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In obituary for a vaccinated man, daughters share anger — and a plea

In assisted living on Florida’s East Coast, Clark Allen had tried to protect himself from COVID-19.
Clark Allen sits on a bench with grandchildren Colin Gentile and Maple Gentile during a May 2021 family visit — his first and only during the pandemic, in the short window in which Florida's COVID-19 caseload dropped.
Clark Allen sits on a bench with grandchildren Colin Gentile and Maple Gentile during a May 2021 family visit — his first and only during the pandemic, in the short window in which Florida's COVID-19 caseload dropped. [ Clark Allen ]
Published Aug. 19
Updated Aug. 21

Danielle Allen sifted through the files on her dad’s computer. She’d already gone through his eyeglasses, his printed-out jokes, his binder of Garfield clippings. She’d held the T-shirts he’d worn since they were kids. Her sister Nicole Allen-Gentile had packed up his scooter, which he’d used to visit a nature preserve during the long pandemic days. They knew he didn’t want a service. But in the packet titled “Stuff to Do Upon the Death of Clark Allen,” it became clear that an obituary mattered very much.

He left a draft. It began, Clark R. Allen of Delray Beach, Florida, passed away on ____ __, _____ at the age of __.

He’d moved last summer into assisted living, so his daughters changed the city to Lantana. They filled in July 22, 2021, and the age of 84.

The rest of their dad’s draft obituary outlined the proper nouns of his life: the jobs and boards and schools. What about the guy who kept a spreadsheet of every family pet’s birthday? They needed to say something, too, about the way he died. What they had witnessed in Florida.

Nicole emailed Danielle a furious start.

Clark died of Covid. <insert info about being vaccinated but an unvaxed person killing him>

At the Carlisle

Clark Allen had taken the virus seriously. Nicole mailed him gloves and masks. He stayed close to home and paged through the New York Times and the Palm Beach Post. His damaged lungs from decades with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease had heightened COVID-19′s threat.

His expansive oceanside life as a Florida retiree — where the warmth let him umpire youth baseball year-round — shriveled into the confines of his apartment.

Clark began sitting around, cooking less. He let go of his careful bookkeeping. The plan had always been to move him up north, into assisted living near Nicole — eventually. But now, with his blessing, his family found a place along the familiar coast.

Related: COVID is still a deadly threat to older Floridians

On the walls at the Carlisle Palm Beach, apartment 432, he hung framed photos of his seven kids and their weddings and travels. On the fridge, he tacked newspaper clippings, like highlights from Danielle’s ice hockey games. When the place wasn’t locked down, he found a bridge group and scooted across the street for Butterfingers to stock the freezer.

He wore a mask, he told his two youngest daughters, except in the dining room. He knew he was vulnerable, and he desperately wanted to see his grandkids again. In Oregon, 33-year-old Danielle, a massage therapist, scrolled the news and worried. In Connecticut, Nicole, now 38, and a public librarian, did the same — until Clark got the Pfizer vaccine this winter. Then worry coexisted with a huge dose of relief.

He emailed and called near-weekly as he always had, reluctant to talk about himself per usual, instead wanting family updates, happy to hear of his children’s vaccinations. If he ever went quiet, they knew his bad lungs were acting up.

In early July, he confessed to Danielle that he was having a hard week. And on July 8, Nicole got a call. Clark was in the hospital.

Sports and squirrels

Clark was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1937, the son of Carroll and Edna Allen.

Danielle and Nicole left in the reference to his high school, where he had captained track and field. They kept his editorship of the Springfield College paper and yearbook, and the mention of the school radio station.

They kept the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders course and the EMT training and the stint covering sports for the Washington Post. As for his work, they trimmed until they wrote of “his life-long career in advertising and marketing for consumer packaged goods.”

He had been proud of his life. He’d provided. But Danielle and Nicole wanted to weave in a few things that had brought their dad joy.

