COVID-19 began stealing Gwen Marie Starkey from her Missouri family nearly two years ago. It forced the retiree to spend 322 days, nearly all of 2021, hooked to an uncomfortable noisy ventilator.
But in the end, Starkey left this earth in peace, at home with family.
Starkey, 61, of Polo, north of Kansas City, died on Jan. 2, after contracting COVID-19 in February 2021. She leaves behind her husband, Troy Starkey, two daughters, four grandsons and three sisters.
Starkey caught COVID before vaccines were widely available.
“News I never wanted to share,” her daughter, April Shaver, told The Star after her mother died. “She passed on her own. She went on hospice by choice and passed in less than a week.
“It’s been terribly difficult but we had almost a year with her at home with us.”
Starkey had just retired after 30 years at the Ford Motor Co. Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo when she and several relatives got infected during a family gathering a few days before the Super Bowl. She got the worst case.
“The next day our lives changed without us even knowing it,” said Shaver. “I even told her, ‘You died the day you got COVID because you have never been the same. I’ve been grieving you for two years.”
About a month after she was hospitalized, Starkey told her family on FaceTime that she didn’t work all those years at the Ford plant just to die in a bed with COVID.
Taking on the naysayers
In the first of several stories The Star wrote about Starkey’s battle, Shaver said it shocked her to see her mother — healthy, active, an avid gardener — felled so quickly.
She had never seen her mother so helpless, her hands so gray and lifeless. She watched her mother become “a body in a bed” as life moved on around her.
Starkey’s father died while she was on the ventilator. She celebrated her 60th birthday in the hospital.
Watching her mother suffer, Shaver lost patience with the naysayers. She became so angry at people who called COVID a hoax that she posted a photo of herself holding her mom’s hand in the hospital. She wrote on Facebook: “This. Is. Covid. Please stop trying to say it’s not real.”
It was rare for COVID patients to spend that long on a ventilator. Sharkey became national news in July 2021 when Shaver appeared on “Erin Burnett OutFront” on CNN to talk about her mother’s health.
Starkey’s illness became a frustrating series of strides and setbacks, of hope and helplessness. She had collapsed lungs. Her kidneys failed.
She couldn’t speak for months after doctors tunneled into her throat with a tracheotomy tube. Sick as she was, she rode in ambulances several times, moving from one facility to another as her health waxed and waned.
She was admitted to Liberty Hospital in February 2021, transferred to Saint Luke’s in Kansas City, moved to a transitional care hospital in the Northland, returned to Saint Luke’s when she faltered, returned to Kindred Hospital Northland and entered MidAmerica Rehabilitation Hospital in Johnson County last January.
She had just come off a ventilator then, earning a “Certificate of Ventilator Liberation” certificate.
She finally returned home to Polo last February but was never able to get out of bed again, Shaver said. She was hospitalized several times during her year at home.
‘Ready to go’
Having her at home wasn’t “your usual family time,” Shaver said. Mostly, her mom just wanted “uneventful” peace and quiet.
Starkey still had to endure dialysis, riding 40 minutes back and forth to nearby Richmond three times a week. Missing an appointment sometimes led to a short hospital stay. But some days it was just too much. She chose not to go because the trip alone exhausted her.
In early December, during one of her mother’s good spells, Shaver went to Texas and got a tattoo on her right forearm: a butterfly and flowers like the ones in her mom’s garden. “Before I left she was so full of life and I was so happy because I felt like she was bouncing back,” she said. “But when I came back it felt like she was declining again.”
The timeline of Starkey’s last days “was just so bizarre,” Shaver said.
The day after Christmas, Starkey decided she wanted hospice care. The next day, Shirkey Hospice and Palliative Care from Richmond arrived. Family members said goodbye.
“I had my breakdown, confessed all my childhood secrets to her,” Shaver said. “It was happy, sad, everything you’d expect a goodbye to be.”
But her mom had a dream that God told her: “It’s not your time.” So Starkey sent hospice away.
But on Dec. 30, Starkey went to yet another dialysis session and changed her mind. She was ready to go.
On New Year’s Eve, family members said goodbye again.
On New Year’s Day, Starkey was unresponsive.
On the night of Jan. 2, she died.
“She was in so much pain. You could look at her and could just tell,” said Shaver. “When I had my heart-to-heart with her, I was sobbing, my dad was sobbing, my husband was sobbing. She was completely dry-eyed. She was ready to go. She was good with God.”
When Starkey first got sick, the family waited to take her to the hospital. Loved ones, and Starkey herself, were scared that if she was put on a ventilator she would die. They had heard horror stories about COVID patients dying on the machines.
No one wanted to take her to the hospital. She didn’t want to go either, said Shaver, who has had COVID three times. She is vaccinated and boosted.
“Had we known, we would have sent her to the hospital several days before,” Shaver told The Star.
Starkey’s husband of more than 25 years spent the last two years as her caretaker, at her bedside in all those hospital rooms, at her side at home. Shaver worries that he needs looking after now. “He went from being needed all day to sitting in a room that’s quiet and empty,” she said.
Her mom requested a party after she was gone. The family plans to have one in the summer.
“The last thing she said to me, Shaver said, was, ‘Everything is going to be OK.”