It was the heartbreak felt around the world. How could a healthy, vibrant teen with no underlying conditions suddenly succumb to COVID-19?
Media across the country and even overseas covered the death of 18-year-old Sarah Simental, a senior at Lincoln-Way East High School who contracted the virus just before Christmas and died Dec. 26, 2020.
Even though the coronavirus moves in mysterious ways, bouncing off some people while striking others with deadly force, teens, particularly those in good health, seemed to have a special resilience.
To this day, Sarah’s mother, Deborah, is perplexed as to how the young animal lover contracted the virus and, even more so, why “it ate through her” at lightning speed.
Her daughter was supposed to turn 20 this month. Instead, there is emptiness and loss and the nagging barnacle of how life would be today if COVID never happened.
“We all had gotten flu shots, we got annual physicals, we kept up with all vaccines. We were very proactive with our health,” Deborah Simental said. “Yet Sarah got COVID. And died. It’s an evil virus.”
Word of Sarah’s passing spread quickly. As people are wont to do, they responded with shock and that age-old question: What can I do to help?
At first, Deborah Simental was at a loss on how to direct their compassion. Then she recalled how much her daughter loved animals, particularly dogs.
Sarah had volunteered for years, surpassing her required middle school and high school community service hours, at Alsip Home and Nursery’s pet center in Frankfort.
She wanted to volunteer at PAWS Animal Shelter in Tinley Park too. In fact, mother and daughter had tried to sign up for volunteer training there but on that particular day the facility was closed to the public.
Right after came the 2020 shutdown. Students and workers retreated to the safety of their homes and set about their responsibilities remotely. Any plans to volunteer anywhere were sidelined.
But Deborah was sure once things were back to normal, her daughter would join the cause at PAWS.
“Everybody who knew Sarah knew how much she loved animals,” said Deborah, who is retired from the Illinois State Police and now works with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office’s investigations unit.
As word spread of the Simentals’ loss and the pool of mourners eager to do something grew, the family suggested they donate to PAWS in her memory.
And the universe responded.
All of a sudden, PAWS was getting an influx of donations in memory of Sarah but staff had no idea why, Deborah said.
“I thought, I’m going to have to go there and explain. The outpouring of support was more than I could ever imagine,” she said.
Candy Staros, president of the PAWS board, said, “We were getting donations from all over the country. At the time, we didn’t even know Sarah.
“But we feel like we do now,” Staros said.
The response, Staros said, has helped turn a tragedy into something positive.
“I wish Sarah would have been able to come to the orientation, like she was planning before the shutdown and before she got sick. I wish she could have become part of our shelter. But you know what? She is part of our shelter. She’s here in spirit and in our hearts,” Staros said.
And she’s in the hearts of the dogs that have benefitted from the memorials.
The money continues to come in, with proceeds from a recent walkathon still to be tabulated, but so far more than $20,000 has been sent to the shelter, enough to pay for veterinary care to get 111 healthy dogs ready for adoption.
The love has manifested in other ways too.
Behind the shelter, Deborah’s coworkers installed a custom-made bench in Sarah’s memory. It is a place where PAWS volunteers can rest while walking the dogs.
There’s a picture of Sarah’s dog, Bailey, hanging at the facility’s storage garage. Sadly, the golden doodle succumbed to cancer in August, Deborah said.
“I needed that dog to stay with me a little longer,” she said. “But I think Sarah needed him more.”
At a park near her house, Deborah said, a group of women from the Illinois State Police installed a bench dedicated to Sarah’s memory and two trees that bloom purple flowers. Purple, she said, was Sarah’s favorite color.
Alsip Nursery planted a purple Rose of Sharon in Sarah’s memory at Lincoln-Way East. The Frankfort school added a marker with her name and “Class of 2021″ on it.
Deborah said the family attended what was to be Sarah’s graduation ceremony to accept her diploma posthumously.
Mother, father and Sarah’s older brother Matthew also traveled to Washington, D.C., in September 2021 for a COVID memorial service on the National Mall. One of the nearly 1 million flags commemorating those lost to the virus was dedicated to Sarah.
Deborah added her daughter’s photo to the memorial.
By time they got home, three or four days later, COVID’s death toll was over a million.
Vaccines were not available to Sarah, said Deborah, who got hers just weeks after her daughter died.
“Had it been, trust me, we would have been lined up,” she said.
She remembers how events spiraled out of control so quickly.
Christmas was fast approaching when Deborah rushed her daughter to Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox. What had begun as mild cold symptoms escalated into excruciating upper arm pain.
Even as Sarah’s symptoms worsened, Deborah, buoyed by the medical staff’s optimism and Centers for Disease Control reports that COVID rarely struck down young people, “never went into panic mode.”
Even now, nearly two years later, COVID deaths of females ages 5 to 18 account for well under 1% of losses nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Sarah loved Christmas and her mother assured her the family would wait to celebrate until she was home.
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But the teen’s oxygen level continued to drop and she was airlifted to University of Chicago Medical Center, where she succumbed to a stroke.
The shock was tremendous, Deborah said. And now, the grief is constant.
But so is the reminder that there are good people in the world who aim to keep her daughter’s memory alive by helping animals in need.
She clings to the last words Sarah said as she was being transported to the intensive care unit.
“She said, ‘Mom, it’s gonna be OK.’”
Donna Vickroy is an award-winning reporter, editor and columnist who worked for the Daily Southtown for 38 years.