BY DEMORRIS A. LEE
OLDSMAR — In the span of about a month in 2003, Michael and Renee Kovac lost a 14-month-old son and an 8-week-old daughter.
Devastated by the deaths, the couple held on to each other and to their faith that God had a plan for their lives.
They would have two more children, another boy and girl. Not replacements, Renee said, just confirmation of God's reward for their faithfulness.
Now that faith is being tested again.
After a brief stint in the hospital in May, Michael went to the emergency room Oct. 4. At 4:45 p.m. the next day, he was dead.
"I'm in shock," said Renee Kovac, 42. "You don't feel well. Now you are dead, and you are 45. I don't know. It's just crazy. But my faith is still there. I know Mike, and he would have never put me through this again."
Left to raise the children, Renee said she's not doing it alone. Through all the loss — children, jobs and now her soulmate — the community has reached out to the family, she said.
"It's unbelievable," she said. "I'm not lucky because of circumstance, but again how lucky I am because my neighbors are my family. This community is my family."
A group of friends is hosting a benefit for the Kovac family Monday at Bayside Community Church of God in Safety Harbor.
"I'm not saying Renee is an exception, but I just don't think anybody should endure in a lifetime what she has endured in the last few years," said April Vallar, 44, one of the friends helping to organize the benefit.
"We are adamant in helping her stay in her home. We want them to be able to focus on being able to go on with life without worrying about where the next mortgage payment is. They have gone through enough."
• • •
Mike and Renee Kovac had been together since she was 17. They had been married for 23 years.
In 1999, they moved with their two oldest children to Oldsmar from Chicago, where Mike had worked as an IT executive. Mike's company was relocating him and his six-figure salary. They moved into a four-bedroom house with a pool in The Woods community just off Forest Lakes Road.
Life was good. They had a third child, Christopher, in 2002, and another, Katelyn, was born March 8, 2003.
Then tragedy struck.
At the end of March 2003, 14-month-old Christopher was found floating in the pool. Someone had left the gate open.
"I ran outside and grabbed him," Renee said. "I called 911 and tried to resuscitate him."
He was put on life support. Two days and two hospitals later, doctors said there was nothing more they could do.
"Mike and I made the decision to take him off all the stuff," Renee said. "With a bunch of our wonderful friends, we prayed over him."
The family underwent grief counseling. Mike and Renee went on a cruise with a group of couples. A grief counselor said the trip would show the children things were going to be okay, Renee said.
At Cozumel Island in late April 2003, Mike was uneasy. Something kept telling him to call home.
"When he called, the police were at our house, and they said that it was Katelyn," Renee said. "I really didn't think Mike heard correctly."
The entire group immediately flew home on May 1. That morning, 8-week-old Katelyn died from the heart disease myocarditis, an uncommon disorder that is usually caused by viral, bacterial or fungal infections.
There was more counseling.
"A counselor is trained for when it happens once, but what do you say?" Renee asked. "You need time to heal. You know people grieve differently … but you are trying to get answers and explanations. Why me? There is nothing that can fix it, and there's nothing that can ever be able to fix it again."
• • •
Mike and Renee had Camille in 2004 and Christian in 2005, giving them four children again with Kevin, now 16, and Claudia, 15.
The family was busy with softball, soccer and PTA meetings at Forest Lakes Elementary when the economy tanked. In October 2008, Mike was laid off from Transaction Tracking Technologies. His big salary vanished, and a noncompete clause that he had signed when times were good prohibited him from working with any company that may have needed his particular expertise.
The Kovacs cashed in their savings. Renee went to work in the emergency room of Mease Countryside Hospital, processing incoming patients. In August 2009, Mike got an IT job in Dunedin, making about a third of what he had previously earned.
"We had health insurance again. I was thrilled," Renee said. "Mike was so excited to be working again."
Last May, Mike had upper gastrointestinal bleeding that required surgery. He went to the hospital on Tuesday, was released Friday and was back at work Monday.
That same day, Mike called Renee and said he had an uneasy feeling about work. He soon found out that people were being laid off. He was one of them.
The Kovacs again relied on their faith, and things were beginning to look up. The noncompete clause, which had kept Mike from finding high-paying work, would end Nov. 1.
"We were excited, and he had some stuff lined up," Renee said.
But when Mike awoke the morning of Oct. 4, he was not feeling well. The next day, he died. Doctors said it was from multiple organ failure.
The life insurance had lapsed.
Again, the community pulled together.
Heritage United Methodist Church in Clearwater donated food and money for the cremation. Neighbors allowed out-of-town family and friends who came for the funeral to spend the night in their homes and avoid the expense of hotel rooms.
"Mike and I said all the time, 'We are so lucky to live here,' " Renee said. "I want to run home to Mom and Dad and have them hold me and help me take care of my kids. But you can't take your kids away from what they know."
Neighbor Kim Culver and her family moved into their home at the same time that the Kovacs moved into theirs in 1999.
"A lot of people would just cover their head, but they don't do that," said Culver, 47. "The entire family has that, 'We get up. We keep going. We're Kovacs. That's what we do. We stick together, and we keep going.' "
Contact Demorris A. Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4174.