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‘I die a hero’: COVID-19 sweeps away matriarch in flood-ravaged mid-Michigan

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Midland — With floodwaters rising and his wife hospitalized with COVID-19, Kevin Hennig feared the worst — missing critical moments with her.

“I was worried about the bridges and the roads washing out, and I wouldn’t be able to get to her,” he said. He hurried to the parking structure at MidMichigan Medical Center in Midland, where he would spend the night in his truck.

Carrie Hennig's husband, Kevin Hennig, with daughter-in-law Savanah Eagan, son Jonathan Eagan, daughter Jessica Riggs, daughter-in-law Nicole Eagan, daughter-in-law Brooke Eagan, son Joshua Eagan and son Jereme Eagan pray together.

It was a disaster within a disaster.

Carrie Hennig, a 56-year-old respiratory therapist from Sanford, had spent a month in the intensive care unit on a ventilator after contracting the novel coronavirus, presumably while helping others to breathe.

On May 19, the Edenville Dam failed at 5:45 p.m. followed by the Sanford Dam an hour or so later. Midland was beginning to disappear. Just a few thousand feet from the rapidly rising Tittabawassee River, the MidMichigan Medical Center was in trouble. Its basement had nine feet of water.

Kevin's phone rang.

“We have to transfer her because the generator for this side of the hospital is underwater, and we know we’re going to lose power,” a nurse told him. “We don’t have (any) backup for Carrie and we have to fly her out.”

Carrie Hennig, a 56-year-old respiratory therapist from Sanford, had spent a month in the intensive care unit on a ventilator after contracting the novel coronavirus, presumably while helping others to breathe.

By 3:30 a.m., a life flight helicopter took Carrie to C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, where she would spend the final two-and-a-half weeks of her life.

Hennig's mid-Michigan family is now dealing with the aftermath of a deadly pandemic that robbed them of their matriarch following a nearly eight-week battle and a historic flood that destroyed their hometown.

And the combination of unthinkable tragedies has limited their options to celebrate her life. Several prominent restaurants, a bank, post office and shops that had been fixtures for generations in their hometown are now gone.

"Nobody was willing to take a reservation from us," said Kevin, 54, whose family now is finalizing details for a July 18 memorial. 

'I wish I could hug you one more time' 

When the coronavirus outbreak began to ramp up, Carrie relocated from her home on Sanford Lake to isolate in a camper on a 40-acre lot in nearby Beaverton that she and her husband bought to build their retirement home. 

Carrie had asthma — as do three of her children. But when the deadly respiratory virus began to hit, she refused to stay home, said daughter Jessica Riggs, 23. 

"I continually kept calling her, crying, begging her not to go back to work. I was like 'what if something happens? What about your family?'" Riggs said.

"All she replied to me is, 'if I die, then I die a hero because I'm doing what I love and I'm saving lives.'"

Carrie was obsessed with butterflies, enjoyed duck hunting and catching tadpoles with her grandchildren. She put her belief in God above all else and had a distinctive laugh — and sneeze — that made her stand out, her children said.

Carrie, who worked at Saginaw-based Covenant HealthCare, was notified of direct contact with multiple patients who initially had no symptoms but later tested positive for the virus. She had an initial negative test and continued to self-quarantine. 

She worked four out of the five days prior to her own diagnosis, including Easter Sunday. She called her husband at 4 a.m. the following day to say she had developed a fever. 

Kevin, a registered nurse, directed his wife to get tested again as soon as she could, and Riggs called her mother hourly to check in and log her symptoms. 

The family, daughter-in-law Savanah Eagan, son Jonathan Eagan, husband Kevin Hennig, daughter Jessica Riggs, daughter-in-law Nicole Eagan, daughter-in-law Brooke Eagan, son Joshua Eagan and son Jereme Eagan, of respiratory therapist Carrie Lynn Hennig, who died of COVID-19 speak of their mother and wife at her son's home in Beaverton on June 11, 2020.

The next day, Riggs traveled to her mother's makeshift campsite to drop off a care package. That's when Carrie got a call with the confirmation. She had COVID-19. 

"Me and mom looked at each other when they said it was positive and we just cried to each other," Riggs said.

Carrie told her only daughter: "I wish I could hug you one more time. I'm going to make it through, I promise. I'm not going to let this take me.'"

Covenant, which cares for patients in Michigan's northeastern lower peninsula and the Thumb, has admitted about 360 COVID-19 positive patients, said Kristin Knoll, a Covenant spokeswoman. 

Carrie was one of the 212 out of 4,700 Covenant employees to test positive. She is the only one to have died. 

Carrie's early symptoms were back pain and a fever of about 101.5 degrees. By April 15, she was struggling to breathe and was admitted to MidMichigan Medical Center in Midland. She was discharged after a couple of days but labored breathing and plummeting oxygen levels forced her to return less than six hours later. 

On April 21, the hospital — where the Hennigs both had formerly worked — moved her to the intensive care unit and she was placed on a ventilator. 

Early in her illness, Carrie was sometimes lucid while on the ventilator, writing notes, dialing her children and tapping buttons to signal that she wanted to see them and her grandchildren on FaceTime. But she also had multiple bad turns, they said.

