These are some of the lives forever changed by COVID-19
A baby born after a partner’s death. The ‘Tamale Guy,’ left with a raspy voice but working a gain. A girl, 13, and a grandmother, both struggling with long COVID. A nurse, exhausted but pushing on. All share a sense of loss and a need to push on.
But it wasn’t all that uncommon after Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared on March 20, 2020: “To avoid the loss of potentially tens of thousands of lives, we must enact an immediate stay-at-home order for all in Illinois.”
By then, we knew — well, most of us — that the coronavirus was serious stuff.
There were daily tallies of the sick and of the dead. To stay safe, we were told to wash our hands thoroughly and often. Many of us wiped down our groceries. Some drank more or sought counseling — via Zoom.
When a favorite restaurant finally reopened, we never imagined food could taste so good. We saw our children go back to school and delighted in the sound of their shrieking voices — even as we worried about the long-term effects on them of the previous isolation and the remote schooling.
Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, things have slowly returned to a kind of normal.
And most of us would say the pandemic has changed us in some way. Maybe we lost a job — or chose to quit one. Maybe a loved one succumbed to the virus. Then, there are the ways we do some things in a way we never had before. A telehealth doctor’s “visit.” A meeting via video. Or just feeling a tinge of worry at the sound of someone nearby coughing.
Some people have been especially affected by the pandemic. These are some of their stories.
‘Wish I could ask him what he thinks of his son’
Jessica Tapper went to the hospital for an ultrasound eight months into her pregnancy and took the elevator to the basement. She was headed to the hospital morgue to retrieve a plastic bag with her partner’s wallet, clothes and cellphone.
Less than a month later, Tapper, living at the time in Logan Square, gave birth. She named her baby boy Matteo — Italian for Matthew, after his father, Chicago house music producer Matthew “Turk” Agostini, who died of complications of COVID two days before Thanksgiving 2020.
Now, Tapper, 40, says she is trudging forward as best as she can. She had two children with Agostini, Matteo and daughter Violet, who is in kindergarten.
“She misses him,” Tapper says as she is parked outside her daughter’s elementary school at pickup time. “She talks about him all the time. I don’t know what to say to her. I miss him, too. What do you say to your child who wants their father?”
Agostini, 50, was sick for about two weeks before he died. Even as he grew sicker at home, he didn’t want to go to the hospital.
“He was afraid of going to be intubated and being stuck on a ventilator,” Tapper says. “He just didn’t want that to be the end for him. He didn’t want to die like that.”
Agostini’s death brought on waves of anxiety and depression for her.
“I didn’t want to go outside,” she says. “I was getting groceries delivered, ordering a lot of Amazon.”
Her rent in Logan Square was too expensive, so she moved first to Pilsen and then about a year and a half ago, to Oak Lawn, where she is closer to her family.
Agostini was also a songwriter and session musician, and Tapper has held onto all of his production equipment and musical instruments.
“It’s just been really hard for me to get rid of anything,” she says.
She keeps photographs of Agostini close by.
“I have two pictures on the wall right next to my bedroom door,” she says. “One is the height for Matteo to kiss. And the other is the height for [Violet] to kiss.”
One of Agostini’s acoustic guitars sits on a stand in her living room. The neck is kind of warped now, making it almost impossible to tune. But that doesn’t bother Matteo.
“He comes by and strums the strings all the time,” Tapper says. “I wonder what his father would say. That’s what’s on my mind all the time. I wish I could ask him what he thinks of his son. And I just can’t.”
‘It’s very frustrating’
Brenda Parker knew she wanted to avoid going to a hospital. The 63-year-old South Shore resident says she never considered seeking emergency care when she got sick with COVID in May 2021.
That’s because her son’s father had died in a hospital from the coronavirus.
“When I got COVID, he took it really hard, and I was, like, ‘Well, I’m not going to be like your dad,” ’ Parker says.
She had a fever and cough. But her doctor tells her she’s lucky, even now, after lasting effects from long COVID have disrupted her life.
Parker says that started with a shiver, maybe a really bad chill. She didn’t think anyone else even noticed.
But then, she says, “Someone mentioned to me recently, ‘Girl, I thought you were having a seizure.’ ”
Several times a day, Parker says it feels as if she’s lost control of her body. She shakes as if she’s having a seizure.
“If you don’t know me, it may not be noticeable,” she says. “But, if we’re in a conversation, then it is very noticeable. And I’m very self-conscious of it.”
She says she has no control over when the shaking hits and just has to let it “take its course.”
She also has been hit at times by brain fog, a common long COVID symptom. In the middle of conversation, Parker will suddenly stutter or find herself at a loss for words.
“It’s like my brain is thinking faster than my mouth, and I just cannot get the words out,” she says. “It’s very frustrating.”
Parker, who was the deputy executive director of the Gary Housing Authority until she retired at the end of last year, also has had other problems stemming from the long-term effects of COVID. At one point, because of her uncontrollable shaking and a loss of balance, she fell off a two-step ladder and ended up in a hospital with an injured leg.
