When you walked into her hospital unit and heard a roaring, infectious laugh, you knew Donna was working.
Donna Frey was a beloved staff member at Adventist Health Lodi Memorial. On Friday, July 3, her life was cut short. At the age of 65, Frey passed away after battling complications of COVID-19, the pandemic illness that has claimed more than 135,000 American lives since March.
But Frey, who worked at the hospital for over 30 years, was more than a faceless number or statistic. Family, friends and patients she cared for remember Frey as a loving, caring and compassionate human being.
“To know Donna was to love Donna,” said coworker Danielle Pugh, a clinical nurse at the hospital. “Never in my life have I met a more genuine and pure soul, who gave herself so selflessly in providing care to others.”
Frey, a certified nursing assistant, was described by coworkers as a very loving, caring and kind person, someone who always greeted you with a warm smile or hug.
“She was truly an earth angel, and I was truly blessed to call her my friend,” Pugh said.
Frey was born on Nov. 22, 1954, to Robert and Florence McCreery, and grew up in Manteca, one of eight siblings. She faced adversity as a young adult when her mother passed. Frey, then in her 20s, took in her younger sisters, then 15 and 17 years old, and helped raise them, providing an early glimpse at what would become her career calling.
“She always gave of herself completely,” Donna’s daughter Dione Stanhope said. ”She always thought of others, never herself. Always willing to help. Always gave to her family. She was the person everyone called. It’s a big loss for the whole family.”
Frey and her husband Dennis were married for more than 40 years. They had one daughter, Stanhope, along with three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
The death of Frey marks the second time the family is struck by COVID-19 this year. Donna’s brother Fred Williams, who lived in Nevada, passed away from COVID-19 in April at the age of 79.
Frey’s career was marked by compassion, dedication and a giving spirit. Stanhope recalls her mother working at a convalescence hospital where many of the patients were on limited incomes and couldn’t afford additional services. Frey would sometimes bring home a patient’s clothes and wash them.
“It wasn’t just a job for her. She truly, truly cared about everybody,” Stanhope said, adding that her father has been receiving calls from old patients since Frey’s passing.
Melissa Black, a nurse and the manager of clinical education at Lodi Memorial, said Frey always went above and beyond the call of duty.
“She made sure her patients were taken care of, and in addition, often held their hand, or gave them a back rub. She always made sure they were loved and cared for,” Black said.
It was not uncommon to hear Frey singing to patients or finding out their entire life stories, Pugh said.
“She genuinely loved every person to cross her path,” she said. “I wish there was a way to share a little bit of her light and kindness with the world, because what we need now more than ever is to love one another, and no one did that better than my friend, Donna May. The world is a little dimmer without her light, that is for sure.”
Frey was first struck by a fever on June 14. She went to the emergency room, her daughter recalled, where she was tested for the novel coronavirus. The test was positive, and she was sent home to isolate and monitor her symptoms.
Her condition quickly deteriorated. Within days, she was back at the hospital with difficulty breathing and a fever that had spiked higher.
She was admitted to the hospital. Pneumonia had set in, her daughter said, and she was hooked up to oxygen. She was monitored closely.
For days she battled the virus. It was up and down, her daughter said.
Then, she took a turn for the worse.
“The oxygen level wasn’t where they wanted it to be, even when they were giving her as much oxygen as they could give her,” Stanhope said. “My dad had said if she needs to be intubated to do that, to help save her life. They intubated her, but she just never seemed to progress from there.”
Last week, Frey was transferred to Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz. Doctors tried everything from oxygenating her blood to putting her on dialysis, but the virus was attacking her organs and shutting down Frey’s body.
The doctors searched for people who had already recovered from COVID-19, who had antibodies, and they did find someone compatible with Frey. Stanhope herself got a slip to get tested for antibodies, having been sick in February with a cough that lingered for weeks.
But it was too late.
“I truly believe they did everything they could,” Stanhope said. “I know both hospitals really tried. She was at a point they couldn’t help her anymore.”
What brought comfort to Stanhope was knowing that her mother, at Lodi Memorial, was cared for by people who knew her and loved her.
“That definitely made me feel better about the situation,” she said. “At least when she couldn’t have us there, at least she had people there she loved. And they loved her.”
This is not normal
Early Friday morning, July 3, the call came from Dominican.
“When they feel there is nothing more they can do, they do let family come in and be with their loved one,” Stanhope said. “They knew we didn’t have much time.”
So she jumped in the car with her husband and raced to Santa Cruz. Stanhope was the only one allowed into her mother’s room. She donned full protective equipment — a gown, an N95 mask, a face shield, and gloves. She said they let her spend about an hour, perhaps an hour and a half with her mom. Stanhope’s dad, who had also tested positive for the virus but was symptom-free, joined them via FaceTime.
“I was able to say good-bye, tell her how much I loved her. And my dad — I was able to have him in the room and he could see me and my mom. And the hospital was so gracious, they let me spend around 15 to 20 minutes alone with her,” Stanhope said. “This is not a normal situation, obviously — we can’t grieve like other people grieve. You can’t see your loved ones who are suffering, you can’t hug them, kiss them, touch them, when they are as sick as they are. It was very kind of them to let us in at the end. It made it very, very real at that point. A lot of families don’t get that opportunity.”
Stanhope was there with her mom until the end.
“I hope she knows she wasn’t alone. I think that is a big fear for families of COVID patients — of them being isolated. That is a huge thing for them,” she said. “She was very fortunate in the beginning stages to be in a place she loved, her second home — Lodi Memorial Hospital. The people who were there were not only coworkers, but they were friends. I am thankful she had people she loved taking care of her. The best-case scenario in this scenario was that she was being taken care of by people who loved her, and she loved.”
Frey’s loss has already been felt deeply among the staff at Lodi Memorial.
ICU director Sarah Taylor said Frey wore her heart on her sleeve.
“She was the angel who would help these people no matter what happened. She brought light to their lives. It didn’t matter how sick they were, she brought light into their days, and I am very proud that I had such a wonderful opportunity to work with her for many, many years. She will be very missed and there is definitely a big hole in all of our hearts,” she said.