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The last days of Rosemarie Gabriele, Pasco County’s first coronavirus victim

She thought her family was overreacting. Then she began to feel weak.

In January, Rosemarie Gabriele told her daughter Paula, “If I got this, I would not live through it.”

“But she didn’t believe she was going to get it,” Paula said.

Paula Gabriele, 51, had come down from Connecticut to stay with her mother in Dade City for the winter. Just before Paula went home in early March, she started having flu-like symptoms — feeling worn down one day, but OK the next. Her mom seemed to be a bit weaker, too.

Rosemarie was 71, with a host of chronic conditions. She sometimes lay in bed to warm her hands and feet, the chills a side effect of her diabetes. She had a bit of a cough, but it was nothing alarming, even with her asthma.

Rosemarie loved to be out and about. Every day, she visited her husband in his memory care unit, holding Peter’s hand as they walked. Often, her lucky slots at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino were her next stop. Though sometimes a little too tired to see her beloved opera at the CineBistro, she usually felt well enough to go out to dinner.

News of the virus still felt distant in early March when she met with a man just back from Japan who was interested in buying her house. Soon after, for a granddaughter’s birthday, she flew to Virginia.

When Rosemarie got home, her already shaky health cratered. Within a couple of weeks, an ambulance took her to the emergency room. Less than a day later, she was calling Paula, calm and certain, and asking her to type out her final words.

Then came the ventilator, the coma, the flooded lungs, the possible stroke, and Pasco County’s first recorded death from COVID-19.

Patricia Scimone holds a photo of her older sister, Rosemarie Gabriele. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

***

Rosemarie watched Fox News every day and supported much of what President Donald Trump said. So when he initially downplayed the virus, comparing it to the flu, insisting the U.S. had it under control, she listened.

“You need to wipe down your phone and have groceries,” Victoria Gabriele, Rosemarie’s 25-year-old granddaughter, said in daily calls from Boston. Working toward a PhD in physics and locked onto NPR briefings, Victoria had already adopted her own precautions. “Use alcohol wipes, wash your hands, anything.”

“Your daughter is a worrywart,” Rosemarie told Paula. But Paula had begun reading the grim news from Italy and remembered the masks left over from cleaning Rosemarie’s Lake Jovita house.

“Mom, please wear a mask,” she said, but Rosemarie would not. Only a few cases had been confirmed in Florida, where testing was slow to roll out. The pace of life had not changed. Neither did she.

“I asked her not to go to Virginia, not to get on a plane, not to go to a casino, and she thought that was too extreme,” Victoria said.

Rosemarie wore a mask on her March 4 flight to Virginia, where another granddaughter was touring the College of William & Mary. En route, she texted Victoria, “Oops, I touched my eye,” with a smiley face.

Rosemarie with her daughter Paula and granddaughter Victoria. [Courtesy of the Gabriele family.]

***

On the college tour, Rosemarie had trouble keeping up. For part of it, she sat and waited. Much later, the family would learn someone in the tour’s vicinity may have been infected. Who, they weren’t sure.

On the trip, Rosemarie’s asthma and allergies flared, aggravated by her daughter Tara’s cats. One night, she had a terrible episode, hardly able to take a breath.

Before she came home March 8, Florida marked its first deaths related to the virus.

Over the phone, Victoria heard her grandma’s phlegmy cough, which Rosemarie chalked up to allergies. Victoria urged her to call a doctor.

Rosemarie didn’t have a thermometer, so she couldn’t say if she was running a fever. The doctor wished he could get her checked for the coronavirus, though the symptoms didn’t quite match. He said he wouldn’t be able to secure a test for her anyway, scarce as they were. He called in antibiotics.

That seemed to help.

By March 13, Rosemarie swore she felt better, texting family to say her doctors had told her: “There's no way you have it. You’d be much sicker."

But in the days to come, she grew weak and tired, plagued with dehydration and diarrhea. She told friends she felt deathly ill. To her family, she downplayed her suffering in texts and phone calls that nevertheless grew shorter. Don’t visit, she insisted. She didn’t want to infect anybody with whatever this was.

She soon couldn’t make it to see her husband, whom she’d loved since she was a Long Island kid with a crush. Most of her time was spent with him, or with her Sicilian-American family, trying to make it to every recital and birthday. She often saw her sister Patricia Scimone, 64, who lived in Wesley Chapel, sharing friends and long talks and a flair for flipping houses. Lately, Rosemarie had been talking about writing again, traveling more, maybe taking up pottery.

