LAKELAND, Fla. — Not even the risk of acquiring a possibly fatal disease could deter Sam Reck from seeing his dying wife a final time.
Three weeks after a deathbed reunion with his beloved JoAnn, Sam Reck has followed her into everlasting rest. The couple were christened as “Romeo and Juliet” for their distant visits at Florida Presbyterian Homes, where pandemic restrictions prevented closer contact.
Reck, 90, died Saturday after contracting COVID-19, the viral illness that claimed his wife on July 12, family members said. He died at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center, just as JoAnn had.
Holly Reck of Orlando, one of Sam’s two grown children, acknowledged that her father probably became infected while visiting JoAnn at the hospital.
“Most likely, and he knew the risks,” she said Monday. “There wasn’t anything any of us could have done to have talked him out of that. He would have gotten himself there one way or the other to see her. I do believe that.”
Scott Hooper, JoAnn Reck’s son from her first marriage, confirmed that.
“After Sam tested positive for COVID, I asked him if he regretted his visit to the hospital,” Hooper wrote in a Facebook post. “Without pause he replied, ‘Not one second.’ He said no matter what happens, he was very happy he had the opportunity to say goodbye and hold her hand one more time.”
Sam and JoAnn Reck, married nearly 30 years, received national attention after a May story in The Ledger described the anguish of their forced separation during the pandemic. Residents of Florida Presbyterian Homes in Lakeland, they were barred from close contact after an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended visits to nursing homes.
JoAnn Reck, 86, diagnosed with dementia about a year ago, lived in a skilled nursing area at Florida Presbyterian Homes, while Sam lived in a nearby apartment on campus. Before the governor’s order, the couple spent most waking hours together in JoAnn’s room.
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With help from the facility’s staff, Sam and JoAnn devised a way of seeing each other regularly. He would perch on a balcony outside his second-floor apartment, while she sat in a shady dining area below.
Those thrice-weekly assignations prompted the staff at Florida Presbyterian Homes to call the Recks “Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, the young lovers — prevented by family conflict from direct meetings — secretly converse at night as Juliet leans from her window to find Romeo waiting below.
In Shakespeare’s play, young Juliet takes her own life, unable to accept family dictates keeping her apart from her lover. Romeo finds her in a vault and soon drinks poison to join her in death.
Though the balcony sessions seemed a romantic way of accommodating the separation, JoAnn endured anguish and failed to understand why Sam no longer spent his days with her.
“I think they had gone through so much emotional stress the prior three months because they couldn’t see each other, really, they couldn’t touch each other,” Holly Reck said. “Even though they were able to see each other from the balcony, it wasn’t the same. My father would go every day and spend eight hours or more with her, and then COVID happened. So I think it really took an emotional toll on both of them.”
JoAnn Reck, in the courtyard, talks with her husband, Sam Reck, on the balcony at Florida Presbyterian Homes in Lakeland, Florida, in May. When Joann was moved from their apartment into the skilled nursing area of the facility, the couple were separated due to a state mandate closing nursing home visits. However, they would meet three times a week in this distant setting. (Photo: [PIERRE DUCHARME/THE LAKELAND LEDGER])
Not alone at end
In July, JoAnn Reck developed a cough and fever and displayed drowsiness, prompting her transfer to the hospital, where a test confirmed she had COVID-19. Family members decided not to have her placed on a mechanical ventilator, and instead she moved to the palliative care unit.
The hospital staff allowed family members to visit JoAnn as she neared death. A photo that Scott Hooper shared later showed Sam wearing full protective gear, including a gown, two face masks and surgical gloves.
In the photo, Sam sits beside JoAnn’s bed, staring raptly toward her upturned face. She died hours later.
After being reported in The Ledger, the story of JoAnn Reck’s death gained international attention.
Holly Reck said she had to refrain from visiting her father in the hospital because she cares for her elderly mother and feared bringing the virus into her home. She said she held daily video-chat sessions with her father after he entered the hospital July 24.
Reck expressed gratitude to Hooper and his wife, Julie, for offering to visit Sam at the hospital, where they found him in the same room in which JoAnn Reck had taken her final breaths.
“I was very appreciative because I didn’t want my dad to be alone when he passed, and thankfully they were there with him when he passed,” Holly Reck said. “So that meant a lot to me, that they were willing to risk that and be with him.”
Sam Reck spent his career working for the National Park Service at various sites in eastern states, finishing his career in Boston. After retirement in the late 1980s, he moved to Jacksonville, and at a church event he met JoAnn, who was recently widowed.
Sam, a devotee of bluegrass music, had a collection of instruments, and JoAnn embraced the genre. The couple traveled in a Winnebago to attend bluegrass festivals as far away as Canada, and they sometimes performed as Sam played guitar or banjo and JoAnn played autoharp and sang.
The couple moved to Lakeland in 2005 to be closer to their grown children in Central Florida. They lived in an apartment at Florida Presbyterian Homes before JoAnn’s dementia forced her move into the skilled nursing area.
After the governor’s order in March, Sam Reck proposed an arrangement under which he would spend all day in JoAnn’s room and return home at night, not having any contact with anyone outside the skilled nursing unit. The administration at Florida Presbyterian Homes noted that the governor’s order allowed for no exceptions.
Reck wrote directly to DeSantis at least once to plead his case and expressed disappointment at getting no response.
More than 40 elder-care centers in Polk County have reported at least one case of COVID-19 among residents or employees, and at least 143 of the county’s 271 COVID-related deaths are linked to such facilities.
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As of Monday afternoon, Florida Presbyterian Homes reported only one resident and one staff member positive with COVID-19.
“I will miss Sam greatly,” Joe Xanthopoulos, CEO and executive director of Florida Presbyterian Homes, said Monday by email. “We often had robust discussions about politics, COVID, religion. Sam was a very smart man who loved his wife and had great strength of faith.”
In his Facebook post, Hooper wrote that his mother, depressed after the death of her first husband, reluctantly accepted her pastor’s suggestion to attend a church social, at which Sam asked her to dance “and they immediately connected.”
“In the past year, my mom suffered with dementia and Sam helped her get through her daily struggle,” Hooper wrote. “She was moved into a skilled nursing floor. He would drive his scooter every morning and stay with her all day until he kissed her goodnight and went back to his room. Thank you Sam, for everything you have done for our family, and for loving my mother. We all love you. I know you are now back with my mom playing bluegrass music together.”
Holly Reck said she and her father had a meaningful conversation via FaceTime a few days before he died, when he was still alert and coherent.
“He told me he had lived a good life,” she said. “He never expected to live to 90, and the most important thing to him was that he had taken care of his family, and he let me know how much he loved all of us and I let him know how much I loved him and how much I appreciated everything he had done for me as a father through the years.”
In addition to his two grown children, Sam Reck leaves behind five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. The family is still considering plans for a service.
The cremated remains of Sam and JoAnn Reck will be interred together in a memorial garden on the campus of Florida Presbyterian Homes.
Follow Gary White on Twitter @garywhite13.
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