Throughout the battle, Kevin said he "told the story as it was" by sharing multiple updates on his wife's condition on Facebook each day with friends, coworkers and relatives.

Her 32-year-old son, Jonathan Eagan, said the virus was unlike anything he'd ever seen. 

"My mom worked 16-hour days, she just had double knee replacements," he said. "Being a single mother (once), raising three boys, she was no rookie to pain."

The Sunday before she was placed on the ventilator and barely able to speak, Carrie had her final conversation with her children on FaceTime and shared her greatest concern. 

"She just wanted to make sure that the grandkids never forgot her," recalled her son, Jereme Eagan, 31.

An exemplary employee 

A mother of three sons and a daughter, Carrie pursued a degree at Delta College after Jonathan contracted a contagious respiratory virus at 1 month old. He stopped breathing and was temporarily placed on a ventilator, the family said.

Carrie's youngest sister, Cheryl Neckel, 49, said worries over the health of her children fueled her desire to become a respiratory therapist. 

She graduated in 1994 and spent 26 years as a registered respiratory therapist with home care and hospital medical systems in Grayling, West Branch, Midland, Bay City, Battle Creek, Saginaw and Grand Blanc. 

"She was very good at her job, very caring at her job, and unfortunately her job is what took her," Neckel said. "She never would have changed it if she had a chance to change it."

Carrie graduated from Delta College in 1994 and spent 26 years as a registered respiratory therapist with home care and hospital medical systems in Grayling, West Branch, Midland, Bay City, Battle Creek, Saginaw and Grand Blanc.

While Carrie was employed at Covenant only for a short time — joining last fall — she made a lasting impression, said her supervisor, Kelly Dey.

"She cared deeply about her patients and would go above and beyond for them," said Dey, the hospital's manager of pulmonary services. "Any floor that she worked on, she was an asset."

At Covenant, Carrie was one of 90 full-time respiratory therapists, medical specialists who treat a range of patients and can provide oxygen, manage ventilators and administer drugs. She was not assigned to work directly with any known COVID-19 patients, Dey said.

Covenant staff has launched an online fundraiser to help Carrie's family cover costs. 

Carrie was one of the first people Sabrina Albert met when she started working at Bay Medical Center in Bay City in 2001 after respiratory school. The pair became fast friends.

The Sunday before she was placed on the ventilator and barely able to speak, Carrie had her final conversation with her children on FaceTime and shared her greatest concern. "She just wanted to make sure that the grandkids never forgot her," recalled her son, Jereme Eagan, 31.

"We only worked together for a year, but we clicked so well together," said Albert, 51, of Saginaw, now a supervisor at Covenant. "There wasn't anything that she wouldn't do for somebody if she thought she could do it, and she always thought she could do it."

They played in softball leagues together and drove to Maine to go whale watching. Albert, who grew close with Carrie's family, was maid of honor in Carrie and Kevin's wedding. The couple met when Kevin came to work in the center's intensive care unit.

Carrie called Albert for comfort while awaiting her test results. 

"She was scared, and I tried to calm her down and tell her that it would be OK, and I would be with her through everything. Three days later, she was in the hospital," Albert said. "Before she was put on the ventilator, she texted me to thank me for being such a good friend. That was the last time I was able to talk to Carrie."

Larry Howard built a bond with Carrie while the two worked together at Bronson at Home, a Battle Creek medical agency that delivers home medical equipment.

Carrie commuted two and a half hours to Battle Creek from Sanford for the job. She would spend the workweek away from her family and return home on the weekends.

"She was a really outgoing person and that's what struck me," said Howard, 50, who lives in Ceresco near Battle Creek. "She was just a mountain mover."

Carrie's kindness earned her recognition from the company after she put together and distributed care packages with gloves, hats and toiletries to the homeless. 

"She was working full-time, had a family and was taking her own money and doing this," Howard said. "That speaks volumes to (a person's) character."

Carrie said the homeless people she interacted with in Battle Creek "touched my heart" and "I decided to do something," according to a letter she wrote that was posted along with the acknowledgment on Bronson's website. 

"Everyone that I encountered was truly grateful and almost all of them said God bless you, which was the best reward I could ask for," Carrie wrote. "My faith in the Lord is what moves me to be a better person."

Even after they parted ways, Howard said, they remained in touch on social media.

When Carrie fell ill, he and another former coworker spoke with her briefly by phone. He extended well wishes and hoped for the best.  

"I just assumed she was going to get better," Howard said. "I had no idea it was going to be as tragic as it was."

Carrie and her husband, Kevin Hennig.

'Carrie was always there'

Bridget Brooks counted Carrie as a dear friend who became like family as she helped care for Brooks' ill husband, Jason Hafelein, and joined them on a bucket list vacation when Hafelein was given just a couple months to live. 

Hafelein got sick in 2003 and was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma. He underwent a bone marrow transplant and began working with Carrie the following year during some of his pulmonary rehabilitation.

He ultimately had a double lung transplant in 2011, and his health declined rapidly, Brooks said. 

