SALT LAKE CITY — In just over a week’s time, Barbara Wickman went from losing the man she’d loved for 62 of her 83 years to fighting for her own life.
“My mom has not had time to mourn my dad’s death,” said her daughter Jan Krystkowiak, who is the wife of University of Utah men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak. “That’s the hardest part.”
Krystkowiak became her mother’s caregiver when Wickman, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 28, was turned away from University of Utah Hospital on Sept. 29 because her struggle to breathe wasn’t serious enough to earn her admission.
Watching her mother fight for every breath was made even more gut-wrenching for Krystkowiak because they’d unexpectedly lost her father, James Richard “Jim” Wickman, about 10 days earlier, when he died in his sleep on Sept. 17.
“This last Tuesday (Sept. 29), she was struggling to breathe so I took her to University of Utah,” she wrote in a Facebook post on Oct. 2 addressed to Gov. Gary Herbert, “and they sent her home as they are almost at capacity, and she is one of the better patients with Covid. As I sit here and watch my mom at home on an oxygen tank ... struggle to breathe, I can’t help (but) think how our government dropped the ball playing politics.
“You, as well as I, know that masks can help prevent COVID-19. And you, who have been elected to do a job that requires decisions most people don’t like, have somewhat dropped the ball. Be a leader, Mr Herbert. Make the decision to require masks. We live in a great state with amazing people and part of your legacy depends on COVID-19.”
Krystkowiak said she’s spent most of each day caring for her mom, although one of her sons who tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies spends the nights with Wickman. She cooks for her mom and then sits on her mother’s porch working on a laptop in case she’s needed.
“I go over during the day wearing my KN95 mask, an apron, glasses. ... I’m sure I look foolish, but we have fun with it,” she said laughing. “If you go to the CDC website, it recommends wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID. In countries where people are wearing masks, their numbers are down. Their death rates are down.”
Krystkowiak’s plea to the governor came in the midst of Utah’s highest spikes, with the rolling average on Monday at just over 1,000 cases per day and a positive rate of 13.6%.
“I couldn’t care less about politics,” she said. “The fact that people have turned this into a political thing instead of an American health thing is so frustrating. ... We wear helmets, seat belts, it’s not that hard to ask someone to wear a mask. We can’t get on with our lives, if the cases keep increasing.”
She said countries that have been successful have listened to the latest scientific research and they have strong, decisive leadership.
“We need to wear masks,” she said. “That’s what’s working. It’s hard to believe we’ve turned it into a political thing. It should just be, ‘I care about my mother, my father, my kids, other people, and so I’ll wear a mask.’ Stop it people, just put on your mask; suck it up, so we can get back to normal.”
Krystkowiak said she suspects it was an undiagnosed case of COVID-19 that may have killed her father. He went walking with some friends on Thursday, after which he completed his daily weight workout on his home weight set.
“Then he took a nap, which is his usual thing,” Krystkowiak said. “My mom called and said, ‘Jan, I think your dad is dead.’ I asked if she’d called 911, and she said, ‘Don’t you want to see him? I know what dead is.’”
She rushed over with her husband and two of her children.
“There was no doubt in my mind,” she said. “He’d been dead for a while.”
As they loaded him into a hearse, Larry Krystkowiak said a prayer, and Jan Krystkowiak said goodbye.
“Four days later, we all felt like crap,” she said. “I have never felt worse in my life.”
The symptoms were consistent with COVID-19, so the entire family was tested — except Wickman. They were all negative.
When her mother began complaining that she didn’t feel well, she assumed it was what they had, combined with the fatigue that often accompanies deep grief.
“I said, ‘Mom, Dad died. This is shock’,” she said. “Sunday she called me and said, “I really don’t feel good. Something is off. We got her tested on Monday, and she was positive.”
The family is so careful about wearing masks and maintaining social distance, she was baffled as to how her mother may have been exposed to the virus. Then she discovered some paperwork her father had filled out in advance of a doctor’s appointment he had scheduled for the day after he died.
“It was in his desk, all filled out,” she said. “It said, “I’m coughing way more, and I can’t catch my breath.”
She called the funeral home handling her father’s cremation to ask that he be tested, but they’d already cremated his remains.
“That’s my gut,” she said of suspecting her mother was exposed through her father, who faithfully wore a mask because he believed it protected those around him.
More could be done to protect people like her parents if everyone were committed to wearing masks, Krystkowiak said, adding that it’s time for a statewide mask mandate, but that requires strong leadership, and someone undeterred and unafraid of critics.
The alternative is that we continue to lose those who are most vulnerable to the virus, including people like Jim Wickman, who leaves a gaping hole in the lives of those who knew him.
That means no more phone calls for the nearly 180 people he called every holiday season, and no more love notes to his granddaughters on their birthdays.
“My dad was one of those guys who picked up garbage along the highway. ... He went to church in Tennessee and found a family that lived in their car. He’s been sending money to the kid for every A he got. He’s been sending them my son’s hand-me-downs. ... He adopted this family. He loved them; he took care of them. He did it just because he was a good person.”
And that’s what she said her father, who most people called “Big Jim,” taught her.
“He was quiet,” she said. “He was a doer. You don’t need to brag about it, just be a good person. My dad was known as the hugger. He would hug people, and then he’d look them in the eye and smile.”
After reciting one of her father’s favorite sayings, “You rest, you rust,” Krystkowiak added, “We need to be coming together instead of moving apart right now.”