By Ben Crandell
More than 60 inseparable years after taking their wedding vows, Gerald and Arline Polinsky lay in beds placed side by side at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. They were holding hands, dying from COVID-19.
Gerald Polinsky, 89, went first, at 10:29 p.m. on April 13.
Arline was watching as her husband’s body was removed from the room. It had been several years since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, but a nurse told the family Arline, 86, had a moment of clarity.
“Together, Jerry,” she said, as her husband was wheeled away.
Arline died a couple of hours later.
Jerry and Arline Polinsky lived a love story, their two daughters will tell you. But they say its tender conclusion, its intimacy, orchestrated within a pandemic-swamped hospital by total strangers, is part of a larger narrative about what binds us as humans. This epilogue is its own love story.
The Polinskys were retirees who moved to Hollywood in 2014 after 50 years in Columbia, S.C. Jerry Polinsky, a St. Louis native, was a history professor and longtime faculty member at Morris College, in Sumter, S.C., the final stop in a long association with historically black colleges in the South.
An unrepentant punster and an incurable romantic, Jerry’s annual handmade Valentines notes to Arline stretched over more than five decades and were the stuff of family legend.
“He lived for my mother, lived to please her. Even the nurses and staff said to my father, ‘Gerald, we hope we meet someone like you.’ Even in his rickety, stooped-over self — not the dashing, handsome man of 65 years ago — they could see the devotion and the romance and the special bond between them,” says daughter Joanna Berens, of Hollywood.
“My mother, she could be demanding and she had high standards, but she adored him and appreciated everything about him. They really were like hand in glove, so splendid together,” Berens says, her voice trembling. “Sorry, this never came up, but their song was ‘Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.’ My dad would play it on the piano. Sorry, I’m just remembering it.”
The couple lived about a mile from Berens, her husband, Eli, and their youngest grandchild, Samuel, at Five Star Premier Residences of Hollywood, a complex of independent-living apartments and others for assisted care. Daughter Nancy, of Pittsburgh, made sure the apartment was decorated with items from their Columbia home, a look created by Arline, an interior designer.
The Polinskys settled into a routine, becoming members of nearby Temple Solel and doting on Samuel through his high school years.
As Arline’s dementia became more pronounced, so did her dependence on her husband, who was being treated for a form of leukemia. A couple of years ago they transitioned into an assisted-living apartment at Five Star.
On the morning of April 2, an aide found Jerry on the floor unable to get himself up. He was taken to Memorial Regional Hospital, where doctors found no serious injuries and prepared to send him home. As part of discharge protocol, a nurse took Jerry’s temperature, which was normal on admittance. He had a 102 fever. He was admitted and a test was positive for the coronavirus.
Arline was immediately tested for the virus and the result was negative, Berens says.
“Then began the nightmare that so many families are experiencing. Where he is alone in a hospital room day after day after day, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 days alone,” daughter Nancy Polinsky Johnson says from her home in Pittsburgh. “And she was home without him. We were just beside ourselves.”
On April 11, Arline fell and was taken to Memorial Regional, where she showed early signs of pneumonia and a test revealed she, too, had the coronavirus.
Jerry and Arline were reunited the next day in a room under the care of Dr. Emilian Cristea and “a team of amazing nurses,” Berens says. It was Jerry’s nurse, Victoria Pain May, who got permission from her clinical manager and took charge of wheeling his bed to Arline’s room at the other end of the floor.
“I couldn’t imagine being away from my husband in a different room,” May says. “I’m a strong believer that you can feel someone’s spirit next to you. I just thought it was the right thing to do, that I had to put him in her room immediately.”
Berens says it was the beginning of a series of individual decisions made at the hospital that gave her parents’ passing, at a time of remote communication and social distance, an unexpected grace and personal compassion.
Once she got Jerry into Arline’s room, May then pushed the couple’s beds close together and lowered the railings so they could hold hands.
She and another nurse made sure Jerry and Arline knew the other was there and encouraged them to speak to each other. Arline, the more lucid of the two at the time, said aloud, “I love you.”
May says: “I leaned down and told Jerry what she said, and he mouthed ‘I love you.’ He didn’t make any sounds, but he worded it. That was really, really special.”
The 27-year-old, Plantation-raised May has been a registered nurse at Memorial Regional Hospital for nearly two years, most recently in the COVID unit. Ask her why she does what she does, and she’ll point to Jerry and Arline Polinsky.
“I could give you a really long answer but, to break it down, it’s literally what I did for those couple of days for that family,” May says. “The feeling that you get and the love that you get from the family, the appreciation, the gratefulness. It humbles you.”
It takes a special personality and skill set to provide medical care in the middle of a pandemic, and May is thankful to be on the job.
“I am actually grateful to be a nurse and to be able to be in the position of what I do,” she says. “Just to be with the patients. They’re scared. They’re afraid. And you get to be there. You get to be their advocate and you get to hold their hand while they’re dying and asking really tough questions. That’s why I do it.”
May acknowledges that a typical shift in the COVID unit is filled with raw emotions.
“You do see people declining very, very fast. It’s not normal,” she says. “You get nurses that break down into tears. We just have to lift each other up. We just have to be strong and keep on going and be there for everyone.”
Later on the day the Polinskys were reunited, as talk turned to scheduling a group phone conversation with the family, May instead offered to set up a WebEx video conference. With nurses holding an iPad up to the couple, it lasted about 90 seconds.
“It was long enough for us to tell them both we love them. My dad was in a semiconscious state, but we were able to wave to our mother. She saw us. She mouthed ‘I love you,’” Berens says.
Sister Nancy says: “We saw that they were side by side in the beds and when the nurse tilted [the iPad] down, we could see that they were holding hands. We could see Daddy was using his thumb to stroke Mummy’s hand. He was moving his thumb back and forth in a way that he always used to do. I thought, ‘He knows she’s there and he’s doing what he can to reach out to her.’”
Berens also noticed her mother’s nails.
“You can see the fresh manicure administered by the caregiver on one of her last days [at home]. Those kinds of things were important to my mom,” she says, her voice breaking. “The hair done, the manicure. It gave me comfort to know she had been groomed up until the end.”
These memories, something the hospital staff went to extra lengths to create, out of empathy and personal affection for their parents, are something the sisters hold dear.
“They gave us this gift,” Berens says.
At 11 p.m. the next night, Jerry’s night-shift nurse, Patricia Sever, called Berens to say her father had died. Sever assured Berens that her mother was being cared for by nurse Tatiana Rinchere.
“We knew what a huge burden this was for her — a total stranger having to deliver this message. And she did it with a great deal of poise and dignity, and she assured us that he did not suffer,” Berens says. “I view these as the real heroes here. These are the ones who had to do the dirty deed of being with my parents when they passed and then having to call the children! What a horrible … They didn’t sign up for that.”
A few hours later, at 3:30 a.m. on April 14, Rinchere called with the news that Arline had died. But she had something else. Did Mrs. Polinsky refer to her husband as “Jerry?” Rinchere asked.
Berens recalls: “She said, ‘I feel almost sure she said three things as your dad was being wheeled out, and shortly before she passed: “Thank you,” “together,” “Jerry.”’
“And then she was gone,” Berens says, emotion in her voice. “It was her final … She was thanking this nurse, and then referred to ‘Jerry’ and ‘together.’ We took that as an absolute sign that they would be together.”
Jerry and Arline were buried in Columbia on April 17, their coffins inches apart.
PHOTO: Gerald “Jerry” Polinsky and Arline Polinsky, his wife of 64 years. (Nancy Polinsky Johnson / Courtesy)