‘They’re still sacrificing’: One Madison veteran remembered as death toll climbs to 42 at King veterans home

Hunting alone in the woods with her husband’s picture–and his memory–is where Faye Quinlan finds solace in the chaotic aftermath of planning after his death. The flags at their shared cabin in Jackson County, far removed from her Madison home, are at half mast. It’s where Faye and Richard, her partner of almost fifty years, shared some of their happiest memories. She doesn’t care if she shoots something, she says; she’s hunting for a way to connect with him again.

“I miss him. I really miss him.”

Richard Quinlan, a disabled Vietnam War veteran of the Seabees Battalion 7405, died on November 12 of Covid-19 at the King Veterans Home in Waupaca County, one of now 42 residents to succumb to the virus. He battled dementia for several years prior to his passing, which only made the eight months of physical separation from him worse after the nursing home went into lockdown to visitors in March because of the pandemic. Faye was able to video chat him once a week; she still worried he felt forgotten.

“That was the hardest part,” she said. “In my heart I always knew that he might not know my name and he might not know that I was his wife, but I think he knew that I was somebody special.”

Faye and Richard met on a blind date in Mississippi. Raised fiercely independent in the heart of the south, she was quick to inform him he was late when he showed up, “smiling and bouncing around.” But when she tells it now, she chuckles.

“That’s okay. He had a beautiful smile, beautiful teeth.”

He hailed from Madison, and she moved to Wisconsin in 1971. As a licensed plumber, he had enlisted in the U.S. Navy Seabees and would go on to serve in the Vietnam War. He was medically discharged from the Navy, and retired in 2006 as a plumber with UW-Health. Spending time hunting and fishing together at their cabin number among her favorite memories. Her family and his are full of veterans; the family is proud of their legacy and the country they fought for.

“We fly a lot of flags here; we’re a pretty patriotic bunch,” she reflected as she stood facetiming outside of her cabin, panning her phone along a line of flags.

He’s been gone less than two weeks. The paperwork in the aftermath of his passing has been overwhelming. (“But I’ll figure it out,” she repeats firmly.) And overarching all of it: a wish that others were taking the virus seriously.

“For all of us who have had to wait and are still waiting to see our loved ones that are in nursing homes, veterans homes, wherever, it’s difficult; it’s very difficult,” she said. “I get a little upset. You go into so many places and you got young people not wearing masks and kinda joking around. Well, it’s not funny to someone who’s got a loved one who’s either passed or is suffering from covid.”

The veterans home in King, Waupaca County where her husband passed away houses more than 400 residents and about 700 staff to care for them. The outbreak that’s taken dozens of resident’s lives has mirrored the rise of cases around the state, and administrators attribute it to community spread infecting staff who have to leave the home for their family lives or, in the case of a few residents, outside medical trips.

“We are what’s between them and this virus, and we need to take those precautions seriously and protect our seniors and protect our staff who is going to work to care for them every day,” Diane Lynch said, the Homes Division Administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Veteran Affairs.

Lynch says new positive cases have slowed down and more staff are recovering than were returning new positive tests. It’s a hopeful light at the end of the tunnel of what’s been weeks of battling rising case counts and deaths. As of Wednesday, there were five active resident cases. Not long ago, that number was in the dozens.

The spread of COVID-19 has been rated by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services as critically high in recent weeks for Waupaca County and nearly every other county in the state. At one point in early November, all but one county was mapped as red. Just this week, activity has dropped slightly in Waupaca County and a few surrounding areas.

“It’s strained us. It’s strained our hospital system. It’s strained our long term care facilities. It’s strained our community,” Waupaca County health officer Jed Wohlt said. “Maybe you’re not going to get as sick, but you’ll spread Covid to someone else who’ll get more sick. It’s gonna impact somebody, especially in our long term care facilities, our most vulnerable populations.”

Inside King, Faye says she has nothing but praise for how Richard was cared for. Wohlt and Lynch say every possible safety procedure has been followed. But out in the community, where an airborne disease can so easily be caught by staff and brought inside, Faye wishes people would care more.

Trying to make sure Richard felt remembered during the long months of quarantine hadn’t been easy; keeping his memory alive now and moving forward is how she hopes to find healing.

“So many of our veterans have been forgotten,” she said. “They sacrificed. And they’re still sacrificing.”