Samantha Hickey went to work that Monday in July, and by the end of the day felt rundown. The previous week, staff learned a patient had tested positive for COVID-19, and on Tuesday the 45-year-old nurse practitioner scheduled a test for herself.
It came back positive.
She had a few symptoms, but never a fever. She isolated at home with her husband and two children, none of whom tested positive. Within days her skin hurt to the touch and she lost her appetite. She and her husband, Robb, the chief deputy in charge of the county’s EMT program who had completed two years of medical school, kept up-to-date on the science behind the coronavirus. While not worried, they monitored her situation.
On Sunday, they believed Hickey was dehydrated and needed IV fluids. Hickey felt well enough to walk to the car so her husband could take her to the hospital’s emergency room. A relative came by to watch the kids. Before she left, Hickey told her son, 7, and daughter, 5, that she was going to get medicine and would be back soon.
Twelve hours later she was dead.
When her husband returned home, the children were told that “mommy had gone to heaven.”
She was young, healthy and in good shape, not the typical profile of those who die from the coronavirus. A former aerobics instructor, Hickey, known by everyone in her life as simply “Sam,” exercised, ate well and took care of herself.
“This has made our family question our faith,” said Rachel Seaman, Hickey’s sister. “I guess that’s normal.”
Hickey was born and raised in La Grande, a small town in eastern Oregon. Her father was an engineer with the Union Pacific Railroad, her mother in food services at the country club. The oldest of three daughters, Hickey was a natural caregiver, beginning as the big sister and then becoming a mother, nurse and then nurse practitioner specializing in pediatrics.
An outstanding dancer, Hickey was the La Grande High School’s dance team captain. Seaman said when Hickey graduated, the Portland Trail Blazers reached out to see if she wanted to try out for the team’s dance squad. But team officials, not realizing Hickey had graduated a year early at 17, was too young and they rescinded the offer.
She enrolled in Eastern Oregon University in La Grande and later graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. She moved to Nampa, Idaho, for her first nursing job, working in the emergency room and intensive care. In time, she married and the couple had two sons.
“Those kids were her life,” said Seaman. “She worked nights to be home with her kids during the day. She never missed a sporting event or school program.”
She later divorced and married a man who also had three grown daughters. The couple then had two children together, Reed and Blakelee. By then she earned a Master of Science in nursing from Graceland University in Independence, Missouri, and worked as a nurse practitioner at Caldwell’s St. Luke’s Children’s Pediatrics in Caldwell, Idaho.
“She took the virus seriously,” said Crystal Belcourt, a fellow nurse practitioner. “Sam did extensive research to keep up to date. She expressed frustration as the guidelines changed from day to day. She knew there were a lot of unknowns. But she did everything to protect the patients and families.”
And still …
“She was not only my co-worker, she was my mentor,” said Belcourt. “We were close friends. Sam reached out to me and texted me during the week she tested positive. She was aware she was ill, but very confident. She wasn’t concerned about herself, but about her husband and their children.”
Hickey died early the morning of July 13, and when the staff came to the office, they discovered it closed to all patients. The office manager, who had been informed, wanted the staff to be together when she broke the news.
“The most difficult thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” said Belcourt. “But we had faith in our hospital coworkers and medical team. We knew they’d done everything they could to save her.”
“She was a beautiful person who put her family first,” said Belcourt. “She spoke about her husband and children every day. She took that passion. When she had to provide a crushing diagnosis to a family, she cried with the parents to let them know they were not alone.”
Belcourt said Hickey’s death has left a hole in the lives of many families in Idaho’s Treasure Valley.
“She provided care for families for so long,” said Belcourt. “Families and children will miss her for years to come. We will, too. We still cry. That’s what makes us human. But Sam would want us to continue on for the patients.”
Hickey’s death forced her husband to request a leave of absence from medical school as he’s raising two small children and trying to help them find their way in the world.
One of her grown sons created a line of masks to keep his mother’s memory alive, and to raise funds for a nursing scholarship started in her name.
And then the family got dragged into politics when an Idaho state representative used Facebook to say that Hickey died from a cardiac complication.
“Watching the News this morning they were talking about the Idaho nurse who ‘died of COVID’ not one word about the FACT she died of a heart attack,” said Rep. Tammy Nichols. “Even the Idaho Statesman eludes that it was the heart attack that killed her. Yet even they are trying to use her death to scare us. Read the whole article. The mainstream news both local & national is nothing but lies!”
Dr. David Pate, the retired president and CEO of St. Luke’s Health System, responded: “I don’t think I have said a bad word this year … until now,” and then issued a statement:
To then dishonor this loving family, our employee, and someone who risked her life to care for others by suggesting or stating that COVID is a hoax is detestable, offensive, insensitive, outrageous, irresponsible, and just absolutely mean-spirited. If this is true (I don’t use Facebook), then Rep. Nichols you owe this family an apology for the affront to Samantha’s memory and your constituents an apology for inappropriate comments, poor leadership and disrespect of a fellow Idahoan."
Seaman said Nichols never apologized.
“It was repulsive,” she said. “The whole thing delayed our ability to heal and grieve the loss of my sister.”
Seaman said the virus has been politicized across the United States.
“It’s real,” she said. “My sister’s death certificate lists the cause as COVID-19.”
-- Tom Hallman Jr; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-221-8224; @thallmanjr
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