Nicole Sperry stepped into the cramped ICU room and for a few surreal moments felt she as if she had walked into an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
“I heard somebody say ‘the defibrillator,’ and how much epinephrine they need to give her and ‘chest compression,’” the 40-year-old school teacher recalled.
Then the medical team began to step away, and a doctor started toward her.
“That’s when they said she was gone,” Nicole recalled.
Nicole gazed down where her 10-year daughter, Teresa, lay dead five days after exhibiting the first signs she had been infected by a virus that people are still trying to say does not affect kids. Somebody now wheeled a computer chair up to what had become her child’s deathbed.
“Because I couldn’t stand,” Nicole said. “So I kind of scooted myself in and I’m sitting there next to her just in shock and crying. I don’t even know how much time passed.”
She had left her phone in the waiting room where she had been led after racing from the school where she teaches third grade to Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Virginia. Her husband, Jeff, called from home to say Teresa had suddenly stopped breathing and had been taken away in an ambulance. He stayed at the house to watch their three boys.
Somebody now fetched her phone and she called Jeff to tell him that Teresa had been beyond saving.
“He told the boys, and I told him to put me on speaker so they could hear me, too,” the mother remembered. “It broke my heart. They were all crying.”
When she got off the phone, the nurses began making ink prints of Teresa’s hands on paper.
“I got to help with some of those,” the mother said. “They did molds of her footprints for us. They let me braid up a lock of her hair and I cut that off.”
“And then they asked if I wanted to help clean her up. I couldn’t clean the rest of the body, but I did clean her face. They took all the tape and stuff off and they gave me the cloths.”
Nicole set to washing the face that looked so much like her own, that had seemed incapable of forming a mean expression and always filled with empathy upon witnessing pain in others. She removed every trace of adhesive.
“I made sure to get everything that was on there off,” Nicole said. “I told them I wanted to do as much as I could for her.”
Nicole had been there maybe four hours when she decided the time had come for her to step away.
“Her lips started changing colors,” Nicole recalled. “She started getting colder. I didn't want her to be out. I wanted her to be taken care of.”
Nicole rose and the longest steps she had ever taken took her away from her daughter. The mother started down the hallway into a world transformed.
“Walking in the same hall that I walked to go see her, everything just looked different,” she said. “I’m sure that’s how any parent that lost their child, especially when they’re young, feels. You just look at stuff you’ve always looked at and it doesn’t seem the way it was just a couple of minutes ago.”
Nicole called to ask a co-worker to pick her up. The co-worker happened to be at the Sept. 27 meeting of the Chesapeake School Board, which oversees the school where they both teach, and said she was glad to be leaving. Some of the people who were making public comments at the meeting were anti-maskers saying such things as “COVID is over” and “Deaths and hospitalizations are dropping like a stone” and “Car accidents cause more death and injury in this area than that, but we aren't mandating people to give up driving, are we?” And they were saying it not 10 miles away from where Teresa lay, no more than two hours after she died.
“When my co-worker told me that, I’m like, ‘If what they’re saying is true, I wouldn’t be sitting next to my daughter right now,’' Nicole said. “I don’t like wearing masks. Heaven knows they rub behind my ears and I try to wear them the right way and I wear glasses. I hate it. And teaching third grade, trying to teach phonics and things like that behind a mask, having to wear a little microphone so they can hear you louder, that is not how I want to live. But I do it because we want to make sure people are safe.”
The friend took home Nicole, who went on Facebook.
“We are home. But we left a huge piece of our hearts at CHKD. It hurts so much to not have her here. To see her name that I painted on her door a few years ago when we painted her room. To see her cat walking around the house knowing that my diva is never coming back.”
Nicole had come to understand that too many people who hear that somebody has died of COVID-related complications immediately seek to say that the cause was not really the virus but some other health issue.
“And I want to explain by complications that her heart just gave up,” she wrote. “Our daughter was perfectly healthy. And would have continued to be here if people would have stopped sending their sick kids to school.”
Nicole noted something that Teresa had told her father when he picked her up at school the Thursday before she died. They were only now coming to realize its possible significance.
“Her teacher at Hillpoint gave her the job of ‘nurse’. She was required to walk all sick students in her class to the nurse’s office.”
