Sophia Staples stood silently next to her family, holding a candle as she listened to nurses and surgeons memorialize her sister, about fifty of them laughing and crying together in the dark parking lot across from McLaren hospital in Flint on Monday night.
Her name was Santa Staples, and she died of complications OF COVID-19 on Saturday at age 59. Born on Christmas Day, Staples was a masterful nurse who ran the operating room with military precision, showing up at 3:30 a.m. on her day off to handle a particularly complex surgery. Not one to suffer fools, she had a flintiness that could intimidate even the neurosurgeons.
“At first when I met her, I was also scared!” Dr. Hugo Lopez admitted, to laughs from the crowd. “I might not show it, but I was scared.”
But beneath that exterior was a woman who loved dirty jokes, teaching card games in the break room, a good Michigan tailgate party and the coworkers with whom she built decades-long friendships.
“Once you meet her and work with her and see how efficient, how kind and (what a) loving person she was, I started calling her ‘Santa Baby,’” Lopez chuckled, referring to Staples’ nickname. “I felt so welcome, coming in in the morning for a 7:30 am case. And the first thing I wanted to do was give her a hug. And that would make my day go well, knowing she was in the room with me.”
Stories from the front
Bridge Magazine, Detroit Free Press and Michigan Radio are teaming up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. We will be sharing accounts of the challenges doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel face as they work to treat patients and save lives. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact reporters Robin Erb email@example.com at Bridge, Kristen Jordan Shamus firstname.lastname@example.org at the Free Press and Kate Wells email@example.com at Michigan Radio.
Several people said Staples took them under her wing, persuading them to come work in the OR, take on a leadership role in the union, or just sitting down with them to go over their 401k plans.
“Amongst the chaos, Santa was the calm,” Jessica Romanowski, a surgical technician, said of the operating room. “It was her laugh that was her true trademark. Her giggle always had a hint of mischief in it, and made you wonder what was really going on in that head of hers. Spoiler alert: it was usually naughty, much to my delight.”
Just before her death, Staples had been recovering at home from an unrelated surgery, friends and family said. Her prognosis was promising, but then, she started having trouble breathing. That’s when she was diagnosed with COVID, and admitted to the same health system she’d worked in for 33 years.
Her sister, Sophia Staples, finally stepped before the small crowd just before the group walked across the street to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ in front of the hospital. Coworkers who were still on their shifts gathered in front of the windows, waving cell phone lights in the dark to show support.
McLaren Flint staff wave from the windows of the hospital as others stand outside during a vigil on Monday for the late Santa Staples, an operating room nurse and an executive board member of Local 875, who passed away Saturday (Photo by Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
“All my life, she's always wanted to be a nurse,” Sophia Staples said. “And she loved her job. She was her job. The job was her. She just loved what she did. She loved her coworkers... And I know me and my family is going to miss her. And I know you guys are going to miss her, too. But know that she really cared about you guys. She talked about you all the time. It's almost like you’re an extension of our family.”
- Michigan coronavirus unemployment, map, curve, COVID-19 updates
- Dashboard: Michigan coronavirus testing numbers, trends, COVID-19 data
- Been exposed to COVID-19? A new Michigan app will let you know.
‘She never wavered’
Staples lost her life to a virus she’d worked so hard to fight this past spring, Romanowski said. In March and April, when other members of the operating team took furloughs or stayed home, Staples was tireless.
“She was one of the few nurses that worked the whole thing,” Romanowski said. “She stayed true to her profession...She loved taking care of the community. And she did it the whole time, and she never wavered.”
Jessica Romanowski, a surgical tech in the operating room at McLaren Flint, becomes emotional while she gathered outside of the hospital on Monday, November 9, 2020 for a vigil for the late Santa Staples, an operating room nurse who died of COVID-19. (Photo by Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
Now, with cases rising across the state and 2,800 Michiganders currently hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID diagnoses, it’s a frustratingly familiar feeling to those who worked alongside Staples during the initial surge.
