The family of a Great Falls resident who passed away from covid-19 complications say they’re left without answers as they grieve the loss of their beloved brother.
"2020 just seemed like one of those good luck years, turns out it hasn't been good for anybody," said brother-in-law Jim Hess.
The Stukey siblings say their brother, Carl Welcome Stukey, Jr. was the fourth person in Cascade County to pass from COVID-19.
“He was a mountain of a man not in stature but in every other way possible,” said sister Bonni Hess. “And we miss him.”
The oldest sibling of eight had been living with COPD for years, and passed away unexpectedly at Benefis Health System in Great Falls August 6th. He had spent two weeks in the hospital and eventually hospice. “We are not in denial that we ultimately would have lost him to COPD,” said Bonni. “But it was not his time.”
Siblings say the reality of the virus became too real for the family- visitation was cut off and communication was limited while cards or flowers were denied for a time. “And then all of a sudden we weren’t standing there (outside his window),” said sister Tami Stukey. “We kept saying, 'Does he know it’s not because we wouldn’t be there?’”
Benefis officials say visitation is restricted for all patients with COVID-19. “Once you’re diagnosed with COVID, regardless of setting, we don’t allow visitation,” said Benefis Health System Chief Nursing Officer and Chief Operating Officer Rayn Ginnaty.
Siblings say the care that Carl received from nurses at Benefis was amazing and praised staff for risking their lives to care for their brother. But they feel administrative changes like routinizing and streamlining communication and technology needs to be considered. “We needed to be with him as best we could and that was sporadic,” said Tami.
“That was denied to us,” said Bonni.
Ginnaty says they’re prepared to handle more cases at Benefis and are willing to consider changes to ways families make requests regarding patients.
“If we were to see the numbers of patients in the hospital increase we could certainly look at other avenues to utilize tech to aid in that communication,” she said. She said the eighth floor is dedicated to housing COVID-19 patients should the area see an increase.
The family says another breakdown in the process became taking care of Carl’s last wishes. He and his wife, who had also tested positive for COVID-19,had arranged for his body to be donated to The Montana Body Donation Program in Bozeman.
But a lack of communication left the family frustrated and Carl’s final act of generosity unfulfilled. “Countless phone calls that we made to see if there was any way to have his body donated for COVID research and the answer with every phone call was we don’t know anything about that,” said Bonni.
MTN contacted the Montana Body Donation Program several times over the last week; we have not heard back yet. (UPDATE, August 20: Makenzie Fry, Program Coordinator for the Montana Body Donation Program, says they are accepting COVID-19 body donations. But she told MTN News the time frame to embalm a donor is crucial and played a role in why Carl’s body was not accepted into the program. Along with timing, weight and space restrictions also impact whether a body is accepted.)
Ginnaty also told MTN their department has not received any requests to work with or transfer donors. “Never did hear a reason as to why he wasn’t whisked away to Bozeman,” said Jim. “Was it because of the COVID? We don’t know.”
“There needs to be something in place,” said Bonni.
We checked to see what other programs around the country might be available to families who are left to fulfill similar last wishes including programs at Stanford and UCLA Health and found no major medical universities accepting covid body donations. We did talk with LSU Health in New Orleans, who said their teaching hospital is one of the only locations in the country equipped to handle COVID-19 autopsies on patients.
But spokesperson Leslie Capo said they performed the post-mortem procedure only on those who died there.
Family members say they are left to grieve without the closure Carl had intended, but say they will fulfill his final wish to help others by keeping his spirit of kindness alive and spreading awareness about their struggles.