The Sperry family had understood from the start the importance of doing whatever you can to mitigate COVID-19. Both parents became fully vaccinated at their earliest opportunity. The two older boys had gotten the shot as soon as they were eligible.. And they had worn masks. Teresa had done so even when playing outdoors with two other little girls down the street.
“We did everything we could have done and now we’ve lost a part of our hearts,” Nicole now wrote. “COVID is real and it doesn’t care who it takes. If you are still under the delusion that it’s not then you can gladly unfriend me and I can guarantee you that I won’t miss you.”
The next day, Sept. 28, Nicole saw a letter by the superintendent of the Suffolk School District, announcing the death of an unnamed student at Hillcrest Elementary, where Teresa had entered the fifth grade. Nicole posted the letter on Facebook, and wrote:
That was easy to compose because what we all need to do is so maddeningly simple. The obituary she wrote for Teresa was infinitely harder.
“Her name is Teresa Makenzie Sperry... My beautiful girl was taken from me because people are too damn selfish to care about what could happen to others. I wasn’t. We weren’t. We wore our mask because there are too many in our tribe who are at risk. My daughter was not at risk. And now she is gone. .. Want to know what you can do to honor my lovely girl?
“Wear a damn mask!
“And most importantly stop complaining and keep your sick kids at home.
“Because in the end you will still get to hug yours.
“Teresa Makenzie Sperry entered this world on February 22, 2011 and left us on September 27, 2021 at 4:46 p.m. due to complications from Covid-19. In her brief 10 years on this Earth, Teresa was a ray of light and positivity to many. She was a friend to all even to those that would bully her. Teresa had an appreciation for the arts. She loved drawing, dancing at home, and singing. She was an active Girl Scout with Troop 313 in Suffolk, Va. She attended her meetings virtually or in person when it was safe to do so. Teresa was proud to be a Husky at Hillpoint Elementary School where she attended since September 8, 2015 with the Early Start program. After the shutdowns, Teresa started to learn how to sew. She wanted to learn how to make clothing and her family would joke that she would need to be her mother’s personal designer. She was a daddy’s girl in every step of the way. Teresa leaves behind her father Jeff, mother Nicole, three protective brothers: Jonathan (16), Sean (14), and Michael (9).”
Niocle went on, “Covid-19 took her away from us as quickly as she started showing symptoms. And her heart that was large enough to care about everyone she met was not strong enough to stay with us.”
The obituary noted that services for Teresa will be held at the Altmeyer Funeral Home in Virginia Beach at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10, followed by the burial at Holly Lawn Cemetery, and the celebration of her life at adjoining Lake Meade Park. Those who attend are asked to “have a mask on” and “please wear your favorite color.”
“She would say purple, because it’s mine,” Nicole said when asked for Teresa’s favorite. “When she painted her room, she chose purple. But she loved all colors.”
Teresa also loved music and some of her many favorites will be played at the funeral home. She particularly liked Billie Eilish and would go around the house playing the singer’s hits on an iPad, singing along as the lyrics scrolled across the screen.
And Teresa loved her kitten, Missy, who seemed to feel the same way about ther.
“You almost wish you could talk to animals, be able to explain to them,” Nicole told The Daily Beast. “Sometimes the cat runs around the house and I think she is still waiting for Teresa to come home. All of us try to go and give her all the love we can, just like Teresa did.”
But Nicole knows it is not the same.
“We’ll all be giving her scratches, stuff like that, but she doesn't lie down next to us like she did with Teresa. When we call her name, she doesn’t come to us. When Teresa called, ‘Missy, Missy,’ the next thing you know, the cat would be running down the hall to Teresa’s room and jump on her bed. They were definitely the perfect match.”
Nicole says that she was initially just venting her fury when she started sharing Teresa’s story online and with the media. But then people began to tell her that it prompted them to change their views on masks and vaccine.
“If we know that she is continuing to change people's minds and convince them to wear their masks, wear it right, vaccine if you can...” Nicole said. “We just want people to care about people like she cared about people. There’s too many people who don't know how to show empathy to other people. They say they have empathy, but they don’t.”
She added, “It takes a lot more energy to be cruel and hurtful than it does to show compassion for somebody.”
She also offered a warning that Teresa left us with her sudden, heart-wrenching departure.
“COVID doesn’t care,” she said. “It takes whoever it wants whenever it wants.”