A Beloved Father of Six and Veteran Lost to Covid-19
Don Spitko was in the Marine Corps, and then worked at Philadelphia electric for over 30 years. His daughters tell his story
Today, our Wake-Up Call newsletter is telling the story of Don Spitko, a beloved veteran, husband, and father, who died at age 81 from Covid-19 in Pennsylvania.
Don Spitko, a Marine Corps veteran, was a “fixer” and a “helper.” “He would lend a helping hand anytime, to anybody who needed it,” his daughter Sharon told us. “My dad was one of those people who would stop at the side of the road and help anybody whose car broke down, and stay with that person until their family came.”
Don served in the Marine Corps in the 1950s, both in the U.S. and in countries like Spain. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, he and his wife met and planted their family there. He worked “long shifts” at Philadelphia Electric’s electricity-generating power stations for over 30 years, raising six children.
The couple had five girls in a row — they became known in the neighborhood as the “Spitko girls.” Their younger brother came last.
“My dad pretty much taught us everything we needed to know,” Sharon said. “So that we, if we were ever on our own, we could do whatever we needed to, [like] changing oil in a car. We helped build the addition onto our house. He had all five of us girls up there. We were on the roof, we spackled, we did drywall.”
Right after his 81st birthday on March 13, Don began feeling ill. Unlike many Covid-19 patients, he didn’t have a cough or a sore throat. He mainly exhibited a low-grade fever and gastrointestinal issues. Tests for flu and strep came back negative, and doctors at an urgent care center said he likely had some type of viral infection — but didn’t mention coronavirus.
His daughter, Sharon, signed him up for a test anyway. He was tested on March 22. But before he even received a positive result, his condition deteriorated and he was rushed to the Emergency Room at Einstein Medical Center. Spitko was intubated within 12 hours of his arrival. Five others in his family later tested positive for Covid-19.
Two of Don’s daughters — Tammi and Michele — worked at that same hospital as nurses. When Covid-19 hit, Tammi was in charge of doing temperature checks and picking up PPE on the floor to be sanitized.
“It’s bizarre seeing everybody en masse just roaming the hospitals, not being able to touch people, you know, just doing air hugs,” Tammi said.
Despite working in the same place, his two daughters were not allowed to see Don. “I just wanted to stand outside his door,” Tammi said. “And I was told by our vice president, ‘No, we have a no visitor policy.’ That applied to family as well, which was very heartbreaking because I really didn’t want to cause any issues. I really just want to stand by his door and really say a prayer to him and just see his face, because at this point we weren’t able to see him at all.”
Nevertheless, Tammi and her sister, Michelle, and the rest of their family, kept up with the doctors and nurses to make sure he was getting the best treatment possible. They tried all types of medications, including malaria and rheumatoid arthritis drugs.
Don remained on a ventilator for 28 days. As his condition remained unstable, the family realized they had to make a decision to extubate him from afar. “It was the final blow to each and every one of us because all we wanted to do was just touch this man and say our goodbyes in person,” Tammi said.
They wanted someone who had taken care of Don during his fight against Covid-19, to be in the room with him when he extubated. They asked a nurse they had formed a special bond with, also named Tammy. She said yes.
“We asked for her to be there. It was her day off, and she actually came in on her day off, to be part of our family, [for] the whole seven hours,” Tammi said. “At one point she wanted to give us privacy because it was such a personal moment, and we told her that she didn’t have to leave, that she’s a part of our family.”
Each of his family members was able to say their goodbyes via FaceTime on an iPad, before Don passed away on April 20, at the age of 81. He would’ve celebrated his 57th wedding anniversary this year.
After, Tammy, the nurse, gave the entire family cards with his fingerprints, imprinted with the words: “…the imprint you left will never fade from my heart.”
The Spitkos were able to have a procession for their father. And now in his honor, they’re donating iPads engraved with his name to the hospital that took care of him. (Donate here to support their fund.)
Around the time of her father’s death, Tammi was furloughed from her job at the hospital. We spoke with her and Sharon in early May, as states began reopening or discussing plans of reopening. “I’m not ready for that,” Tammi said. “I’d rather be out of a job for another month or two and be safe. I really think that this is going to rebound. This is going to come back and hit us again if we open up too soon.”
“It’s the people who haven’t lost family members… that are running around here,” she added. “I think until it actually touches close to home, and it affects ones that you love, you’re not going to understand the impact that it has on a family as a whole.”
Our hearts are with Sharon, and Don’s loved ones at this time.
This appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.