Related: Florida’s COVID deaths climb as children lead state in positivity rate
Seven siblings, with more than 30 years between youngest and oldest, gather with father Clark Allen in 2011 to celebrate Nicole Allen-Gentile's wedding. From left to right: Danielle Allen, Chris Allen, Clark Allen, Nicole Allen-Gentile, Brian Gentile, Daydra Davenport, Noah Ragsdale, George Allen, Kelly Ragsdale, Lorel Ragsdale.
Seven siblings, with more than 30 years between youngest and oldest, gather with father Clark Allen in 2011 to celebrate Nicole Allen-Gentile's wedding. From left to right: Danielle Allen, Chris Allen, Clark Allen, Nicole Allen-Gentile, Brian Gentile, Daydra Davenport, Noah Ragsdale, George Allen, Kelly Ragsdale, Lorel Ragsdale. [ Clark Allen ]

Where he mentioned his “second career” as referee, his daughters wrote, Clark loved all things sports.

Where he mentioned his work clerking for Palm Beach County elections, they remembered his unfailing reminders of their civic duties. They wrote, Clark firmly believed in everyone’s right to vote and in the democratic process.

They thought of the way he had sent them photos of every creature to grace his porch. The lizards, he named Iggy, squirrels he called Homer or Gus, depending on their color.

Nicole wrote, It cannot go unmentioned how much Clark enjoyed animals.

Fighting for his life

At JFK Medical Center, Clark struggled for breath. A nurse told Danielle that Clark had tested positive for COVID-19 — their first breakthrough patient, the nurse said.

Nicole quickly called the Carlisle but didn’t hear back, so she emailed. “He is vaccinated, but I know the current data says you can still get and possibly transmit the disease. Please let me know if I should be alerting anyone else at the facility,” she wrote.

A staffer replied: “It could be a result of the vaccine itself. I hope he’s ok and I will let our wellness director and executive director know.”

Stunned, Nicole replied with a link to CDC evidence. “Vaccines cannot cause a positive test,” she wrote. “The facility should consider that the virus may be circulating among its staff and residents.”

The Carlisle employee said she was taking the situation “very seriously.”

Related: Got questions about the contagious delta variant? Here’s some answers.

A spokeswoman for the Carlisle’s ownership group, Senior Living, did not respond to questions from the Tampa Bay Times, like the vaccination rate of its staff. A statement instead mentioned the group’s “enhanced efforts” to fight the virus. “The health of and communication to our residents and team members are our greatest priority,” the spokeswoman said in an email.

At first, it seemed, even doctors were surprised that Clark had tested positive. JFK staff wondered if his pulmonary disease was to blame. Because Clark was vaccinated, a nurse said, he should recover. A few days later, the hospital released him.

“I really wish the hospital would keep him a bit longer,” Nicole wrote to her siblings.

Within 12 hours, Clark was back in the emergency room and fitted with a BiPap mask that pumped oxygen into his lungs. Nicole and Danielle booked flights, though their dad said he worried about Florida’s caseload.

At an Airbnb, Danielle and Nicole called the hospital. They couldn’t advocate for their dad in person, but they left voicemails for his doctor. Once, for something to do, they brought cookies for the nurses. A front desk worker, confused about where to send the treats, told them that the hospital had just expanded from one COVID unit to two.

Related: ‘No one should die.’ Tampa Bay doctors, nurses exhausted by COVID surge

Clark texted sometimes.

Haven’t seen M.D. since shortly after return.

On Remdesivir, just finished CT scan. I’m exhausted but breathing easier.

Trump’s sending gallon of Clorox.

Hungry. Can’t have food. Nothing since Monday morning pancake.

Eventually, his texts grew sparse.

One day, they caught their dad on FaceTime while they were going through his things at the Carlisle. He had the BiPap mask on. He waved. His daughters began to cry, and he cried, too. They told him they loved him. They watched him grow agitated, until a nurse ended the call.

Should they go there?

How much of his political life to include, they weren’t sure. In New Jersey, he had led the state’s Young Republicans, which he’d noted in his draft. He’d sat on national party boards. He mailed Danielle — decidedly not a Republican — repurposed GOP Christmas cards that thanked him for donations to President Bush.

In recent years, he’d begun to feel betrayed. President Trump did not speak to his values. And in conversations with his daughters, he lamented his party’s pandemic response. “Our great Governor, Trump’s buddy, just stammers when asked questions,” Clark wrote in an email as Florida prepared to roll out vaccines. “He has no clue.”

