When she was 11, her parents, Dan and Effie Frieson, who’d migrated to Chicago from Arkansas in the late ’50s, sent Patricia Frieson to live Down South.
Her grandfather had died, and she was to live with her grandmother in Helena, Ark.
It’s where she’d grow up, finish high school at Barton High in Barton, Ark., go on to attend the nursing program at Phillips Community College there and receive her nursing license.
Frieson, sixth in a family of nine siblings — the others raised in Bronzeville before the family moved to a four-flat in Auburn-Gresham in the mid-70s — passed away Monday at age 61, survived by seven siblings, and her seven beloved nieces and nephews.
The world now knows Frieson as the first person to die of the novel coronavirus in Illinois.
But while her name draws this tragic note in history, one South Side family, in which she played a central role — her apartment in that four-flat the focal point of any gathering — mourns.
“All of this is overwhelming,” said her brother, Anthony Frieson, 57, who spoke to the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday.
“Being the first to die of it here is just a barrier to our grieving. It could have been the 10th, doesn’t matter. The whole point is, she’s not here anymore,” he said, as the family wrestled with the stark realities of death from COVID-19, which include:
- When a family member becomes ill — before COVID-19 is suspected or diagnosed — the family rallies around them — visiting, hugging, loving. Exposure is a key issue.
- When a family member is diagnosed and quarantined at a health care facility, family cannot rally around them, cannot visit, cannot be at the deathbed if and when they die.
- If a family member passes, funerals and other services become an issue. Large gatherings are prohibited, and family out of town will be challenged by travel restrictions.
“We weren’t allowed to come to the hospital to see Pat, which is the painful part about all this. We understand why,” said her brother.
“But that’s the really difficult thing at the end — the isolation. You end up with the sadness of not being able to be with her when she passes, the sadness of it seeming like they are alone, when you know they are not.”
With a large extended family, Patricia Frieson had never been alone.
Her first nursing job had been at a nursing home, followed by a hospital in West Helena, Ark., then a regional hospital across the river in Mississippi. She’d then turned to travel nursing, which took her to hospitals across the South for varying periods of time, later returning to the hospital in Mississippi to be near her grandmother.
“Pat cared for my grandmother up until her death in 1988,” her brother said.
“My Dad passed in 1989, and Pat moved back to Chicago in the late ’90s to care for my Mom until she passed in 2002. It was around that time her own physical ailments — severe asthma, lymphedema and other issues — put her on disability,” he said.
“She couldn’t get around as much, but she was quite amazing in maintaining her independence. Every once in awhile, her asthma would require medical treatment, and she’d be admitted to the hospital, get recalibrated and come out good as new.”
It seemed she was headed for that familiar routine when her asthma flared up two weeks ago, but she increasingly struggled with breathing. By March 12, it was serious. The family took her to urgent care at University of Chicago Medical Center.
“They red-flagged her because of her asthma and the fact she was having trouble breathing, then moved her to E.R., where she was ultimately diagnosed with pneumonia,” her brother said. “She was admitted and tested for COVID-19.”
Family had been with her up to that point. Now she was in Intensive Care — quarantined.
By Sunday, the coronavirus test came back positive, and Frieson was on a ventilator.
Her family kept in touch with doctors, trying not to overwhelm them with calls about her. Monday, the doctors called them. The family went to the hospital. A sister and a niece were allowed to go up and see her, separated by glass. She was pronounced dead at 9:40 p.m.
“Pat wanted to be cremated. We’re carrying out that process. We’ll have a memorial service at a later date,” her brother said.
“But another one of these things that’s terrible is that when you talk about even having a memorial service, we’re kind of handcuffed. You can’t have large gatherings. For family out of town, travel is restricted.”
So as they mourn, they also worry.
“Pat’s house was the essential focus for any gathering. And so we’re hugging, we’re kissing. We weren’t operating under any restrictions. We didn’t know she had the virus,” said her brother, who has self-quarantined, awaiting results of his own test.
“Fast forward. She’s diagnosed with this terrible virus. It’s very contagious. Everybody has been around her. We’ve been told we should all operate under the assumption we may have the virus,” he said.
“So not only are we trying to deal with the loss of our family member but also concern for the rest of our family. The impact of this virus is so far-reaching you can’t even imagine it till you’re faced with it.”