As Lewis County Commissioner Gary Stamper begins his fourth week intubated, still hospitalized with severe COVID-19, family members say the next few days will be critical in his recovery. The hope is that doctors can stabilize the 67-year-old enough to switch him from a ventilator to a tracheostomy and ease him from sedation.
Stamper’s numbers are headed in the right direction and showing signs that his lungs are recovering, his family reports.
But in the meantime, relatives are in a painful limbo state, some describing walking through the seven stages of grief.
“He’s just a good soul. He really is. He’s the best dad ever, so we miss him,” daughter Sheena Stamper Woods said.
The community has been closely following social media updates from Stamper’s partner, Bobbi Barnes. This week, Barnes told The Chronicle the journey has been like trying to walk across a frozen lake. Closer to shore, the ice is thick, but walk forward and things get more precarious. When cracks start to form, take a deep breath and go slow.
“We’re kind of halfway across. But not enough to start tap dancing,” Barnes said. “I can’t wait until we can actually breathe.”
Barnes has taken on a reporter role in the family, memorizing when Stamper’s nurses change shifts and speaking to hospital staff three times a day. Journals Stamper used to love pouring over — normally filled with Barnes’ watercolors and hiking notes — are now only filled with notes on Stamper’s recovery and statistics relayed by his doctors and nurses.
Barnes passes those to the rest of the family, trying to stick to facts and quotes and to not “opine too much, because at any moment the rug can be pulled out from under you on this.”
Woods finds a quiet conference room at work to await those daily updates.
The family has high praise for Stamper’s medical team. Only half-jokingly, they say they want to invite one particular nurse to Christmas.
Like hospitals nationwide, PeaceHealth in Vancouver is stretched thin amidst a massive surge in COVID-19 cases. Even so, nurses have joked with Stamper, saying he needs to wake up to catch the Seahawks game.
Another gets on the phone with family members when Stamper fights the ventilator, hoping familiar voices will calm him down.
Stamper and Barnes, who are vaccinated against the virus, started feeling sick on a Saturday. It was the tail end of Washington’s loosened mask guidelines, when fully-vaccinated individuals could go unmasked in public spaces. That Monday, the highly-transmissible delta variant triggered the tightening of mask requirements.
When symptoms got worse, Barnes took her partner to the hospital.
She and Woods smile when they recall the “classic Gary Stamper” outfit he was wearing — shorts, an old baseball hat and a quarter-zip.
After delivering him to the hospital, a sick Barnes would sleep alone in the car, waiting for updates.
“I told him how much I loved him and I promised I would take good care of him when he got out. And that was a month ago,” Barnes said.
Since then, there’s been good and bad days. On his grandson Rory and Barnes’ shared birthday, Stamper’s numbers looked promising. Rory brought a framed photo of his grandpa to dinner. But the next day brought a high fever and decreased oxygen levels. In one instance, the family anxiously waited over 12 hours for important CT scan results.
As they continue to ride what feels like the world’s longest rollercoaster, the family is also reflecting on happy memories of Stamper — like how the animal lover revelled in his squirrel feeder, refused to take out new kayaks after a bird nested underneath, or went to great lengths to avoid turning chipmunks into roadkill.
Woods says her dad has gotten softer with age, no longer the strict coach and principle she recalls giving tough speeches on the school bus. He’d be proud of how the community is rallying behind him, she said.
Barnes — who was first smitten by his kind and non-judgemental demeanor — is using Stamper’s own words to get through the days:
“Gary always says, ‘we’ll get through this, Bobbi Barnes.’ … He’s not here now, so I keep telling him, ‘we’ll get through this, Gary Stamper. You need to come home now.’”