Son pays tribute to ‘blue-collar’ dad who doctors say died due to COVID-19

(NEW YORK) — John Pijanowski was not able to be with his dad, Donald John Pijanowski, in his final moments because doctors said the elder Pijanowski had COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.

Pijanowski, a University of Arkansas professor, was also separated from his four brothers, who all live in different cities and, because of COVID-19 concerns, could not travel to be together in Buffalo, New York, where their dad died on April 1.

“In that moment I was feeling really alone,” Pijanowski told “Good Morning America.” “For anybody who has ever had that experience [of a loved one dying] you know what it’s like. You huddle around, you’re in the room with him, it’s quiet, you’re crying, sometimes someone will tell a story; you’re with each other.”

Lacking that “camaraderie,” Pijanowski sat down and wrote a tribute to his father. He posted the tribute on Twitter, where it has since gone viral with more than 60,000 likes.

“I want to tell you about my dad,” Pijanowski said in his first tweet about his 87-year-old father. “He was born on October 30, 1932 and he passed away today at 12:07pm, April 1, 2020. The doctors tell us it was covid19 which means we were not allowed in the hospital to be with him for his last days.”

Pijanowski went on to describe his dad as a “great man” who grew up as the youngest of 10 children during the Great Depression, writing, “There are no buildings named after him, he left behind no fortune, and there are no books that tell his story. He was not great in the way we often try to define the term – he was great in that he was such a *good* man – good to his core, unfailingly good.”

“If my dad was doing a job for you then you knew he didn’t just do the parts he thought you could see, he did the entire job and he would not leave until it was done right,” he wrote. “Wherever I went with my dad he seemed like the coolest guy in the room.”

Donald John Pijanowski, a grandfather of four, had taken warnings about coronavirus seriously and had last gone to the store about a week or so before his death to stock up on supplies, according to his son.

The family did not know anything was wrong until Pijanowski’s brother, who lives in Buffalo, went to check on their dad and found him on the floor, so weak he couldn’t get up.

“Even then I thought he just fell or something,” said Pijanowski. “He was fit and a completely self-sufficient guy who lived on his own.”

When paramedics arrived, they rushed Donald John Pijanowski to the hospital, where his family was told he presented with “classic symptoms” of coronavirus, including a fever and pneumonia.

No family members were allowed to be with the elder Pijanowski as he was hospitalized and placed on a ventilator, according to Pijanowski. Soon, he slipped into a coma and his kidneys began to fail.

“My dad was incredibly healthy, even though he was 87,” said Pijanowski. “It came on so suddenly for him. It just hit him like a cannon shot.”

Family members have not been able to see Donald John Pijanowski’s body and have just been relying on what doctors have told them about his COVID-19 diagnosis and death, according to Pijanowski. The family is now experiencing a different grieving process than usual, unable to gather together and unable to bury their father.

“It’s easy to feel adrift afterwards when you’re alone and you’re cut off from not just your family and friends but also from all these rituals and traditions that you’d be busying yourself with — planning the funeral and lunch and a wake and writing the thank you cards,” said Pijanowski. “We do it in honor of the people who have passed and not having that work leaves a void so we have to find other work.”

“I like to write so for me, I write. Other people, they have to find their own way because you can’t just be adrift,” he said.

After writing about his dad on Twitter, Pijanowski said he heard from long-lost friends, strangers in Buffalo who shared their own stories of his dad, and strangers who shared their own stories of grief and mourning.

He said he has also received messages from nurses and doctors who assured him that even though his family was not with him, Pijanowski’s dad did not die alone.

“I’ve heard from lots of nurses and doctors who have assured me that even though they’re in a race every minute to save lives, they are taking time to be there for our loved ones when they’re in their last breaths, and to touch them and to love them for us,” he said. “That’s a service that I have such a deep debt of gratitude, not just for the nurses I may never meet who were there for my dad but for the nurses and doctors all over the world who are doing that for other people.”

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