On Wednesday afternoon, five cars filled with grieving members of Wanda DeSelle’s family and friend group rolled into Madera’s Arbor Vitae cemetery.
DeSelle died from complications of coronavirus. She apparently had contracted COVID-19 from a previous funeral.
Nobody left their cars as the casket of the 76-year-old nurse was transported by four funeral home workers from a white Cadillac hearse to the graveside. No sound, other than the humming of car engines and a distant lawnmower, could be heard as the coffin was lowered into the ground.
If anybody wept, the sound of their cries was contained within their vehicles.
As the coronavirus sweeps across the nation, not only are people dying alone in their hospital rooms, unable to say goodbye to their loved ones, they are being buried — when it’s possible — alone, too. (In many places, local health departments have delayed funerals until the pandemic has subsided.)
And funerals are often now attended by family members and co-workers who are also carrying the virus.
On Wednesday, as gray clouds moved west over the cemetery, some of those attending had been exposed at the same time, and to the same person, that likely gave DeSelle the disease. While others, including DeSelle’s daughter and pregnant granddaughter, were exposed as a result of caring for and being close to DeSelle.
“I was taking care of her,” said Maureena Silva, DeSelle’s daughter. “That’s how I got it. And then I gave it to my daughter.”
According to DeSelle’s daughters, Silva and Tonya Moe, as well as Mohammed Ashraf, the cardiovascular physician that DeSelle worked with for 40 years, she contracted the virus at the funeral of a co-worker — as did another 14 people.
On Feb. 29, Maria Rodriguez, a young nurse who worked at Ashraf’s clinic in Madera, was killed in a car accident.
On March 10, her colleagues gathered at her funeral to pay respects to her family and say goodbye.
According to Ashraf, the small crew from his office — including DeSelle — shared a table with a man who later tested positive for the virus. The man was asymptomatic at the time, Asharaf said.
“The person who had it, he was eating [at] our table. We all got exposed to it,” he said. “I didn’t even recognize that he was sick. He wasn’t coughing.”
He said no one was wearing masks, or being as cognizant of social distancing and protection as they are today. At the time, neither Gov. Gavin Newsom nor any California counties had issued social distancing orders or directives. Even so, Asharaf was feeling regrets Wednesday.
“I guess we weren’t being careful,” he said, his voice cracking.
Ashraf said that roughly 15 people who attended that funeral have since tested positive. Those people include DeSelle, another person from his office, that person’s husband, and the husband of the young woman who died in the car crash.
Sara Bosse, Madera County’s public health officer, would not confirm Ashraf’s account, citing privacy laws. She also would not confirm whether DeSelle was one of the two coronavirus deaths recorded in the county.
As of Wednesday, there are were 28 confirmed cases in Madera County.
Ashraf said that DeSelle began showing symptoms four days after the funeral.
He said that on Saturday, March 14, she complained of diarrhea and a stomachache. “She thought she’d eaten something bad,” he said.
He wasn’t too concerned, initially, he said. She didn’t have a fever or cough. But by Thursday of the following week, he was growing increasingly alarmed. He urged her to go into the emergency room, and on Friday, March 13, she submitted to blood work and was given fluids through an IV.
A week later, on March 20, things really began to deteriorate, he said. She was hospitalized on the 24th, and one week later, on March 31, she was intubated. She died April 3.
In a Toyota sedan, roughly 80 feet from DeSelle’s gravesite, Silva and Franchesca Montgomery, DeSelle’s granddaughter, watched as the casket was lowered.
Silva contracted the virus while taking care of DeSelle, and then passed it to her pregnant daughter, Montgomery, who is now five days past her due date.
Montgomery said her doctors are letting her wait out the pregnancy until she can get tested again, which will be in the next couple of days.
“I’ll have to have the baby in isolation if I don’t get a negative test,” she said. She’s already been tested twice now, but the doctors want to see two negative tests before they’ll let her give birth outside of isolation, she said.
News reports suggest that roughly 30% of negative COVID-19 tests are false.
According to Silva, Montgomery is expecting a girl.
She’s hoping that this new life will bring with her the compassion and love that her mother, DeSelle, embodied.
“She cared so much about people. She did everything she could to help,” she said.
Everett Bradford, a patient of DeSelle’s, pulled up to the cemetery to pay his respects. He said he’d called Ashraf’s office that morning and heard it was closed for a funeral.
“I knew it was Wanda,” he said, tearful. “She was such an amazing person. I called her grandma. I loved her.”
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