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Coronavirus' Storm Takes Eureka High School's Calming Presence

Sandy Kearney shares a message for the Eureka High School community, where she began working as a guidance counselor in 1993. Kearney died from COVID-19 this week. She was 70 years old.
Rockwood School District
Sandy Kearney shares a message for the Eureka High School community, where she began working as a guidance counselor in 1993. Kearney died from COVID-19 this week. She was 70 years old.

Sandy Kearney’s health was improving, she assured her friends and family. She even talked with her grandsons in a video chat from the hospital bed.

Co-workers, friends and family were all concerned when they learned Kearney had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus sweeping through the world. But Sandy, they prayed, they predicted, would be fine.

“Sandy was a fighter and she was tough as nails, and so when I found out she had the coronavirus, I fully expected if anyone could whip this virus, it would be Sandy Kearney,” said Todd Minichiello, Kearney’s boss at the Rockwood School District.

Kearney had a way of calming storms through her job as a high school guidance counselor, colleagues said.

Then the storm grew darker and more ominous. Suddenly, Kearney’s heart was racing and her breathing was slowing. Doctors put her on a ventilator and tried medications and treatments to improve her health.

“Unfortunately the morning did not bring the news we were hoping for, my mom’s lungs have gotten worse,” her daughter, Bridget DuMont, wrote in an online blog Wednesday. 

Doctors told DuMont her mother’s body was in what’s known as a cytokine storm. Kearney’s immune system was in overdrive, her body overreacting and attacking itself, “which is obviously not good,” DuMont said.

Just over a week after Kearney first began having flu-like symptoms, she died on April 2.

The Kearney family and Sandy’s friends were forced to ride the same terrible roller coaster as hundreds of thousands of other families, having to get updates from strained medical providers from a distance, unable to grieve, comfort, console and say goodbye together.

On March 24, Kearney first began having symptoms, one day after her husband did. First, a doctor prescribed Tamiflu and told her to get tested for coronavirus. Symptoms were mild and a hospital visit unnecessary. But three nights later she awoke with severe body aches and poor balance. That’s when an ambulance rushed her to St. Luke’s Hospital. 

DuMont chronicled the past two weeks in a blog.

“I only share the details above with the hopes that they can help someone else because their symptoms did not fit what they are sharing on TV,” she wrote. “They have not left the country or even the Wildwood area for that matter. This is real, too real, this is serious, and this is scary. Please keep my mom and Dave in your prayers.”

DuMont and her sons were able to video chat with Kearney last Saturday.

“She was telling the boys, ‘I am fine, look at me. Don’t worry!’”

A few hours later, she was placed on a ventilator to assist her breathing.

In her last post, DuMont described putting on a full-body protective suit Thursday to enter her mother’s hospital room to say a final goodbye.

It was her birthday.

“It doesn’t seem fair that on the day I was given life by the most wonderful mom in the world would be the same day hers was taken away from us,” DuMont wrote.

Kearney, who was 70, was a counselor at Eureka High School, a role often relied on to comfort students and staff during hard times. Staff and students are now trying to comfort each other from a distance. The school, like all others, is closed to try to limit the pandemic’s wrath. 

“Anytime there's a tragedy at a school or with a student or staff member, there's comfort and familiarity and familiar surroundings, and so you wish you could be there to hug on those kids and love on those kids,” said Molly Smith, a co-worker and friend. "I absolutely wish that I were at school."

Sandy Kearney, second from left, with Eureka High School co-workers in an October 2014 photo.
Credit Eureka High School
Sandy Kearney, second from left, with Eureka High School co-workers in an October 2014 photo.

Kearney started working with the district in the 1980s, becoming a counselor at Eureka High School in 1993. Nearly three decades later, she was the matriarch of the school, colleagues said.

“She was truly our cheerleader, and that is going to be missed at Eureka,” co-worker Debbie Grimshaw said.

“She was a strong foundation during trying times, but she devoted herself totally to others. She supported students for 30 years and did everything she could for her family,” Minichiello said.

Kearney never strayed far from her twin sister. Suzanne Jaworowski is a guidance counselor at Marquette High School in a different part of the Rockwood district. 

Kearney had two sons, two daughters and nine grandchildren, plus three nieces and nephews. Her husband, Dave, is recovering. Despite rebounding, he stayed admitted to St. Luke’s so he could be by his wife’s side.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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