“People don’t understand: you have to wear your masks,” said Ronda Cavalry, an RN who knew Staples for years. “You have to. You have to use your hand sanitizer. People are dying and it’s senseless. She shouldn’t have died. And those nurses in there, they are working with them every day. We have two floors now that are full with COVID patients again. We’re going right back to where we were last March,” she said, her voice wavering.
“She was a good nurse. I think when she made her mind up to go on the respirator, I think she knew her outcome.” — Sophia Staples, Santa’s sister
“COVID shouldn’t have took her,” Sophia Staples said. “She was 59 years old. She would have been 60 this Christmas Day. She didn't get that. She didn't get to do that. You know, it's a lot of stuff she left undone that we have to pick up. She had every intention of coming home (when hospitalized with COVID). She didn't think this was going to happen.
“But, you know, she was a good nurse. I think when she made her mind up to go on the respirator, I think she knew her outcome. Because like they said, she knew her job. It's just hard for us not being able to be there. You have to rely on somebody else to tell you how she's doing, and you want to see it for yourself. My mother hasn't seen her in over forty days, before she went in the hospital. So she didn't get a chance to see her, you know, and that's the hard part.”
While the state doesn’t keep track of how many healthcare workers have died of COVID, SEIU Local 875 spokesperson Kelly Indish said they knew of at least three hospital staffers at McLaren Flint who had died, as well as three spouses of healthcare staff.
A spokesperson for McLaren Flint didn’t respond to questions about how many healthcare workers had died of COVID, or how many were currently quarantined, but offered a statement on Staples’ passing via email.
“It is with profound sadness that McLaren Flint shares the loss of a co-worker, Santa Staples, RN,” spokesperson Sherry Farney wrote. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Santa’s family, friends, and our team members who worked alongside this health care hero. She has compassionately served the community for 33 years at McLaren, most recently as an operating room nurse. Santa’s coworkers shared that she was truly devoted and compassionate.”
Meanwhile, the Michigan Nurses Association confirmed the passing of another nurse, Maribel Tabanguil-May, at Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, last week. She also died from COVID.
“Maribel was an amazing nurse, active union member, and loving parent,” said MNA president Jamie Brown. “She has worked at our hospital for about four decades and never stopped advocating for her patients. She will be deeply missed and was taken from us too soon.”
Kathy Hollis of Flint wipes tears from her eyes during a candlelight memorial and prayer on Monday at St Paul Lutheran Church in Flint for her best friend, Santa Staples, an operating room nurse and an executive board member of Local 875, who passed away Saturday from COVID-19. (Photo by Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
As more providers get sick, several health systems say they’re concerned about staffing shortages, and the impact that could have on patient care.
“We are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases among our employees, consistent with increases we are seeing in our patient population,” Beaumont spokesperson Mark Geary said in an email last week. “...Right now, out of our 38,000 Beaumont Health employees, we have approximately 225 employees out with COVID-19 or are awaiting test results. (Of those) 131 are awaiting test results. During the months of August, September, and October we had a daily average of about 100 employees out with COVID-19 or COVID symptoms.”
For Romanowski, the technician who worked closely with Staples, the dangers of the job are real.
“We’re all a little scared, obviously, for our own personal safety and the safety...of our loved ones,” Romanowski said. “It hits home. I have a mother with stage-four lung cancer. So I take risk by coming into surgery every day and operating on COVID patients. And sometimes that means I can’t see my own mother and my own family, because I don’t want to risk them getting sick.”
Toward the end of the evening Monday, the group gathered to honor Santa Staples lit paper lanterns and released them into the night sky. “Miss you already,” Staples’ sister, Sophia, wrote on one. Her mother, Nettie Staples, led the procession back across the street to McLaren hospital, pushed in her wheelchair by her son, Clinton Staples Jr.
In front of the place Staples had worked for more than 30 years, the small crowd sang “Amazing Grace,” as coworkers still on the job gathered at hospital windows overlooking the street below, flashing their cell phone lights and waving in support.
“We love you, Santa!” several coworkers said as the song concluded.
Kristen Jordan Shamus of the Detroit Free Press and Robin Erb of Bridge Michigan contributed to this report.