A woman who spent a month in a coma due to COVID-19 and woke up to find that her husband, father-in-law and a close friend had all died from the disease, returned to the hospital to thank the nurses who cared for her.
Karen Nascembeni, 58, from Lynnfield, Massachusetts, drove to the hospital with her husband on March 17, both sick from what they thought were sinus infections.
That day would be the last time she saw her husband, Steven Richard. Both had been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Nascembeni ended up spending 31 days in a medically induced coma and twice, she almost died, she told ABC News. When Nascembeni woke, she said she asked, "Where is my family?" and was told, "Karen, you've woken up in a completely different world."
During the weeks Nascembeni had spent in the coma, coronavirus swept across the U.S. and life changed dramatically. The theater where she worked as a general manager, and her husband as a photographer, was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. The costume department had started sewing face masks.
Both husband and wife were very sick, but Richard's condition deteriorated. As hospitals were reaching capacity in the state, Nascembeni was assigned to Richard's bed in the intensive care unit in Winchester Hospital after he was transferred to Lahey Hospital in Burlington, Massachusetts.
On March 24, Richard died. With her health worsening, Nascembeni was also sent to Lahey Hospital, and ended up again in the same ICU bed her husband had been in.
"Even when he was in a coma, he was still looking out for me," she said. Five days after Steven Richard died, his 99-year-old father Earl also passed away from COVID. And her close friend died from the disease that March.
Nascembeni left Lahey hospital on May 1 and was transferred to Spaulding Rehab Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she spent another three weeks. She took a video as she was wheeled past Lahey staff applauding her recovery. "I could not have got through it without you," she said softly. One nurse started saying, "You're amazing, you made it back from …" and Nascembeni finished her sentence with "death."
Finally, on May 21, after 65 days in medical care, Nascembeni was discharged and continued her recovery at the home of her sister Sandra McArthur.
Days later, she was surprised when over 200 friends drove by in a parade of cars to welcome her home but she said she regretted that Richard wasn't there with her.
"For me, from my perspective, to see car after car after car … There were so many people dying every day, they were fighting for me. I represented hope, that I might actually pull through," Nascembeni said.
That ambivalent mix of hope and grief led Nascembeni to share her story with others.
"[T]he pandemic was still going so strong that I felt a need to educate people," she told ABC News. "All of the interviews I did is to hopefully save another family from going through what my family had to go through." She urges people to wear masks, wash their hands, keep social distance and take COVID-19 seriously.
"In all of this, don't lose faith in humanity," she said. "Because there are so many great people out there who are willing to lend a hand to people like me. I'm really blessed. I live in a place of gratitude because if I didn't I would die of a broken heart."
On Giving Tuesday, Dec. 1, Nascembeni received a surprise letter. It was from the ICU nurses at Lahey Hospital.
"[We] were thrilled to see you in the news sharing your story of strength and gratitude after battling COVID-19," they wrote. They were delighted by her recovery, but heartbroken about her loss. In memory of Steven Richard, they had made a $500 donation in her husband's name to the North Shore Music Theatre.
Nascembeni returned to Lahey Hospital on Dec. 8 to thank the staff that cared for her.
"I just wanted to look every one of you in the eye and say thank you from the bottom of my heart for how hard you worked to save my life," she said, standing at a social distance outside the hospital.
"I have to be thankful for the 30 years I had with Steven," Nascembeni told ABC News, "not the 30 years I'm not going to have. Even in the darkest times, there's a lot to be grateful for."