A year of COVID: A life of dedication cut short

  • Gail Berggren Courtesy

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Monitor staff
Published: 3/8/2021 7:04:17 PM

Gail Berggren was the type of person who never stopped moving.

At every stage of life, she enthusiastically dedicated herself – and excelled – at whatever activity intrigued her or needed her attention. In high school, that meant going through 115 pounds of flour to perfect her famous pastries, which ultimately won her a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair. A couple of years later in college, she became a legendary ping-pong player in the girl’s dormitory of Iowa State University.

“I believe that for four years she never lost a ping pong match,” her brother, Kay Ressler, recalled.

When her three children were young, she always looked for ways to add excitement to their lives on a limited budget. On hot summer days, she’d put red and yellow food coloring into the ice cube tray to create colorful frozen treats. One Christmas, she taught the kids to sew by creating a stocking big enough to envelop her 8-year-old daughter.

When the kids started moving out of the house, Berggren took up tennis, winning several local championships with her doubles’ partners.

And when her husband developed heart issues before his death, nutrition became her calling. She devised recipes and strategies to cut out every piece of unnecessary fat and sugar from, save for a tiny piece of dark chocolate she indulged in each morning with her coffee.

“It was almost kind of a pain you couldn’t get her to sit down and relax,” said Chris Graham, Berggren’s youngest daughter. “She just never frickin’ stopped.”

When COVID-19 started spreading in the Pleasant View Retirement, where Berggren had lived for four years, no one was surprised that she threw herself into protecting herself from the virus like she had thrown herself whole-heartedly into everything she did.

“She was incredibly careful and incredibly meticulous about how she wanted you to hand her the groceries and all that,” Graham said. “She just was getting really worried.”

Around Christmas, Graham and her sister felt something was off with their mother. The isolation and anxiety of contracting a deadly virus was getting to her – they could sense she wasn’t eating. They planned to rent a house nearby and take care of her until the outbreak passed.

They were hours from reserving the house when Berggren was admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms. She died 11 days later, on Jan. 12. She was one of two residents of the retirement center who succumbed to the disease. Another 22 died at the adjacent Pleasant View nursing home. Assisted living facilities bore the brunt of the devastating and unrelenting virus in the last year, where about 70 percent of all fatal infections occurred. Once the virus got inside, deaths soon followed.

Berggren’s funeral, like so many other services this year, was held virtually. Holding an in-person service for someone who died from COVID-19 was too ironic, Graham said.

On a backdrop of soft piano music, old photos of Berggren flashed on screen – a black and white photo of her in a mid-length wedding dress and white, satin kitten heels; another photo of her somewhere in the snowy mountains, grinning from behind reflective snow goggle, and so many photos of her beaming next to her children and grandchildren.

Her unceasing work-ethic, Graham thinks, developed during her childhood on a farm in rural Iowa, where, even at a young age, her live revolved around strenuous farm work.

Her daily tasks often involved caring for the livestock and collecting food and timber for the house that did not yet have electricity. When her family decided to rebuild their home, Berggren rarely complained, even when she had to carry heavy bricks up a ladder to the roof or scrape plaster off the walls for hours.

“My mom was about the hardest working person I know. She never stopped, she never sat down,” Graham said at the service.

“She learned to work hard growing up and she never stopped working. She had strength to push through, strength to not complain, strength to accept and also strength to be real.”

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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