Those killed by COVID-19 are not just statistics. Each person made their contribution to the world – as a parent, a child, a spouse, an employee, a volunteer, a friend.
Cheryl Stedman of Fort Atkinson was one of those people who perished prematurely while still making her mark on the world as a health advocate, Lions leader, local theater enthusiast and friend to many.
Stedman’s status as a transplant recipient made her particularly vulnerable to the violent virus, and she died in late 2020 before a vaccine became available.
But her memory still serves to inspire others, and her influence will only increase with the release of a new book featuring Stedman’s story along with those of 18 others taken by COVID-19 early in the pandemic.
The book, “Voices-19: Their Legacies Live On,” is edited by Brenda E. Cortez, where each chapter is written by a different person in honor of their loved ones who died of COVID-19.
The stories pay homage to the lives lived and the legacies left behind.
Cortez was inspired to create this book after her best friend lost a loved one because of COVID-19.
The idea behind the book was to humanize the statistics and remind people that each of the COVID losses was an individual, with a face, relationships and mourners left behind.
The book is in the final release process with a release date of April 26th.
Cortez has previously written the nonfiction “Due to Organ Donation” as well as nine children’s books, including “My Mom is Having Surgery: A Kidney Story” and the children’s book series “Howl the Owl”. Howl is an acronym for “Helping Others with Love,” and his stories focus on kindness, helping others, and organ donation.
Cortez connected with David Stedman through a mutual friend, Dawn Lyons-Wood, with whom Stedmans had been involved in organ donation events. This was a matter close and dear to Cortez’s heart, and when the author decided to write a book in honor of those who had passed away from COVID-19, she turned to the Fort Atkinson resident.
Stedman had already shared Cheryl’s story in a speech at a ceremony at the Jefferson County Health Department last year, and he agreed to expand his 2021 tribute in a chapter to the new COVID-19 book.
“I’m not a writer, so I got help from a friend, Karen (Camplin) Douglas, whose father, David, had taught English at Fort Atkinson High School,” Stedman said.
The goal was not just to share facts about Cheryl’s life, as a resume or obituary, but to really get to the heart of who she was and the brand she left behind for the world.
With Douglas’ help, David Stedman divided the tribute stones into sections that covered Cheryl’s love of theater and her involvement in Fort Atkinson and Jefferson drama groups; their travels, her many volunteer roles, including serving as the first female president of the Jefferson Lions Club and more.
Another section was about Cheryl’s advocacy business for health reasons, specifically organ donation. As a kidney transplant recipient, she struggled to improve the health outcomes of others facing similar challenges.
Finally, he told the story of her battle with COVID-19, which resulted in her death in December 2020.
Knowing that Cheryl was high-risk, the couple had been very cautious, yet they both caught COVID-19 on top of the November 2020 rise at Thanksgiving time.
David recovered quickly, but Cheryl began to cough and experienced shortness of breath.
She originally stayed home, but her symptoms quickly worsened, and she was taken by ambulance to Fort Memorial Hospital in Fort Atkinson.
At that time, her oxygen levels in the blood were still good, so they sent her home, but the next morning her levels had dropped significantly and she was hospitalized.
Cheryl was quickly diagnosed with COVID pneumonia, and due to her kidney transplant and high-risk status, the decision was made to transfer her to the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison for expert treatment.
“It broke my heart, but due to COVID restrictions, I could not be with her, even for a quick visit,” Stedman wrote. “Knowing that Cheryl was battling the dreaded virus and I could not hold her hand or be by her side was the hardest thing I have ever endured.”
Stedman said he kept in constant contact with Cheryl and her doctors over the phone. But her condition continued to worsen. December 7, 2020 was the last time Stedman spoke to her over the phone, just before she was put on a respirator.
She remained in the hospital and her condition both improved and worsened over the next few weeks. On December 22, Stedman received a call that Cheryl would not be able to cope overnight.
At this point, he was allowed to visit her in the intensive care unit with protection of dresses, masks, gloves and face shields.
With my gloved hands, I stroked her hair and held her hand, ”Stedman said. “It was hard to hug her while she was still wearing a face mask and a dress.
“I laid my body as close as I could to hers, just to touch her one last time,” he said.
He stayed with her to the last. Just as her life had transformed his, so has her death changed.
“Cheryl’s passing has forced me to be more self-sufficient,” Stedman said. “It has been years since I have had to take care of my own household and pay bills and maintain a household. Cheryl had handled these things so wonderfully. “
Losing her made him realize how many things he took for granted, and he celebrates everything she added to his life, from the unusual to the everyday.
“I advise other couples to talk often about each other’s end-of-life desires,” Stedman said. “It is important for both to have a solid grip on financial and insurance information …”
It’s more than a year since Cheryl’s passing, but Stedman “still talks to” his wife every day, as everyday tasks, special occasions, and the passing of the seasons remind him of her.
He noted that he is proud that Cheryl’s memory is being honored in many ways – through a plane tree planted in her memory by the Jefferson Lions Club, the posthumous honor of the Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin’s Legacy of Sight Award for 2021, and the Melvin Jones Fellowship , the highest honor bestowed by Lions Clubs International … and now this book.
“The message of this book is to commemorate these lives and also to communicate that COVID-19 is genuine,” Stedman said.
“More than six million people have died from this disease worldwide,” he said. “But it’s not just a number. All these people had lives and a story. I hope people whose loved ones have gone from COVID-19 will continue to tell their stories.”
“Voices-19” is published by BC Books, LLC. People can learn more about the book on the Voices-19 Facebook page. Pre-order is now available online via the Facebook page and it will be available on Amazon.