room of UnityPoint Health Trinity campuses in the Quad-Cities and is a sidelines cheerleader for the mask project. Her mom works part-time while attending grad school. Colleagues working in an emergency room become like family because of their experiences dealing with trauma, Rachel said. In the early weeks of the pandemic, hospitals put out calls for face masks. She and Julia wanted their friends in the emergency room to be protected. So they decided to learn how to make face masks.

First, they had to get a sewing machine and learn how to sew. They purchased a used one from a friend for $100. “Julia paid for half of it and I paid the other half,” Rachel said. They watched YouTube videos for tutorials.

Their project involved trial and error and adjustments based on people’s needs, face size and facial hair. They decided on the Olson Mask because it includes a nose piece and fits the face of the wearer. They found that ties made from T-shirt strips work better for comfort than elastic. The masks prevent eyeglasses from fogging and ears from being irritated.

Julia selected fabrics printed with things she likes such as fruits, sparkles, dogs and dinosaurs. Parishioners with boys provided guidance on selecting patterns boys might prefer, Rachel said. Another member of their parish, Tom Brooke, secured a donation through Thrivent Financial to purchase materials. Other friends donated T-shirts when the cost of purchasing new ones ate into funds for making masks.

“I got interested in making masks after I saw all the other masks that people were making,” Julia told The Catholic Messenger. She also wanted to learn how to sew. “It’s fun. Every once in a while I need a break,” she said.

“It was an activity for us to do together in the evening,” Rachel said. They often watched a video on demand subscription service while working in assembly line style — cutting and sewing pieces together. Rachel estimates they have created 500 masks to date. Production has slowed down considerably because people have easy access to masks now and mother and daughter have school work to do. Besides, Julia is ready to move on to new sewing projects: making scrunchies (hair bands), aprons, a skirt and pajama pants.

(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at arland-fye@davenportdiocese.org)

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