The first few times Phyllis Beatty met Stuart Goldbarg he didn’t make that big of an impression.
One meeting she recalls happened in the bar at W.A. Frost and Co. in St. Paul. That evening, Beatty and her best friend were having what she describes as a “snacky dinner” when Goldbarg walked in, accompanied by a group of friends from a local Toastmasters club.
Beatty’s best friend introduced her to Goldbarg, and later, she recalled her friend saying, “It’s really annoying. Every time I introduce you to him, you look like you’ve never met him before.” Beatty said she replied, with a laugh, “I guess he’s not that memorable.”
Later that evening, Beatty struck up a conversation with Goldbarg. She made sure her friend noticed. “I didn’t want her accusing me of ignoring him again,” she said.
From that point on, Beatty said that Goldbarg made up for his less-than-memorable first impression. Their conversation in the bar that night eventually blossomed into a romance, and the two married, living happily together for 37 years until he died Dec. 9, 2020 of COVID-19. Goldbarg was 73 years old.
For Beatty, the tragedy of her husband’s death was magnified by the fact that the virus’ highly transmissible nature meant that she couldn’t be by his side during his last days.
From the moment he was transported by ambulance to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Goldbarg and Beatty were separated. Restrictions set by the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention combined with severe PPE shortages meant that patients being treated for COVID could have no visitors in the hospital.
At first Goldbarg and Beatty spoke on the phone, but when doctors eventually put him on a respirator and he could no longer speak, the couple’s only communication was through one of two iPads available for use in the hospital’s busy ICU.
For Beatty, not being able to sit at Goldbarg’s bedside felt frustrating enough. Knowing that there were only two iPads available for all ICU patients felt tragic. While she wanted desperately to see her husband and hold his hand, she knew that there were many other families in the same situation.
“I couldn’t go visit Stuart,” Beatty said. “My only communication was through the iPad. But there wasn’t always one available.” She said she never blamed hospital workers for the shortage: Nurses and other providers ran themselves ragged to make sure that every family had access to the technology. It’s just that two iPads can only go so far.
“There was one day when I wanted to say goodnight to Stuart,” Beatty recalled. “It was 9 or 10 p.m. The iPad wasn’t available at the time. The nurse on duty said, ‘I will call you back in 10 minutes.’ He ran around the unit looking for the iPad and 10 minutes later he called me back on it. I was able to say goodnight.”
There were days when it looked like Goldbarg, who had lived with diabetes for several years, was going to pull through. But then his kidneys failed and his condition began to look dire. Through it all, Beatty knew she wanted to do something to show her appreciation for the providers who had worked so hard to care for him.
She thought about many ways to give thanks, but she kept coming around to one idea. She had been maintaining a CaringBridge site to keep friends and family updated on Goldbarg’s condition, and she decided to ask them to contribute to a fund so that they could help the hospital purchase more iPads to help patients in the ICU communicate with their loved ones.
“I thought this might be a way of providing support for the nursing staff and the doctors,” Beatty said. Having more iPads available on the unit could perhaps lift a little of the immense burden that the pandemic had forced on providers.
She remembered the nurse who ran around the hospital that night to find an iPad so she could say goodnight to her husband. “Nurses are busy,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to put their attention to finding an iPad. They should always have one available when they need it.”
One of the things that Beatty admired most about her husband was the way he chose to live his life.
“He took care to live intentionally and to not regret anything,” she said. “He really lived a full life,”
Goldbarg’s idea of a full life didn’t include many of the traditional measures of success. “He didn’t put much stock in jobs,” Beatty said. “He was not driven by earning money. He was a writer of crime novels. He dabbled in antiquing. He was a deli manager. He didn’t really have a profession.” (In his own LinkedIn profile, Goldbarg described his career in a poetic manner, saying he had worked in “criminal law as an investigator and writer of ingenious briefs and appeals,” and added that he was, “intellectually adventurous with a wry sense of humor.”)
During his funeral, which was livestreamed online, Beatty said that Goldbarg’s rabbi found a good word to describe him. “She used the term ‘renaissance,’” Beatty recalled. “That’s a word people throw out, but he really was a renaissance guy. He was creative, thoughtful, provocative and tender.”
Goldbarg felt strongly that all people have a right to a safe and affordable home, and he was not afraid to act on this conviction. Beatty witnessed that belief in action many times.
