Married 60 years, COVID claims husband, wife 30 hours apart

Published: Jul. 2, 2020 at 11:28 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Sandy and Gary Shofner were true life partners.

The Topeka couple was due to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary August 13th. Their daughters, Terri Mallioux and Stacy Vobach, say they were a classic tale of opposites attract.

“My mom was one hell of a golfer. Dad sucked! He tried his hardest, and it was so cute,” Stacy said. “Whereas dad’s hobby and passion was fishing. Mom hated that - but she would go.”

Both had strong personalities. Sandy worked as a junior high school music teacher, while Gary was a civil engineer.

“Dad was always the calming soul, to really all of us, and mom was the firecracker,” Stacy says.

“Her feistiness was what made her who she is,” Terri agrees. “They loved to travel; they both partied hard; They both loved the University of Kansas.”

The women say Sandy needed that toughness through her life. She beat breast cancer and a severe brain injury from a fall.

“She had to learn to walk again, she had to learn to talk again,” Terri said.

In June, both caught COVID-19. Gary got sick first, with minor symptoms.

“In the span of six hours, everything just went to hell,” Terri said. “His fever had spiked; his blood pressure had skyrocketed; his pulse ox had plummeted.”

Days later, Sandy fell ill, too.

“They did nothing wrong,” Stacy said. “They were on lockdown since March. It just happened.”

The couple who spent precious few days apart over the past six decades were now fighting for their lives, separated, no visitors allowed. As the days went on, Terri and Stacy asked the administrators at Stormont Vail Hospital in Topeka if they’d make an exception for their parents to be moved to a room together. They agreed.

“They lowered their bed rails, they pushed their beds together so they could hold hands,” Terri said.

Terri posted a photo of her parents just like that - beds pushed together, oxygen tubes running to their faces, and hands joined together - to Facebook. A personal moment showing two faces of what, for many, is an invisible fight.

“I was frustrated with the mask thing. I frustrated with the people not believing COVID, and I just sat down and I thought, you know what - I’m going to share this photo. Maybe this picture of mom and dad is going to drive the point home,” Terri said.

Terri posted the photo Monday, and thousands of people shared it. Tuesday afternoon, Gary Shofner passed away, his beloved wife by his side. Wednesday evening, Sandy took her last breath as well. While she battled COVID, Terri and Stacy believe their mother ultimately died of a broken heart.

“They were partners for life,” Stacy said. “It’s a blessing they were both called home to heaven within 30 hours.”

The women say the outpouring of support they received it what gave them the strength to share their parents’ story. They say if it convinces even one person to use a little more caution to protect themselves against the virus, it’s worth it.

“This is real. This is reality,” Stacy said. “Please wear a mask. Please, if you’re not feeling well, don’t go outside. Don’t think about it as someone’s telling you what to do. It’s just the right thing to do. I don’t want any family to go through this pain of telling your loved ones goodbye via FaceTime.”

“We don’t wish this upon anyone,” Terri said.

Terri and Stacy also say they can never express enough appreciation for the health care workers at Stormont Vail. They say the staff became honorary family members, stepping in to offer comfort and support, since family members cannot be at their loved one’s side.

“When they stroked my mom’s hair and stroked my dad’s arms, that was coming from us. They knew the weight,” Terri said. “Those are the true heroes in this fight.”

As much as they’re dealing with loss, they hope everyone remembers the love.

“It’s a relief it played out how it did,” Stacy said. “I’m at peace with that because they’re together.”

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