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'I was in denial' -- how saying goodbye to a loved one has changed during COVID-19

The Maine Veterans' Homes organization has lost 14 of its residents to the coronavirus. Staff members say the outbreak is contained to one unit in Scarborough.

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" and "America the Beautiful" -- those are the two songs Matile Hugo has decided will ring out during her husband's funeral. It's not clear when that official service will be able to happen, since the coronavirus pandemic has turned life as we know it upside down -- but as a woman devoted to her lifelong love for music and the church, it's not surprising Matile has already chosen those hymns. 

It's been almost a month since she lost her husband, Mike, to COVID-19. He had been living at the Scarborough Retirement Home (part of the Maine Veterans' Homes organization) for about four years. When the pandemic arrived in Maine, Matile says Mike's initial test for COVID-19 came back negative. That's why his passing on April 16 came as such a sudden surprise. 

"I just couldn’t believe how fast it was, and I was in denial about it," Matile explained to NEWS CENTER Maine via video call. "I just didn’t think it would really happen."

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Matile says Mike spiked a fever on a Tuesday night. They were able to speak to each other over the phone Wednesday afternoon, but on Thursday, she could only speak to him. Later that night, he passed away. 

"I just kept saying, 'I love you, I love you,' over and over," Matile expressed. "The next to last phone call, I sang 'Amazing Grace', and they told me that he was mouthing the words, so I’m glad we did that."

Even before Mike's passing, Matile hadn't been able to see him for about a month. The Scarborough Retirement Home closed its doors to visitors in mid-March, in an effort to keep residents, staff members, and the public safe.

Hugo's husband is one of 14 Maine Veterans' Homes residents who has lost their life so far to the coronavirus. Chief Operating Officer Deb Fournier says the outbreak has been contained to just one unit at the Scarborough facility, but it's been a tough period for everyone.

"Certainly, daily life for veterans has changed a great deal," Fournier told NEWS CENTER Maine via video call. Social distancing, visitor restrictions, and personal protective equipment requirements for staff members have also altered regular operations. 

Fournier says at times, it's been tough keeping up with what feel like constant changes.

"It’s very difficult to navigate guidance that changes multiple times a week -- and sometimes more than daily," Fournier noted. 

RELATED: DHHS issues emergency rule to protect Maine nursing homes against spread of COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has also forced Honor Flight Maine to reconsider its operations for at least the first half of the year. Flights in April, May, and June have been cancelled so far -- and officials are still monitoring the situation to see whether flights later in the season will have to be put on hold, too.

"The thought of our airports being empty and these planes just sitting idle, it just breaks my heart," Laurie Sidelinger, a board chairperson with Honor Flight Maine, said emotionally. "Every week, every day, we lose hundreds of veterans across the United States."

It's why Rick Tetrev is so happy he was able to give that opportunity to Mike Hugo, who was once a member in the Marine Corps and later worked on the House Committee on Appropriations.

"I put in the application for him, and what I put on the application was that he was my good friend, and I wanted to bring my good friend to Washington D.C.," Tetrev explained. 

It's something he will always be happy he did, especially after learning the news from Matile that Mike has since died.

"He will be remembered as a kind man, a loving husband and father, and somebody that loves his country," Tetrev said.

RELATED: Honor Flight Maine trips for May postponed

For Matile, her late husband's legacy began when they married 57 years ago, after they met at a bridge game that she was too dressed up for. Just a few weeks later, she knew he was 'the one'. 

"I miss the good conversation and the spontaneous things we would jump up from the dinner table and go do, you know?" Matile reminisced. 

For other veterans who want to take that once in a lifetime Honor Flight trip, Sidelinger says now is a great time to apply, even though flights are stalled. You can do so by mail or online


At NEWS CENTER Maine, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus.

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