His daughters debated writing about his change of heart. In his files, Danielle found plenty of strongly worded emails to Republican politicians, as well as the occasional vacuum company, that suggested he was not shy about his views. He had even switched to No Party Affiliation.

But they didn’t want to further politicize the vaccine.

They let it go unsaid.

In the end

As the Florida days stretched out, Nicole and Danielle called siblings and called nurses.

They stopped talking about long-term care.

At the Carlisle, where they tended to his apartment, two residents came up to Danielle. Both knew Clark, but neither knew he’d tested positive for the virus nearly a week earlier.

Among staff and residents, masks appeared rare.

Danielle and Nicole had eaten up all of the headlines, like this from the AARP: Only 2 in 5 Florida Nursing Home Workers Vaccinated Against COVID-19.

Related: Biden to require COVID-19 vaccines for nursing home staff

They’d read emails from their dad about where he lived, describing his quest for pandemic-related information only to find absent nurses, scarce memos and a blank TV channel. A typical subject line: It would be funny if it were not so sad.

They’d heard the announcement that vaccinated people could also spread the disease, but they don’t believe that’s what happened in this case.

Was it a dining room server? A nurse?

The vaccine had given Clark a chance, but because of his health, it hadn’t caused a strong enough immune response, hospital nurses told them. And his lungs were too weak for a ventilator.

The ICU doctor said to think about hospice. The nurses told them of bad nights, of Clark ripping off IVs and his breathing machine. More than one nurse was near tears. The pulmonologist said it was time. Nurses said it was time. But then Nicole heard that Clark had sat up and drank ginger ale. She had to make the decision without being able to hold his hand.

Clark suffered, delirious, another night, while his daughters were caught in the mix of paperwork and permissions. Finally, on July 20, hospice took him in.

Nicole stood separated from him by a window. As he slept, she video called her siblings one by one, so they could say goodbye.

Clark Allen holds infant grandson Colin Gentile in Nicole Allen-Gentile's home in Connecticut. Clark's 17 grandchildren and one great-grandchild brought him immense joy. Though he was getting older, he remained present in their lives.
Clark Allen holds infant grandson Colin Gentile in Nicole Allen-Gentile's home in Connecticut. Clark's 17 grandchildren and one great-grandchild brought him immense joy. Though he was getting older, he remained present in their lives. [ Clark Allen ]

Choosing the right words

The obituary was something to do. The death certificate was slow to arrive from Florida, anyway, and while the family was making cremation plans, the funeral home director came down with the virus. Nicole emailed Danielle an early draft. Do not read if you are having a hard time, she wrote.

To Danielle, the first attempt read as too angry. She was angry. She’d just had to drop off her father’s glasses in a Walmart donation bin. She’d been crying in her car between massage clients, who couldn’t stop talking about the virus. And all of the stories emphasizing that vaccinated people rarely die of COVID-19 — which she knew was true — felt painful, like they erased her dad.

She knew he hadn’t had to die like this.

In early August, she received another draft from Nicole. Clark’s family urges everyone to get vaccinated to protect those who are still vulnerable.

Nicole proposed asking people to consider a donation to one of their dad’s favorite nonprofits, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Danielle emailed back an addition to thank the nurses, like the one who had played Patsy Cline in his hospital room.

Her dad had believed in the common good. She and Nicole had heard him tell stories of the sacrifices his family had made during the Great Depression and World War II. He’d wanted to donate his body to science, but COVID victims are not accepted. Instead, his children will split his ashes into seven.

Danielle rewrote the intro.

He was infected by someone who chose not to get vaccinated and his death was preventable.

It had pained him to see people acting without concern for their neighbors. Danielle and Nicole had agreed: If one person got vaccinated after reading his obituary, they knew he would be proud.

Danielle wrote, It is the wish of his family that everyone get vaccinated in order to prevent further death, sickness and heartbreak.

She took out heartbreak, then put it back in.

• • •

To read Clark Allen’s obituary in full, visit the Palm Beach Post.

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