When William Kenny died of COVID-19 in his hospital bed on Easter, Carole Kenny was with him, just as she had been through 65 years of marriage, raising six children and welcoming nine grandchildren.
Their children listened in on a conference call as 89-year-old William Kenny’s ventilator was switched off and he slipped away.
Carole Kenny, 87, tested positive for the virus just before her husband died. She has been without her family in the hospital and a care facility ever since, riding out the viral-driven delirium and her grief alone.
When she recovers, Carole Kenny won’t go live alone in the house she shared with her husband. Given that 80% of the nearly 600 COVID-related deaths in Minnesota have occurred in long-term care facilities, the Kennys saw limited options for their mom. They also didn’t like the prospect of her being isolated from the family indefinitely.
“She’s been separated from us for so long,” Jeanne Kenny said. “I can’t stand to put her in a senior place where she can’t get out and we can’t get in to see her.”
Jeanne Kenny, 57, will move her mom into the Bloomington rambler she shares with her mixed-breed dog Larry a few miles south of where she grew up. The choice was easy; the move will be tougher.
Jeanne Kenny and her older sister, Marie Kenny, wanted to share their parents’ story so others wouldn’t shrug off the pandemic.
“It is a big deal,” Jeanne Kenny said. “It’s not just: You get it, you recover and you’re 100 percent. There are other outcomes.”
Marie Kenny made sure the obituary for her father listed his cause of death as COVID-19. “It’s a serious thing and it takes people you love,” she said. “It affects everybody; it’s not just some random old person you don’t know.”
Carole and William Kenny’s partnership began when they met at a dance at the University of Minnesota. William Kenny was studying for his Ph.D. in engineering. Carole was working toward a degree in occupational therapy. Two years later, they married. He went on to work at Control Data for 36 years and they were an active couple long after their children grew up.
Carole Kenny sang in the Nativity of Mary Catholic Church choir. She had weekly meetups with a group of friends. She and her husband enjoyed long-distance bike rides.
The couple hosted holidays and birthdays for their children and grandchildren at their home in the working-class heart of central Bloomington.
Until the end, William Kenny was the one to call when something needed to be fixed — a clogged fuel line on a lawn mower or a balky car. He stayed current on scientific journals. He always had an idea for making repairs, Marie Kenny said.
In recent decades, he suffered muscular weakness ultimately diagnosed as muscular dystrophy. He used a wheelchair. An aide came every morning for two hours to get him out of bed and set for the day. Carole Kenny took care of the rest. “She would go for walks. She would make bread. She would take care of the house,” Jeanne Kenny said.
His children don’t know how he became infected with the coronavirus.
Days before he became gravely ill, the family was expecting William Kenny to say the Easter prayer through an online connection from the hospital as the adult children isolated in their homes. All had been near their parents, some have been tested, but none came down with symptoms of the virus.
Instead of praying with dad, they said goodbye while apart. “You want to help your parents. You want to help your family, but nobody can be together,” Marie Kenny said.
Then came the anguish of being distanced from their mother as she struggled with the virus, not knowing how it would end. She was experiencing delirium.
They called to check on her, but conversation was tough. When she was transferred to a longer-term care facility, Marie Kenny arranged to be nearby to wave at her mom as she was wheeled into an ambulance. Mom didn’t wave back.
Then came a tough conversation with her mother’s care providers on April 20. Carole Kenny wasn’t eating. She wasn’t participating in physical therapy.
Marie Kenny said she thought over and over, “I can’t lose both my dad and my mom like this in the same month,” and “If we could only be there with her, she would probably do better.”
She feared her mom wouldn’t be able to pull out of it alone. So she was surprised within hours when her aunt called after speaking to Carole to say she sounded great.
Carole Kenny was eating and moving her legs for her physical therapist. Later that day, Marie Kenny dropped off a pumpkin cake baked by her own 13-year-old daughter. Mom later informed her she’d eaten a piece.
Marie Kenny said she asked if Carole Kenny could be wheeled downstairs on Mother’s Day so the family could greet her from a distance. She said she was told no, that it was against policy and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So they will wait a week or two, because they want Carole Kenny to receive the physical therapy she wouldn’t get at home.
That will give Jeanne Kenny, an engineer at a medical-device company working from home right now, time to prepare. She’s converted one of the three bedrooms in her rambler to an office for herself. Another will become a bedroom for her mom.
Jeanne Kenny said the house has narrow doorways that will be hard to navigate with a walker, and she will need to make adjustments to her bathroom which has a tub but no shower.
“It’s going to be hard having her here because we don’t know how much of her will come back,” Jeanne Kenny said.
Carole Kenny used to walk loops around the Bloomington dog park every Saturday with Jeanne and Larry. “I don’t know if she will be able to do that anymore,” her daughter said.
Jeanne Kenny also is concerned because she has a full-time job that requires focus. Social workers warned her that it will be difficult — if not impossible — to find professional health care aides to come into the home.
The daughters are confident that bringing mom close is what they all need.
“When she gets home and can see people, she will get emotionally stronger,” Marie Kenny said.
Their mom lost her husband but she isn’t alone, Jeanne Kenny said, adding “We’re always going to be there and we’ll help her.”