In the second story of WBFO’s new series, “The Toll: Western New York Stories of Loss & Survival in a Pandemic,” two daughters remember the veteran parents they lost earlier this year to COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 11,700 people across Western New York. The virus has also claimed the lives of at least 767 people in our region. WBFO’s “The Toll” will air weekly on Thursdays during Morning Edition in August and September, telling some of the personal stories behind those numbers.
72-year-old Army veteran and Girl Scout leader Cheryl Grato, of South Buffalo, spent the last weeks of her life stitching together blankets for fellow Erie County veterans.
“Before she got to the point to where she couldn't knit or crochet anymore, she was making lap Afghans for the veterans up at the V.A.,” said Grato’s daughter Tina Grato, a Walmart
department manager who also lives in South Buffalo. She said her mom never visited the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center empty-handed. “Every time she went for an appointment, she would bring up a pile of them with her for them to hand out to veterans in wheelchairs.”
Grato said her mother tested positive for COVID-19 on May 1, after both Tina’s brother and sister found out that they had contracted the novel coronavirus. Cheryl, who had lived with multiple sclerosis since the age of 23, responded well to medical treatments at first before her condition took a turn for the worse.
“It wasn’t until the 4th [of May] that she started displaying symptoms and ended up at St. Joe’s,” Grato said.
The St. Joseph Campus of Sisters of Charity Hospital was set up as Buffalo’s designated coronavirus care facility in mid-March. At the height of the pandemic in Western New York, in late April, as many as 258 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in Erie County every day.
Kelly Frothingham is the daughter of another veteran who was one first people in the region to fall ill with COVID-19: 74-year-old Walter Monahan, of Kenmore. Monahan served in the Navy and was a school bus driver, as well as a docent at Buffalo’s Naval and Military Park.
“He had actually had a check-up at the V.A. on March 10 and was perfectly healthy and asymptomatic,” said Frothingham, who serves as associate dean at the SUNY Buffalo State School of Natural and Social Sciences. “Of course, we know now that he was infected with the virus."
In fact, Frothingham said Monahan started showing symptoms of the virus the very next day after that appointment.
"He just continued to feel worse,” she said. “He had a fever. He did have a cough, and, eventually what happened was he was very weak. And my parents went to bed on the 19th [of March], I believe it was, and my mother noticed that my dad's fingers were blue. And so she called an ambulance and they took him to the hospital, and things sort of deteriorated from there."
Monahan passed away on March 25, becoming the second-recorded death from COVID-19 in Erie County. Cheryl Grato also lost her battle with the disease about two months later.
“The nurse from St. Joe’s had called to schedule a FaceTime with her,” Grato said, recalling a painful week in an interview with WBFO. “So, we had some FaceTime with her that Saturday, and that Monday is when they removed the ventilators because her condition was deteriorating too much for her to have any kind of quality of life if she did pull through.”
“When they removed the ventilators, she had seven strangers at her bedside while we waited at home by the phone for the doctors to call to let us know that she had passed,” Grato said. “That was the hardest part of it was not being able to be at her side, holding her hand [and] saying goodbye.”
Frothingham and Grato both said their parents would want to be remembered for their military service—both served in the Vietnam War—and for their dedication to the Western New York communities where they spent much of their lives.
"He would like to be remembered for being a family man and being an incredibly hard worker,” Frothingham said of Monahan. “He was a very proud man. He loved his country. He served his country and was active in his community. He was an upstanding citizen and a proud American."
Grato added that she will cherish the memory of her mother’s “kind, loving soul [and] her passion for helping others.”
Both families are also grappling with how to say goodbye at a time when large gatherings are still discouraged and infection numbers continue to rise across much of the country, though less in Western New York. Frothingham’s family held off on holding a celebration of Monahan’s life while Grato said her family held a very small funeral service shortly after her mother passed.
“We were only allowed 10 people in the funeral home at a time,” Grato said. “Not many people showed up. Only 10 people allowed in the chapel at the cemetery. Everybody else had to stay in their cars. Everybody had to wear a mask. It wasn't much of a service. She deserves so much more.”
And while it’s always difficult to move forward through grief, Frothingham said it’s even more complicated now because the virus is still out there.
"It's important to put names and faces with this terrible disease, especially as we think about reopening and making sure that people remain vigilant and safe because this has been a terrible experience for my family, a devastating, sudden loss,” Frothingham said. “I don't want to see more people start to go through that as we reopen and are less vigilant.”
Frothingham’s family now plans to hold a memorial ceremony in late August at St. Joseph University Parish for the man she described as the “bedrock” of her family.