Doctors tested her to see whether her full-body shakes were something serious but found nothing.
“They just say, if that’s the only side effects that I have, I should consider myself lucky,” she says. COVID “has affected all of us in some way.”
As a result of what she’s gone through, Parker says she now takes better care of herself, eats healthier and tries to make healthy choices. And, like the doctors told her, she does feel lucky.
“I’m very blessed it wasn’t any worse than it was,” she says.
‘Tamale Guy’ is back
Claudio Velez — well known as the “Tamale Guy” — has a voice that’s a little raspier now as a result of COVID. And his prices have nudged up a bit — blame inflation, not the virus, for that boost from $7 for six tamales to $9.
But Velez is once again a tamale-toting savior for the late-night bar crowd on the Near West Side.
“Tamales! Tamales!” he calls out, carting a red-and-white cooler filled with his homemade chicken, pork and cheese creations.
A brutal case of COVID sidelined Velez, 58, for more than a year. He spent about five weeks in 2020 at Rush University Medical Center — intubated for more than half of that time. That’s what left him with a still-scratchy voice.
“I felt very sad, very lonely,” Velez says of his time in the hospital.
Velez spent a year recovering. But now he’s once again at what he started doing a quarter century ago, when he arrived in Chicago from the Mexican resort town of Acapulco. Six days a week, he arrives at his Logan Square kitchen at about 6:30 a.m. to prepare and package the tamales, working with three family members. Then, he heads home for a three-hour nap before hitting the road in his red Kia sedan to offer his tamales to the world.
The best time to sell, he says, is between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. — when bars are about to close, and customers are hungry for a bite.
He’s a popular enough figure that people contributed to two GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for his business and to help pay his medical bills, but Velez says he’s still short on cash, which is why he works so much.
He also kind of enjoys the recognition, the hugs and the way some people refer to him as “the Santa Claus for the drunk and hungry.”
“That’s kind of like his passion,” Osmar Velez, 33, one of his five kids, says of his father’s being the Tamale Guy.
Teen just ‘wants to be normal’
Melissa Smejkal says that, before her daughter Zara got COVID, she played hockey, lifted weights and was a top student.
Now, Zara, 13, spends most of her days in bed, too exhausted to do any of the things she loved before. She has missed half of this school year because of long COVID, according to her mother, who says it can take hours just to focus enough to tackle her school work.
“She tried to do something yesterday and fainted,” says Smejkal, a lawyer who lives in the West Loop.
She thinks her daughter got COVID three times in 2021 — in May, August and December — though she got vaccinated as soon as the vaccines became available.
“It was regular COVID,” her mother says. “You know, stuffy nose, no vomiting — just like regular kid sick.”
But with the infection in December, Zara’s symptoms were much worse, and she hasn’t bounced back. She started getting terrible headaches and dizziness, then chest pains and trouble breathing. Neurologist and cardiologist visits didn’t help, according to her mother, who says the doctors couldn’t figure out what was causing her symptoms.
“It’s completely changed everything,” Smejkal says. “She wants to be normal. Because she has problems breathing when she exercises, she tries to push herself, and then she feels way worse.”
After dozens of trips to specialists, Smejkal says, the doctors finally reached a diagnosis. The fully vaccinated teenager had long COVID and POTS — postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which causes the heart rate to accelerate when moving from lying down to standing. Dizziness and fainting spells are common. The syndrome has been linked to post-COVID illnesses.
There’s no known cure for either POTS or long COVID. For POTS, pain management and therapy can help symptoms.
Long COVID “literally never crossed my mind,” Smejkal says. “Anyone that I personally knew that had long COVID had problems breathing, but they went away in a couple of months. I mean, we’re going on two years now.”
To help with the long COVID, doctors recommended vitamins and supplements.
And, for two weeks now, Zara has been going to the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab’s Pain Management Clinic once a week for occupational and physical therapy and counseling.
She’s staying positive, her mom says.
Still, Smejkal says the invasive tests and countless doctor visits might have been avoided had Zara been diagnosed sooner with long COVID.
“I know there are other people that are probably going through what we’ve gone through,” Smejkal says. “We wasted, like, a year. I feel like if someone knew earlier on, we could have talked about this and maybe started some of the meds for POTS earlier on.”
‘It’s been incredibly great to be back’
Melanie Kupchynsky, 61, a violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has been playing the instrument since she was 4.
“We’ve spent our entire lives trying to learn how to do this well to get to where we are,” Kupchynsky says. “It was just astonishing that we had to stop for so long — and really scary.”
If anything, she says her love for music only deepened during the quiet months when she was forced to be away from her fellow musicians.
“I never really pondered what the world could be without it, until we were without,” she says. “I’m getting teary just thinking about it. It’s been incredibly great to be back. When you almost lose something, it just becomes that much more precious to you.”
While Orchestra Hall was closed, she continued, of course, to practice at home. In the warmer months, she’d take her sheet music and violin onto her back deck.
