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‘You’re one of the lucky ones’: A nurse and her father say their goodbyes

From right, Donald Lackowski, his partner Kay Hathaway, daughter Elizabeth Seyferth and grandson Alex Seyferth.
(Elizabeth Seyferth)

As Donald Lackowski lay in a hospital bed at the Torrance Memorial Medical Center, a woman covered in protective gear from head to toe, revealing only her eyes, walked into his room.

Lackowski, who suffered from dementia, recognized his daughter, Elizabeth Seyferth, through the layers of protection.

“Liz is that you?”

“Yes Dad, I’m here and I love you.”

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“I love you, too, Liz,” he told her.

Seyferth, an operating room nurse, visited her father several times in the next few days during her breaks. While most families of COVID-19 patients are forced to connect through video calls, by phone or not at all, Lackowski and his daughter were able to say their goodbyes in person.

The 86-year-old Navy veteran died from COVID-19 on April 2. After he died, Seyferth sat with him, holding his hands and praying for nearly an hour. The other nurses cried with her.

“You’re one of the lucky ones,” they told her.

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Lackowski was a captain in the U.S. Navy, serving as an engineer for more than 35 years. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor, where he got married, and was sent to Vietnam in 1962. He registered four patents, including one for a weapon stabilizer for Navy ships, his daughter said.

In the 1970s, Lackowski was stationed in San Diego, where he settled for the next chapter of his life. He and Seyferth’s mother divorced, and he met his life partner, Kay Hathaway, while on a Sierra Club trip.

When he retired in 1994, Lackowski became one of the original docents on the Midway, which is docked in San Diego. He was also a volunteer ranger at Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park several summers, kayaking from island to island to check on residents. He loved to travel the world, but San Diego was his home.

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“He never wanted to leave San Diego because he didn’t understand how he could ever live without a Navy base nearby,” Seyferth said.

But during the Thanksgiving holiday on one of his many drives to see Seyferth, Lackowski got lost. He was diagnosed with dementia and in January, his daughter had him move to a Redondo Beach assisted living facility.

Lackowski adjusted well. He remained active and healthy. He made many friends and was the first to rise every morning to greet the facility staff.

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“He was holding court,” Seyferth said. “They were calling him captain. He was loving the happy hour.”

“One of his complaints about where he was living was, ‘There’s a lot of old people living here!’” Seyferth said. “He couldn’t wait to get out for his walk every day.”

Lackowski had been looking forward to his upcoming 86th birthday on March 22 and was disappointed when stay-at-home restrictions led to his party’s cancellation.

Seyfreth instead walked the two blocks from her home to see him through his bedroom window. She delivered his gift — a watch and his favorite cookies, Oreos — and knocked on the glass. They talked over the phone.

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A week later, on March 29, Lackowski told his daughter, “I don’t feel right.” Lackowski was hospitalized March 31.

For Seyferth, working at the same hospital with the knowledge that her sick father was in a room upstairs was difficult. She felt distracted and emotional until she was able to see him.

Less than a month after returning from a ski trip to Idaho, Charles “Chuck” Jackson was admitted to his daughter’s hospital and died of COVID-19.

When she did, Lackowski seemed to be doing well, even expressing hunger at times. He was also able to speak with his grandson by phone. He didn’t sound sick.

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“Mom, Papa said he’s OK!’” Seyferth’s son told her.

But doctors and nurses warned Seyferth his oxygen levels were gradually dropping. Lackowski had wished not to be intubated or resuscitated, so he was given morphine to handle the pain.

When he went to sleep the night of April 1, he didn’t wake up.

Upon reflection, Seyferth knows she was lucky that her father ended up at the hospital where she worked, that he recognized her and that his death was painless.

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“The fact that he turned right around and knew exactly who I was and that we exchanged how we felt about each other — I am beyond blessed,” Seyferth said. “All I can say is thank God that I had that with him.”

Lackowski will be buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii with full military honors once crowd restrictions are lifted. Lackowski is survived by his children, three grandchildren and partner.


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