“One day, in the first five years of our marriage, Stuart met this guy who was homeless,” she said. “He asked me if it was OK if he stayed with us. I said, ‘If you think it is an important thing to do, then fine.’ He lived with us for three or four months, then he left.” Over the course of their long marriage, Goldbarg invited other people to stay with them, including a neighbor who’d broken up with his wife and had been booted out of the house.
“That was part of Stuart’s way of being in the world,” Beatty said. “He was sensitive to other people’s troubles.”
Beatty said that over the years she and Goldbarg enjoyed going on adventures, even when those adventures didn’t take them very far. “We loved to get in the car and just go somewhere,” she said. “It didn’t matter where we were going. We often didn’t have a destination. Sometimes we’d drive to Stillwater, head out on highway 61, cross over and head down 35 on the Wisconsin side of the river. We’d just flip a coin, go somewhere and hang out.”
Beatty is clearly not a person prone to platitudes, but she paused and thought carefully before continuing. “People like to use the expression ‘soulmate,’” she said. “I don’t usually use that expression, but in talking with you now I’m thinking, I don’t know. Maybe Stuart and I were soulmates.”
One way to say thank you
During Goldbarg’s hospital stay, his isolated death and the lonely days that followed, Beatty felt driven to say thank you to all the hospital workers who cared for him while she could not.
One of those people was Paula Skarda, M.D., Goldbarg’s primary care physician of 25 years and a hospitalist at Regions. Skarda was on duty at the hospital one day when she saw that Goldbarg was in the ICU. She took over his care, and called Beatty with regular updates.
Skarda said she witnessed how the iPads helped the couple communicate when they were forced to be apart: “Every day while Stuart was in the hospital, Phyllis would call in on the iPad and just read to him, which was quite touching. She’d say goodnight and then do it again the next day.”
Skarda said that Beatty told her she wanted to do something to thank providers for their hard work. “She was one of those people who was constantly asking how they could help us,” she recalled. “You feel horrible for these families. You are able to be there all the time and yet they are not. Stuart was gravely ill and Phyllis would say to me, ‘What can I do for the staff?’”
Beatty explained that her focus on thanking hospital staff came from her sincere gratitude that they were willing to step in and care for her husband when she couldn’t. “Who else could love him?” Beatty asked. “I couldn’t be there.” In her absence, she said, nurses and doctors “brought really tender, loving care to Stuart.”
Skarda said she knew she wanted to be there to support her longtime patient and his wife. In difficult moments, she did her best to bridge the gap forced by visitation rules. Beatty told her she appreciated all she was doing for her husband.
“Phyllis would say to me, ‘It is OK because you’re holding his hand today,’” Skarda said. “It is heartbreaking because you don’t want to be the one holding his hand. You want it to be his wife.”
When it became clear that Goldbarg was going to die, Beatty asked his rabbi to perform vidui, a prayer of confession offered by a rabbi on behalf of the person as death approaches. The rabbi couldn’t be there in person, but the hospital allowed Beatty in for the ritual. She and Skarda sat together at his bedside.
It the prayer was done over the iPad. Skarda said. “It didn’t feel cheap. It actually felt intimate and genuine. It was Phyllis, myself and Stuart. The rabbi was on the iPad.”
On Goldbarg’s CaringBridge site, Beatty let his many friends and family members know about her plans and how they could contribute to the iPad fund. “I put it out there that this need existed,” she said. “There was a very large CaringBridge community. People said, ‘I’d contribute to that,’ and all of the sudden the checks started coming in.”
Once she’d collected the donations, Beatty presented them to staff at the Regions Hospital Foundation. Julie Schimelpfenig, director of major and planned giving for the foundation, said that the funds raised went to buy four iPads for the hospital’s ICU. Beatty wasn’t the only grateful family member who raised money for technology, she added: Before the pandemic hit, Regions had no iPads. Today there are 43, and every clinical unit in the hospital has at least one iPad that can be used to connect patients with family members.
“I think a patient and their families receive a deep level of satisfaction when they can give back,” Schimelpfenig said.
Beatty said she is pleased that a group of people who loved Goldbarg were able to do something that will help others stay connected to their loved ones.
Her husband, she said, “was an ordinary guy who lived an ordinary life in an ordinary house with an ordinary wife. He was not exceptional, not a gold-medal winner or a Pulitzer Prize-winner or even a Ph.D.”
But being ordinary doesn’t mean a person can’t have an impact on the world.
“Over time, ordinary people do extraordinary things,” Beatty said. When she gave her gift to the hospital, she said she wanted to make that clear: “Ordinary people need to know that they can make a difference, that there are extraordinary ways to contribute.”