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Lives Changed: Camas family tries to move ahead after wrenching loss

It’s been over a year and a half since the COVID-19 pandemic triggered lockdowns across the Pacific Northwest. All of us have faced some level of grief in the last 18 months, whether from a loss of community, or routine, or security. But the hardship hasn’t been universally felt: some of us have lost things that make going “back to normal” an impossibility.

Sophia Stone-Holmbeck lived in Vancouver with her husband Drew and their two daughters when the pandemic began. Drew started working from home while Sophia took some time off from her job as a swim coach. They went through those small intra-family squabbles that so many of us experienced in the early months of the pandemic: it was disruptive but manageable, even a bit sweet.

“My youngest was disappointed that she couldn’t enjoy preschool again,” Sophia says. “She ended up doing a lot of the school things that her sister did: younger sister has to keep up with older sister, all the time.”

The house was beginning to feel a bit cramped though, with everyone cooped up 24 hours a day. In August of 2020, they started looking for a new place. Sophia and Drew toured a model home in a new development being built in Camas.

Here was the opportunity to build their new home from the ground up, in a better school district with more walking paths and natural spaces for the kids to explore. Drew’s parents were planning to move in so they could spend more time with the grandkids.

They weren’t planning to make any big decisions that day, but it just felt right. “Surprise surprise, we bought a house!” Sophia says.

Sophia and Drew began moving ahead with big plans for their future, despite the pandemic. They were planning to move into their new home in early 2021. But on Nov. 10, 2020, something changed. Drew wasn’t feeling well.

“He said that he was feeling tightness in his chest,” Sophia says. “A little stuffy; a little feverish.”

Sophia stayed home and the whole family began to isolate, just to be safe. Drew went to be tested; it came back positive. Sophia got tested for COVID-19 the next day, hers came back positive too. A few days later, the kids weren’t feeling well either: they both had it.

Still, no one was terribly sick: the kids’ symptoms cleared up in a few days and Drew and Sophia traded off parenting duties while the other recovered.

“We kind of continued as normal,” Sophia says. “Like: daddy didn’t feel well, mommy didn’t feel great either, but we could still do school and make it through our days.”

On the morning of Nov. 22, it finally looked like everyone in the family was beginning to feel better. Sophia had been isolating as her symptoms flared, but this was the first day she was up and about. She and Drew had just an hour to spend together that morning.

“We hadn’t touched for a few days,” Sophia says. “It was really nice to get to hold each other and talk to each other face to face.”

“That’s mainly what I remember: my last good hug.”

An hour later though, it was clear something wasn’t OK. Drew started showing symptoms of a heart attack. Drew gave the girls hugs, while Sophia called an ambulance. The next few hours are nearly impossible for Sophia to recount.

“The hospital kept me updated throughout the morning and early afternoon,” Sophia says, “and let me know that his heart had stopped a couple of times.”

At 2 p.m. on Nov. 22, 2020, Sophia received a call from the hospital. They said that Drew’s heart had stopped again. Doctors had tried for the last hour to get it going again on its own, but it wasn’t working.

Drew had died.

“It was very fast,” Sophia says. “Very fast.”

Drew’s memorial had to be delayed indefinitely because of the pandemic. Still, in the days and weeks after his death, Sophia’s community rallied around her to help support the family however they could. She works as a swim coach, and the team swooped in to make meals. Friends of Drew’s from high school came out of the woodwork to support them. It was a delicate balance of finding solace in others while minimizing the risks of in-person contact, but that network of family and friends kept them afloat.

“It’s really amazing how good people can be,” Sophia says. “His work, my work, all of our friends, our family… you’re amazing you guys.”

Sophia, heartbroken, began the process of settling into life without Drew. But she also had a huge decision to make: what should she do about the still-unbuilt house in Camas?

There were practical considerations: trying to secure financing was going to be a lot more challenging without Drew’s income.

There was also a lot of uncertainty about moving forward with the plan they’d begun together — doing it without him.

Sophia considered staying in their current home, in Vancouver. She thought about moving back to be closer to her own parents, in Iowa. But after several months of weighing all of her options, Sophia decided to push ahead with the plan the two of them had put in motion.

Sophia moved into their brand-new home, with the girls and Drew’s parents, but without Drew, in April.

Last month, Sophia was still moving in: boxes needed to be unpacked, pictures still had to go up on the walls. But this new place was already beginning to feel like home

“We’ve got our first loose tooth in the house,” she laughs, “she’s so excited, it’s amazing. I’m just focusing on the little milestones I get to see.”

Finally, in June of this year they finally felt ready to get everyone together, in-person, to remember Drew. She says it was exactly what he would have wanted.

“As much of an introvert as he could be,” Sophia says, “he really enjoyed having friends around and just sitting around and talking and eating good food. And that’s exactly what we did.”

For Sophia, there is no “back to normal;” only moving ahead, finding a new life for her and her daughters each day.

The first anniversary of Drew’s death is coming up in November, and it’s almost certain that the pandemic will still be with us. This month, a year and a half in with widespread access to vaccines, COVID-19 circulation is still near record levels in Oregon, with many hospitals operating at capacity.

Drew died of a heart attack, but the fact that he’d been sick with COVID-19 just days before is too close for Sophia to ignore. She’s angry at how we’ve dealt with the pandemic in this country. It feels personal.

“Hearing a lot of the commentary, it makes me a little disappointed,” She says.

“A little angry. That we can’t agree to take care of each other, protect those around us. And it makes me wonder: if we had taken it more seriously the first time around, if my husband would still be here to help me take care of my kids.”

Listen to Sophia Stone-Holmbeck’s story using the audio player above.

Sophia Stone-Holmbeck holds a photo taken with her husband, Drew. Drew Holmbeck had a heart attack as he was recovering from COVID-19 in 2020.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff /
Sophia Stone-Holmbeck holds a photo taken with her husband, Drew. Drew Holmbeck had a heart attack as he was recovering from COVID-19 in 2020.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting