Couple married almost 60 years dies 30 hours apart from COVID-19

Updated: Jul. 4, 2020 at 5:13 AM EDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW/CBS News) - A special photo of a Topeka, Kansas, couple in the hospital, both fighting COVID-19, is bittersweet.

Sandy and Gary Shofner's daughters hope you see it and take the coronavirus seriously.

"August 13th would have been their 60th anniversary," daughter Terri Mallioux says.

The Shofners were a classic tale of opposites attract.

Gary and Sandy Shofner would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in August.
Gary and Sandy Shofner would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in August.(WIBW/CBS News)

"My mom was one hell of a golfer. Dad sucked! He tried his hardest, and it was so cute," daughter Stacy Vobach says. "Whereas dad's hobby and passion was fishing. Mom hated that - but she would go."

They were two strong personalities.

"Dad was always the calming soul, to really all of us, and mom was the firecracker," Vobach says.

"Her feistiness was what made her who she is," Mallioux says. "They loved to travel; they both partied hard; They both loved the University of Kansas.

They were together in health and in sickness. Sandy beat breast cancer, and a severe brain injury.

"She had to learn to walk again, she had to learn to talk again," Mallioux says.

But in June, both caught COVID-19. Gary got sick first, with minor symptoms.

"In the span of six hours, everything just went to hell," Mallioux says. "His fever had spiked; his blood pressure had skyrocketed; his pulse ox had plummeted."

Days later, Sandy fell ill, too.

“They did nothing wrong,” Vobach says. “They were on lockdown since March. It just happened.”

This couple who spent precious few days apart over the past six decades were now fighting for their lives, separated, no visitors allowed. Their daughters asked the administrators at Stormont Vail Hospital in Topeka if they'd make an exception for them to be together. They agreed.

"They lowered their bed rails, they pushed their beds together so they could hold hands," Mallioux says.

She posted a photo to Facebook: Two faces of what, for many, is an invisible fight.

"I was frustrated with the mask thing," Mallioux says. "I was frustrated with the people not believing COVID, and I just sat down and I thought, you know what, I'm going to share this photo. Maybe this picture of mom and dad is going to drive the point home."

Terri posted the photo Monday and thousands of people shared it. On Tuesday afternoon, Gary Shofner passed away, his beloved wife by his side. Wednesday evening, Sandy took her last breath as well.

Vobach says she believes her mother ultimately died from not just COVID-19 but a broken hears.

"It was Gary and Sandy," she says. "They were partners for life. It's a blessing they were both called home to heaven within 30 hours."

Their daughters want people to take a serious point from their parents' story.

"This is real. This is reality," Vobach says. "Please wear a mask. Please, if you're not feeling well, don't go outside. Don't think about it as someone telling you what to do. It's just the right thing to do. I don't want any family to go through this pain of telling your loved ones goodbye via FaceTime."

“We don’t wish this upon anyone,” Mallioux says.

As much as they're dealing with loss, they hope everyone remembers the love.

"It's a relief it played out how it did," Vobach says. "I'm at peace with that because they're together."

The family calls the health workers at the hospital the true heroes of the story. They say they act as honorary family members, providing comfort and support, since families cannot be by their loved ones’ sides.

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