In three days, she ate half a banana. Her bed was a mess. Pat dropped off Italian takeout, canned food and meds at the front door, but Rosemarie wouldn’t let her inside. Rosemarie called her doctors again, but without the telltale fever, still didn’t get instructions to go to the hospital.

“Look, I can’t do this anymore,” Pat said.

So on March 19, Rosemarie rode in a MedFleet ambulance, dehydrated, blood sugar spiking, struggling for breath. She had a fever of 103 degrees.

Rosemarie Gabriele, 71. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

***

At AdventHealth Wesley Chapel, she was given steroids for her asthma and other medications through an IV, family said. Staff swabbed her to rule out other illnesses, like influenza, and sent out a coronavirus test. They worked from the assumption she had it.

That night, Rosemarie and Pat were laughing, like normal, until Rosemarie said she was tired.

“I’m going to go, so that way you can go to sleep,” Pat said.

The next day, Paula got a call.

“Paula, get your computer,” Rosemarie told her eldest daughter. “I need you to write this down.”

The doctors couldn’t stabilize her oxygen levels, which rose and fell even as they spoke. Paula had never heard her mother’s breathing so labored.

“Hurry up, Paula, hurry up,” Rosemarie said. She only had one phone call, because they were hooking her up to a ventilator. Make sure to tell everyone she had only one call. She’d be on the machine three to seven days.

She didn’t seem to cry.

“Can we text you?” No, Rosemarie said, she’d be sedated.

Paula heard her mother ask the people in the hospital room, “I will be comfortable, right, that’s what you said?”

Paula knew her mother had thought through her next words. She sounded brave.

“I have always been a believer of God, and He will take care of me on this earth or the next one,” she said. “I believe everything that needs to be said is said. I believe we have had a cherished and happy life. If I have done anything to hurt any of you, in any little or big way, I’m sorry.”

“We never know when God is going to call us back,” she said. Tell everyone I love them.

“I love you more,” Paula said. Then she heard her mother gasp. She thinks that’s when the tube went in.

“The phone call was 13 minutes,” Paula said. “It just seems shorter to me.”

***

The cascade came fast. Four hours after the call, family said, staff in the intensive care unit turned Rosemarie’s body to drain the fluid filling her lungs, an effect of acute respiratory distress syndrome. Soon the hospital put her in an induced coma, in a special bed where she could hang suspended on her stomach. They couldn’t get the fluid out fast enough.

Her ventilator was pushed to its highest setting.

Her kidneys started to fail.

After a few days, a doctor saw in Rosemarie’s eyes the haze of neurological damage. She may have had a stroke.

Without the ventilator, doctors said, she wouldn’t live much longer. They promised they’d give her morphine.

***

The women donned masks and yellow paper gowns, and the hospital staff told them to stay as long as they wanted. They took Rosemarie off the tubes. With gloves, Paula held her mother’s hand. So did her sister Tara, and Pat, standing by the bed.

“I could just see what she went through,” Paula said. “Her hair was a mess.”

Minutes later, on March 24, Rosemarie stopped breathing.

It’d been 16 days since she had left Virginia, about 10 days since she assured family she was getting better, five days since she’d come to the hospital. The medical examiner’s case sheet listed the cause of death: COVID-19.

Paula wondered if an earlier test would have helped. What took Florida so long?

From the hospital hallway, she saw more patients, more ventilators.

***

The family plot is in New York. In Connecticut, Paula is making a scrapbook, saving letters and well-wishes left by phone. Her family wants to find a way to remember the loyal, big-hearted woman who showed up for every milestone and endless Catholic wake, who raised three kids, wielded her stubbornness for the good of the ones she loved and told her sister there was little she’d change about her life.

Some days, Paula wants to wait to give her mother a proper sendoff, but she has a hard time believing this crisis will end soon. She hears people talk like they’re experts, spouting flippant opinions based on nothing. Pat plunges into Facebook comments, writing: “I don’t know what you don’t understand. This is real.”

The cemetery is burying just 10 bodies a day. Rosemarie’s time will come Wednesday.

Her children will not be there.

“How can I do this?” Paula said. “I’m sorry, mom, I’m sorry.”

She did talk to someone at the funeral home. He fixed Rosemarie’s hair.

In this photo, more than 20 years old, Rosemarie Gabriele sits in the middle of family, with son Mark to the left, and to the right, husband Peter and daughter Paula, holding granddaughter Victoria. [Courtesy of the Gabriele family.]

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com. Follow @clairemcneill.

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