He died just over a year afterward from total lung rejection. But before that, Carrie offered to drive Hafelein and Brooks to Florida in the summer of 2012 for a dream vacation that culminated with Hafelein meeting wrestling idol Hulk Hogan.

"The whole goal of the trip was to get him to see Hulk Hogan, that was his bucket list. He actually was able to do that. Carrie made that happen," recalled Brooks, noting her late husband was a high school wrestler and an avid professional wrestling fan.

During a trip to Cocoa Beach, Brooks said, Carrie recruited a group of men playing volleyball to carry Brooks' dying husband in his wheelchair to the ocean and she helped him stand so he could put his feet into the water. 

"Anything we needed, she made sure we were comfortable, made sure we had it, and actually could enjoy our last moments together," said Brooks, 41.

She loved life 

Carrie was born in Saginaw but spent most of her life on Sanford Lake, where her parents built a home in the early 1970s.

A graduate of Meridian High School, which sits on the lake's eastern banks, she was nicknamed "precious" and was the fourth of five girls in the family. 

"She was always dancing. She was always happy. She was into everything," said her mother, Pat Jewett, 77. "She just loved life."

She was obsessed with butterflies, enjoyed duck hunting and catching tadpoles with her grandchildren. She put her belief in God above all else and had a distinctive laugh — and sneeze — that made her stand out, her children said. 

They fondly recall Kevin and Carrie's two wedding ceremonies. Riggs was unable to attend the first because she'd been admitted to the hospital the day prior for respiratory distress.

They later held a separate ceremony in the hallway of the pediatric unit, allowing Riggs to take part, wearing a nasal cannula along with the matching blue silk dresses with butterflies that she and her mother had picked out for the occasion.

Riggs, an architecture major at Lawrence Technological University, said her mother was her best friend. The pair loved to travel together. Last October, they went to Las Vegas to celebrate their birthdays, which are two days apart. 

Riggs' grandmother, Jewett, and her husband were staying in Florida with one of their daughters when the virus hit.

When they returned home, she was able to make one brief trip to see Carrie at the trailer.

"She said, 'Mom, this is absolutely horrible.' She said, 'I'm so tired, I have to go lay down,'" Jewett said. "A couple hours later, she went back into the hospital again and then she never came out."

On the night of June 4, the outcome her family had feared from the moment she refused to stop working as a respiratory therapist came true.

Carrie's four children wearing N95 masks gathered at her bedside, and her husband suited up in protective gear to hold her hand.

Jewett, her daughters and husband FaceTimed with Carrie for about an hour on her final day.

With her parents and three living sisters watching, they prayed, sang hymns and told her how much they loved her. Then, Carrie's son, Jereme, told Jewett, "it's time." 

"We would love to think that she at least heard our prayers and our hymns and goodbyes," Kevin said of his last memories at his wife's bedside. "It's the only thing that kept us all together and got us through, knowing no matter what, God was in control."

Then the ventilator that kept her alive during a nearly eight-week battle with COVID-19 was removed by an intensive care unit doctor. With her husband watching over her at 10:50 p.m., Carrie Hennig died.

The family, daughter-in-law Savanah Eagan, son Jonathan Eagan, husband Kevin Hennig, daughter Jessica Riggs, daughter-in-law Nicole Eagan, daughter-in-law Brooke Eagan, son Joshua Eagan and son Jereme Eagan, of respiratory therapist Carrie Lynn Hennig, who died of COVID-19 while at the hospital, gather and speak of their mother and wife at a family home in Beaverton, Michigan on June 11, 2020.

Moving forward

The lake around which so much of Carrie's life revolved is now gone. Their neighborhood south of the failed Edenville Dam was evacuated on the night of the flood and many homes are now stripped or condemned.

What for 96 years was a lake is now a river, with scarred banks and wreckage all around.

The flooding left nearby rural communities "like ground zero," Jonathan Eagan said.

It wiped out the baseball diamond where his son hit his first home run and the lake where the family taught generations to fish.

Carrie's family has been largely spared. They were spared so much amid so much destruction that they're reluctant to even suggest that they have been impacted by the flood.

But they can see it, Jonathan admits.

"Everything around us is all going to be changed," he said. 

At Christmas, long before anyone could imagine a pandemic or a flood, much less both, Riggs surprised her mother with a card. It touched Carrie so much she could not read it aloud.

Sitting on her mom's lap, Riggs spoke: "Dear Mom, You are the most selfless person I know. You do anything and everything for anyone. I hope to be like you."

It contained a gift: Tickets for a July trip to Ireland.

The trip was to celebrate their relationship and favorite movie, "P.S. I Love You." In it, a young bride loses her husband to a brief but fatal illness. In the depths of grief, she receives letters from her deceased husband that direct her to his Irish homeland and eventually to be open to loving again.

Carrie was overcome.

"Her dream place had been to go to Ireland," Riggs said. "I've been saving up forever to get her to go to Ireland."

Now, her brothers want to join in to make it a family trip in their mom's honor.

"I still want to go for my mom," she said.

cferretti@detroitnews.com