FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – When Army spouse Marti Kubena received her COVID-19 vaccine March 11, she thought of her mom, Sharon Elaine Kiel Sebesta.
“For my mom. I’m in awe of the science behind the little Band-Aid on my arm today and wish desperately we could have gotten this for her in January,” she posted on her Facebook page.
Sebesta, 62, died from COVID-19 Jan. 24. Two months before she could have received the vaccine. That was all Marti could think about when she received her shot at Fort Campbell. Friends and Family responded to her post that they also thought of Sebesta while receiving their vaccine.
“You never expect something like this to come your way,” she said. “Everything we’ve been through with my mom, watching what she went through and being there on the day she died, you just really start to see the impact of why it’s so important to get vaccinated.”
As a result, Marti has spent the last several months promoting the vaccines with strong support from her husband, Capt. Bryan Kubena, 626th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
From a Soldier’s perspective, getting vaccinated also represents a commitment to the Army’s mission and values, Bryan said.
“Everyone joins the military for a different reason,” he said.
“But once we do join, we all agree that our duty is to serve the people of the United States,” he said. “More than that, I would say that I want to protect the ones I love, and the best way to do that right now is to get vaccinated.”
Bryan is the 626th BSB physician assistant and is currently preparing to join his unit in Orlando, Florida, to support the whole-of-government vaccination effort if their mission is extended. 626th BSB originally deployed to Orlando Feb. 26 in response to requests from the state of Florida and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The orders that came down for the vaccine support teams actually came down while I was on emergency leave the week my mother-in-law died,” he said. “I counseled several of the medics who were going to be on the mission, and I’ve given several COVID-19 classes since they left to the rest of the Soldiers here.”
3rd BCT’s physician assistant is currently filling in on the deployment, but Bryan is more than ready to take his Family’s fight against COVID-19 to the front lines.
“I think he was afraid at first to tell me about the deployment,” Marti said. “Not just that he wanted to go, but that he felt like he needed to be here for me because it was a few weeks out from my mom dying. There was one night that he was like, ‘I want to do this.’ And I said, ‘I want you to do this.’”
The two reached that agreement because anything they can do to help stamp out the virus is a way to honor Sebesta’s memory, Marti said.
COVID-19 hits home
Sebesta lived her life to care for her Family, and you didn’t have to be blood-related to be a part of it.
“We had all these kids in our house growing up because there were five siblings, and she was always babysitting to help out other people,” Marti said. “She took care of everybody, and if she couldn’t physically take care of you, she was going to donate money or send food. She was the backbone of the Family, and she kept everybody together.”
Sebesta continued playing that role in the pandemic’s early stages, traveling from her home in Texas to visit and check on the Kubenas around the time the first COVID-19 cases had been identified in the U.S. while she also sewed boxes full of homemade face masks.
Life for the Family remained normal until the morning of Dec. 29, 2020, when Sebesta woke up in her Texas home confused, disoriented and unable to communicate properly. Fortunately, one of Marti’s sisters who lived with her took Sebesta to a local hospital.
The trip to the emergency room ruled out COVID-19 or a stroke. Doctors found signs of a urinary tract infection they believed could be causing the symptoms. Sebesta remained in the hospital until Jan. 7 as the infection cleared, but her symptoms remained and more tests proved inconclusive.
“She was home for one day, and it took two of my sisters and one of their spouses to get her through that day,” Marti said. “She wasn’t able to tell anybody when she was hungry or needed to go to the bathroom, so it was kind of like having a big toddler at home. We quickly realized as a Family that this wasn’t going to work, so we called her primary care provider.”
After another round of stroke symptoms Jan. 8, Sebesta was admitted into a second hospital. Doctors still couldn’t identify the cause, and multiple COVID-19 tests came back negative.
“They did all these tests, and I honestly think there was some element of stroke involved that wasn’t showing up well on the MRI,” Bryan said. “She probably would have continued down that path. She was getting better lucidity but still having episodes. Then she contracted COVID-19.”
Marti’s youngest sister tested positive for COVID-19 Jan. 22 after an outbreak in her workplace, and she may have unknowingly exposed her mother to the virus while being asymptomatic. She was among multiple Family members the hospital had allowed inside to help care for Sebesta, who needed 24-hour attention.
“When my sister told all of us, ‘guys, I’m positive,’ my heart just stops,” Marti said. “She had been around mom that weekend, but she was wearing an N-95 mask the entire time, even while sleeping. The hospital was following all the protocols, she’d passed all screening measures and there was no reason to suspect she was infected.”
Sebesta tested positive for COVID-19 herself that same evening after showing signs of labored breathing. Even though a team of psychiatry, neurology and infectious disease specialists were already on hand, the virus’ effects proved devastating.
“As soon as she was infected, she spiraled immediately,” Bryan said. “She developed pneumonia, there were clots in her lungs and that was all she wrote, honestly.”
Less than a day after her diagnosis, Sebesta was moved to intensive care and her children were forced to make a heart-wrenching decision.
The doctor said there was already permanent scarring in Sebesta’s lungs, and going on a ventilator meant she’d likely never come off. That helped the Family choose not to keep her on life support, and on Jan. 24, Marti and two of her siblings went to the hospital to say goodbye.
“You feel like you’re at a zoo, but you’re watching your mom,” she said of the experience that involved FaceTime and seeing her mother through a glass window. “And she was just normal enough that you think she can’t be dying. She was sitting up, she was talking – granted, she was hallucinating – but she’s talking.”
But even though she looked like she always had, her children knew things were different.
“You just say the things you need to say, and all you can do is tell her you love her,” Marti said. “I don’t think she really understood that she was dying of COVID-19, and that was hard. Eventually, the phone call ends because there’s nothing really left to say. Her last words to us were ‘I love you all so much,’ which was as good as it could be.”
Sebesta died within hours of the visit, and doctors never identified the comorbidity that put her in the hospital to begin with. The Family continues grappling with the emotional aftermath and hopes to have a funeral next year to provide some sense of closure.
Marti said her mother’s consideration for others defined her response to the COVID-19 pandemic and she wants to see others strive for those same standards.
“She was going out of her way to be safe,” she said. “It didn’t matter that she was doing everything right, it didn’t matter that her kids were doing everything right, it still found its way to her.”
Taking the steps to get vaccinated is one of many ways the Kubenas are working to fight off the pandemic to keep their story from repeating.
“As much as (Bryan) was trying to help us and my mother from a distance, he couldn’t save her,” Marti said. “But by giving this vaccine, educating people and looking out for their health, he has the ability to make sure other Families don’t go through exactly what we’ve been through, and there’s nothing more that anybody in the world can do to make me feel better.”