‘I knew I needed to fight’: Shelton library director recalls near-death COVID experience

Photo of Brian Gioiele

SHELTON — Joan Stokes will never again take life for granted — especially after being so close to death.

Stokes, director of the city’s Plumb Memorial Library, was among eight staffers that tested positive for COVID last month. Longtime maintenance employee Gregory Sember died from complications related to having the virus, and the library was shuttered on Jan. 11, with reopening planned for this past Tuesday.

In all, five people associated with the library were hospitalized. Among them was Stokes, who credited the hospital personnel at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury for saving her life.

“Day 7, 8, 9, with this virus, you feel like you are all better, then it hits you like a freight train,” Stokes said of the impact of COVID on her and thousands of others in the state.

With oxygen levels dropping quickly, Stokes was taken to Saint Mary’s Hospital on Jan. 19, where she learned how close she was to losing her life.

Stokes said being so close to death “really makes you think about all the good in your life. You really look past the everyday problems ... they all go away. I was just saying to myself, ‘I have to breath.’ ‘I have to live.’

“I have my husband ... we’ve been together 43 years, my kids, my grand kids, my job … I love my job here. I knew I needed to fight to get back to my life. I love my life,” Stokes added.

From what staffers can recount, Sember, who was the first to test positive in early January, had been working on Jan. 4 and 5 in an area of Plumb Memorial Library where he had no contact with the public. He tested positive later that week, Stokes said.

Stokes said she felt fine throughout the week but had a low-grade fever starting on Saturday, Jan. 9. She said she continued to feel “fine” the next day, but since she still had a low-grade fever, family members urged her to get tested.

Stokes learned on Jan. 11 she had tested positive for COVID, as did other staffers, leading Mayor Mark Lauretti to immediately close the library, at first until Jan. 19.

Over the ensuing days, another seven staffers tested positive, with some of their family members as well. Some, including Stokes, ended up being hospitalized. After the 59-year-old Sember died on Jan. 20, city officials stated the library would be closed indefinitely.

“(COVID) decimated us,” Stokes recalled.

Stokes said it was not until eight days after her positive test when she began feeling “a little hitchy” in her chest. Twelve hours later, she said she thought she felt fine, but when her daughter, Kate Bush, a registered nurse, came to drop off groceries for her quarantining parents, she noticed Stokes’ lips were blue.

Stokes said her daughter used an oxygenator she had on hand to test Stokes’ oxygen levels. The test showed that Stokes’ oxygen level was at 74, leading Bush to immediately bring her mother to Saint Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury where she works.

“I had been sitting up, took a nap, I felt fine … I thought I was on the way to recovery and ready to go back to work,” Stokes said. “The doctor told me had I not been brought to the hospital, I would not have lived through the night. They said I would have fallen asleep and never woken up.”

That is when Stokes’ fight began.

Doctors asked to intubate her, which she adamantly refused, asking instead what she needed to do to avoid intubation and still survive.

She said the doctor told her she must remain prone on her stomach, with the oxygen machine, all the wires and IVs still attached, for several hours a day to aid in her breathing. Stokes said she lay on her stomach, moving nothing, not even her head, for six hours during the day, six hours at night.

“It opens up the lungs,” she said. “It saved my life.”

The oxygen machine, which ran continuously to aid in her breathing, was so loud, she could not hear anything. Stokes said, to pass the time while laying on her stomach, she would, in her head, list the states in alphabetical order, backwards and forward; count to 1,000 by 7s; and recall memories of her family.

“In my head, I would go through every room in my house and think about what is in every room, every drawer,” Stokes said about another way she kept cognizant during the ordeal.

So appreciative of the hospital’s doctors and nurses, Stokes wrote a letter to the editor of the Waterbury newspaper, saying the staff “gave me the tools I needed to save my life, taking care of me and cheering me on. We hear and read so much about our frontline workers — I feel so privileged to have watched them all in action, daily and hourly. I simply will never forget it.”

She was hospitalized for 12 days, 10 days in critical care. She was released from the hospital on Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. While she is home, she has not yet been cleared to return to work, meaning she will not be there for the reopening on Tuesday.

But she was confident her staff had Tuesday’s reopening under control.

“I am so blessed to work with such dedicated people,” Stokes said, adding that the Library Board was also incredibly supportive during this difficult time.

Plumb Memorial Library reopened on Tuesday, Feb. 16. Hours will be Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.. Curbside pickup will be available. For more information, visit https://sheltonlibrarysystem.org/