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Lost On The Frontline

California Nurse Thrived In ER and ICU, But Couldn’t Survive COVID-19

Jeff Baumbach (Courtesy of the Baumbach family)

Jeff Baumbach, 57

Occupation: Nurse
Place of Work: St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton, California
Date of Death: March 31, 2020

Jeff Baumbach, 57, was a seasoned nurse of 28 years when the novel coronavirus began to circulate in California. He’d worked in the ER, the ICU and on a cardiac floor. Hepatitis and tuberculosis had been around over the years but never posed a major concern. He’d cared for patients who had tuberculosis.

Jeff and his wife, Karen Baumbach, also a nurse, initially didn’t consider it significantly riskier than challenges they’d faced for years.

“He’d worked in the ICU. He was exposed to so many things, and we never got anything,” she said. “This was just ramping up.”

One day during work, Jeff sent a sarcastic text to his wife: “I love wearing a mask every day.”

Within weeks, he would wage a difficult and steady fight against the virus that ended with a sudden collapse. Across the U.S., dozens of other health care workers have died, according to reports compiled by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News. The CDC has not yet issued a full tally, and many states have said little about how many health workers are dying.

Jeff was working at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton, California, about an hour south of Sacramento, where he was a case manager for Kaiser Permanente patients treated there. (Kaiser Health News is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

In mid-March, Jeff and his wife traveled to New York City to help their younger son, one of four adult children, settle into an apartment. As they were leaving, bars and restaurants were starting to shut down. The feeling set in that something serious was taking place.

Back home, Karen said her husband was notified that he may have been around a co-worker who tested positive for the coronavirus. Jeff would need to wear a mask. On March 23, he called in sick. The next day, he was told to get a COVID-19 test.

Jeff’s test was positive. Soon after, so was Karen’s. The couple hunkered down together at home, Karen with body aches and congestion and Jeff with a fever and cough.

Their home had been the site of countless family brunches and barbecues, for which Jeff was often the chef. It was where he solved massive jigsaw puzzles with his kids, sealed them together and put them on the ceiling of the garage.

Kaila Baumbach, 26, the last child living in their Lodi home, had moved out as a precaution. She and her dad were close. They had gotten tattoos together on a family trip to Hawaii. Hers, a peace sign. His had two large Celtic hearts and four smaller ones to represent his children. Kaila said she didn’t text or call her dad when he was sick.

“I thought he was invincible,” she said during a phone interview, through tears.

Karen took Jeff to the emergency room on March 26, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia, but chose to recuperate at home. On March 31, he collapsed in an upstairs bathroom.

“It was just like that,” Karen said. “It went downhill really fast.”

Karen called 911 and went with him to Adventist Health Lodi Memorial, the hospital where she worked. She sat in her car getting updates by phone. Kaila waited in another car.

The ventilator Jeff was connected to had little effect and he remained unresponsive.

When it seemed hopeless, Karen went in, suited with full protective medical gear, and told Jeff, her husband of 33 years, she loved him. The kids love him. And she was sorry.

“We both sat here all those days with him getting worse before my eyes and me not seeing it,” she said. “The doctor reassured me that several times people have seemed to be OK and then they just fall off and then it’s just too late.”

Karen returned home alone, still in quarantine.

The next day, Kaila organized about 50 family and loved ones to drive by the couple’s home and shine their phone flashlights to show support. Karen’s mother, Sharleen Leal, called her at 8 p.m.: “Look outside.”

Karen looked out an upstairs window. Lights from lines of cars going in both directions on the avenue shone bright. Grieving, and awash with gratitude, she cried.

This story is part of “Lost on the Frontline,” an ongoing project by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News that aims to document the lives of health care workers in the U.S. who die from COVID-19, and to investigate why so many are victims of the disease. If you have a colleague or loved one we should include, please share their story.

Related Topics

California COVID-19 Health Industry Public Health