“My neighbors seemed not to mind,” was how she described that experience in a Chicago Sun-Times interview two years ago. “They seemed to be OK with hearing the same thing over and over again.”
She and a handful of musician friends even put on a porch concert outside her house in August 2020.
But there was nothing like being back at Orchestra Hall for the first time about a year later.
“It was like being a kid on the first day of school again,” she says. “It was super, super exciting.”
The CSO recently returned from a mini-tour of Florida, where its concerts all sold out.
The musicians are tested regularly for the coronavirus and have to be “super, hyper-cautious,” Kupchynsky says. “A lot of players are very, very key and can’t be replaced easily. One violin less isn’t going to ruin the concert. Not having a principal wind or a principal brass, that would really put a damper on things. Those people are under a lot more pressure to stay healthy, for sure.”
When someone starts coughing in the audience, “Every head turns,” Kupchynsky says.
She has one lasting regret owing to the pandemic. That’s the time that she and the orchestra missed out on with Ricardo Muti, the CSO’s music director, now in his final season in Chicago.
“I thought I’d pretty much seen it all, then Muti came,” she says. “All the Italian music we’ve done with him has been a revelation to me. It was just spectacular music, stuff that I’d never dreamed of. To have missed out on any part of that is very sad. But we will see him again.”
That’s because Muti has agreed to return next season to lead the CSO’s European tour.
Long COVID’s pain like a punch to the face
Suffering from the effects of long COVID, Christian Lane can pinpoint where the pain will strike — close to the middle of his forehead. Eye pain is likely to follow, leaving his left eye aching as if he’s just taken a punch to the face.
The 50-year-old Ravenswood resident is a musician, producer and songwriter, but the constant itchiness in his eyes and blurry vision makes his work exhausting.
He tested positive for COVID last October. His doctor doesn’t know how long the symptoms might last, though Lane says his health is slowly improving.
He has played the guitar since he was 6 and plays bass and piano, too. He spends much of his time on a computer, editing and producing music, and the rest playing instruments.
Since he got COVID, though, it’s been harder to stare for hours at a time at his screen to do his job.
Lane’s doctor wasn’t surprised he developed long COVID. Lane also has rheumatoid arthritis, so he already had a weakened immune system. Immunocompromised patients might be more likely to feel stronger effects of a COVID infection or remain sick longer, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The doctor told him there are few treatment options for long COVID other than a drug similar to Paxlovid, which is now commonly prescribed for COVID patients.
“My doctor is learning from me as much as I’m getting information from her,” Lane says.
Lane is grateful that his symptoms haven’t been even worse.
“What I think about is, ‘Oh, my God, I know some people have this so bad, and it must be just so awful,’ ” he says. “It makes me feel really empathetic towards them. And I also just feel like it shouldn’t be minimized.”
‘We had to take care of people’
In the early days of the pandemic, temp agency nurses would sometimes show up for a new hospital assignment and leave upon hearing they’d been assigned to one of the many newly designated COVID floors.
“At that time, nobody wanted to go in to those rooms,” sometimes not even doctors, says Shari Para, a Tinley Park mother of two young children who works as a temp nurse around Chicago.
Para, 40, says that reaction left her feeling a little bitter. But it also reinforced for her how much she loves what she does.
“I became a nurse because I love taking care of people,” she says. “I love medicine. I love anatomy and physiology. It’s my purpose in life.”
When the virus was surging, there were times Para might be singlehandedly caring for five COVID patients. To get through it, she depended on the “moral support” of those nurses who stuck it out with her.
“I would not have gotten through those 12 hours without breaking down if I didn’t have those other nurses with me,” Para says.
She also says she would try to escape any news of how bad and how widespread COVID’s devastation had become and just go to work with “blinders on,” without having watched or read the news. She still avoids the news, relying on her husband for the day’s highlights.
“I’ve watched people get eaten alive because they are mad at how much money the [hospital] CEOs are making,” Para says. “Or they’re mad at how many deaths there were during COVID. If you think about all that stuff, you’re definitely going to leave the field. It’s overwhelming.”
Still, she has felt overwhelmed at times. Around the first Christmas of the pandemic, she says she took a week off to spend uninterrupted time with her family — and to get a break after months of 12-hour shifts treating COVID patients.
These days, she sees far fewer COVID patients. But she hasn’t forgotten about people who lost their lives to the virus. Like one 69-year-old woman who was terrified at the prospect of needing to be put on a ventilator. Para says she held the woman’s hand and prayed with her. After weeks of hospitalization, the woman was discharged without having to be intubated, but she died later at home.
“I still cry about her,” Para says.
She says she’s thankful for her family: her two children, who are 5 and 6, and her husband, who she says always knows when she needs a hug.
“He’s very supportive of everything I do, and he’s very proud of me, and he tells me all the time,” she says.
At 40, Para figures she has another 25 years or so of working life ahead of her. And she knows how she’ll spend it.
“I can definitely tell you I’ll always be a nurse,” she says.