COVID-19 Memorial Service honors dead

Empty chairs on the Hamblen County Courthouse lawn represents those lost to COVID-19 in the county.

For 109 families in Hamblen County, life will never be the same.

That is how many have died in the county so far from COVID-19 since last March when the disease hit the United States.

Tuesday, those 109 lives were honored with a COVID-19 memorial service on the lawn of the Hamblen County Courthouse. There were 109 chairs set up, one for each person who was claimed by this disease. Most chairs had a luminaria with either the name of that person all the way to those that had “brother,” “sister” or “mother” for those who didn’t want to use names.

It was irony that the memorial was held on the day that deaths went past the 400,000 mark from COVID-19. At 5:30 p.m., church bells from nearby churches could be heard tolling for the dead.

Jaymie Rusinol and Beth Tedder got the event organized in 11 days.

“We are grateful to the community and the support you all are showing right now,” an emotional Rusinol said. “The purpose of this memorial is to be a place of remembrance of the loved ones lost during this pandemic and to encourage more public health measures that can prevent more deaths in the future. The visual for our community that we are grieving with you and we want to show that our community can pull together and get through this.”

Rusinol said those who have died were someone’s brother, sister, mother and father, dentist, judge and chaplain.

“We hope that is memorial helps to reinforce our human connections and remind us to take the steps that we need to keep people safe,” Rusinol said. “These flags, these empty chairs and luminaries represent what we’ve lost in the community.”

Brenda Swanson and Donna Smith lost their mother, Mildred Bowlin to COVID-19 Oct. 8.

“When I pulled up in the car, it was very emotional looking at the number of chairs here,” Swanson said. “It’s really sad, especially now with the vaccine, it’s a little too late for all of these dear people.”

Swanson and Smith recalled their mother as a “spunky” woman.

“She was in the Red Hatters and she loved to dress up,” Smith said. “She loved to go to church, sing music and dance. She was so much fun. Everyone loved her.”

The daughters hadn’t seen their mother since the onset of COVID-19. Bowlin contracted COVID-19 in September.

“She was taken to Morristown-Hamblen Hospital and was in there for 19 days,” Swanson said. “She had no problems with her heart or lungs, but (COVID-19) destroyed her lungs and her heart. She was on a respirator immediately.”

Smith said that MHHS allowed them to go see their mother 30 minutes a day during those days.

“For those 18 days we alternated days,” Smith said. “We got to be with our mother and touch her through gloves. We were suited up in safety equipment. We were able to touch her and be in the same room with her where we hadn’t been able to be with her at the nursing home for 6 months.”

“People don’t realize until it touches you how hard it is,” Smith said. “This is a person on each chair represented. It’s really hard when you know that it is your family member, friend or neighbors. I feel for every family that’s represented here.”