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Missouri Teacher Who Died Of COVID-19 Remembered By Her Sister

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

At least six teachers have died of COVID-19 since the start of the fall semester. AshLee DeMarinis was one of them. She was a special education teacher at John Evans Middle School in Potosi, Mo., and she was 34 years old. Her sister Jennifer Heissenbuttel joined us from Deer Park, N.Y., earlier in the week.

Thank you so much for being with us.

JENNIFER HEISSENBUTTEL: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm really sorry for your loss. How is your family doing?

HEISSENBUTTEL: It's hard, especially today. Today's her birthday. Normally we would've already called her, wished her happy birthday, sang Happy Birthday to her over the phone. And it's different, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell us a little bit about your sister? I gather she had a passion for special needs education.

HEISSENBUTTEL: She was a great teacher. She taught special education at her school. She taught the kids life skills, things that they would learn, need to do everyday activities down to, like, learning how to write out a check.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where did this passion come from?

HEISSENBUTTEL: When she was younger, she had a mild form of dyslexia. And she had a lot of teachers that gave her a lot of support. And it just left an impact on her and influenced her, inspired her to be who she was.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did she talk to you about her students, about what it meant for her to be a part of their lives?

HEISSENBUTTEL: A lot of these students didn't have the support at home, and they looked up to her. She was a role model for them, somebody that they could talk to. They confided in her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And AshLee also helped youth at church.

HEISSENBUTTEL: Yes, she was very involved in church. She helped to revamp the youth program. There really wasn't much of a youth program when she started. And they said that they've had so many kids now coming, more than they've ever had before. She was very religious, and that was one thing she was very passionate about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was AshLee back at school? I mean, was she back in class yet?

HEISSENBUTTEL: She went back to start prepping her classroom and to get ready for meetings. And that's - but the students didn't return yet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, there's a big debate, obviously, about what should happen with schools. And I'm wondering what she felt prepping for a new year in the midst of a pandemic.

HEISSENBUTTEL: She was nervous going back. You know, I'm sure a lot of the teachers felt the same way. You know, it's the unknown. You don't know what to expect. In her area, the numbers weren't as high as other places. So people thought that smaller towns were safer because the numbers just weren't there. But they are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're a nurse, and you've helped COVID patients in the ICU. So you knew what your sister was up against when she fell ill.

HEISSENBUTTEL: Right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you respond to the news?

HEISSENBUTTEL: It was hard. You know, I got to see the worst of the worst of these patients. And I was hoping it wouldn't get that bad for her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You got to see AshLee while she was still in the hospital.

HEISSENBUTTEL: They were nice enough to let me come in to see her, and I was grateful to be able to spend all that time with her and her not to be all alone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was that like for you being on the other side of the bed?

HEISSENBUTTEL: It's hard being on the other side. I'm so used to the nurse being in control of everything, being able to change drips, suction, like, do all of it. And, you know, you just have to take a step back because it's not your hospital. It's different being on the other side.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell me about your last moments with her?

HEISSENBUTTEL: I just sat with her. I told her that our family loved her, that I would make sure that everything was taken care of, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I'm so sorry. You said that AshLee had a way of making everything beautiful. What does that mean?

HEISSENBUTTEL: She did things without fault. Like, she didn't want the recognition for it. She would go do something for her students or a family member. And the only satisfaction she needed was the smile on their face.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you want people to remember your sister?

HEISSENBUTTEL: That she was happy. Most people actually - they remember her smile. She had a smile on her face all the time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jennifer Heissenbuttel, whose sister AshLee DeMarinis was a teacher that died from COVID-19. Thank you very much.

HEISSENBUTTEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.