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Coping with COVID-19: Pandemic's death toll leaves Monadnock Region families reeling

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As a true New Hampshire native, Seth Tolman loved the outdoors.

The Keene resident could always be found going for walks or at the nearest ponds fishing. His favorites were Tolman Pond and Spoon Wood Pond in Nelson, where he grew up, according to his wife, Linda.

He was also stubborn, she said.

So when Seth — who wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19 — tested positive for the viral disease around Christmas, Linda had to convince him to go to the hospital.

He fought her on it for a few days, but eventually gave in and was taken to Cheshire Medical Center in Keene. But after 36 days on a ventilator, she had to make the tough decision to end his comfort measures.

He died Feb. 8 at age 55.

“The grief is so dark and so deep,” Linda said in a recent interview. “You can’t explain it to somebody until you’ve been through it.”

But Tolman’s loved ones are far from alone. COVID-19 has taken the lives of at least 112 Cheshire County residents, and nearly 2,500 people statewide, according to data from the state health department.

To honor those we’ve lost, The Sentinel reached out to the community, seeking to understand and share their stories, and how their loved ones are coping.

Here are some of their stories:

Seth Tolman

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Linda Tolman poses for a portrait in her home in Keene alongside her dog Eli, with a photo of her late husband Seth Tolman between his paws, on Thursday, April 28.

Seth’s passion for fishing is what hooked Linda in the first place. He showed her a photo of him holding a fish, using his charm to show it off.

Next thing she knew they were going out for coffee, and soon after, she was getting her fishing license to go with him.

“We’d spend hours out there just talking about life,” Linda said.

Seth — who was a truck driver for Goodenough Rubbish Disposal in Brattleboro and Performance Food Groups in Springfield, Vt. — was also a man of God.

He’d talk about the Lord’s word with friends and family (or anyone, really, who’d give him the time).

“He wanted to make sure everybody heard what [God] had to say,” Linda said, “and then it was up to them to make [that] choice.”

Seth was “a quiet man who lived a quiet life,” Linda said. A true “gentle giant,” at 6-foot-3.

Linda said in addition to the grief she feels for Seth, she also has a lot of conflicting thoughts.

As a retired nurse, she said she’s “angry because he wasn’t vaccinated.”

Adults who received three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are 94 percent less likely to be put on a ventilator or die from the viral disease compared to those who were not vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s also been hard for her to continue wearing her mask in public, since most people have forgone them at this point in the pandemic.

People will come up to her, she said, saying things like “Oh, you’re one of those people.” And even after telling them her husband died from COVID-19, Linda said they’ll continue to belittle her choice to wear a mask.

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Linda Tolman of Keene gives her dog Eli a kiss, while he holds a portrait of her late husband Seth Tolman between his paws, on Thursday, April 28, in Keene.

Their dog, Eli, is also having a tough time grappling with this new reality.

“Seth loved his dog and every morning, he’d get up, open his crate up ... and stick his head in and tell him how much he loved the dog,” Linda said.

Eli has been missing him, crawling under the comforter on his side of the bed.

Linda misses him, too.

“I’m all over the place emotionally right now,” she said.

Sandra Holman

In mid-September, Sandra Holman was taken to Cheshire Medical’s emergency department for sepsis.

The 81-year-old Fitzwilliam resident had a urinary tract infection that worsened, according to her daughter, Denelle Holman.

“I was expecting her to come home ...,” Denelle said. “I figured she’d be fine.”

Once admitted to the hospital, Sandra tested positive for COVID-19, though her family suspects she contracted the illness before getting there. In turn, the remainder of her household — Sandra’s husband Richard, Denelle and her kids, most of whom were vaccinated but not yet boosted — did too.

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A photo of Sandra Holman rests in her favorite garden at her home in Fitzwilliam on Tuesday, April 19.

Richard started having stroke-like symptoms as a result, so Denelle took her father to Cheshire Medical. (He and Sandra had rooms next to each other, Denelle recalled, and they’d knock on the walls to say “hi.”)

But as Richard got healthier, Sandra got worse. Her symptoms came on quickly, taking a “huge hit” to her respiratory system.

“My dad came home after four nights in the hospital ...,” Denelle said. “My mom wasn’t so lucky.”

Sandra fought for six days, but ultimately — with her wishes in mind — the family decided to stop using life-preserving measures. She died Sept. 27.

Denelle, an LNA at the hospital, stayed with her, holding her hand until the end.

“She was always one to have the last word, so let me tell you, that’s what she did ...,” she said with a laugh. “I remember her asking me ‘Well, how long will this take?’ She was restless.”

A long-time resident of Fitzwilliam, Sandra worked in assembly and quality control at C.R. Bard in town and at MilliporeSigma in Jaffrey, where she retired from.

Sandra was strong-willed and had a positive attitude toward everything, Denelle said. She enjoyed gardening, jigsaw puzzles and cooking home-made meals for her family.

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Denelle Holman poses for a portrait in her mother’s garden in Fitzwilliam on Tuesday, April 19. The lilies were Sandy Holman’s favorite, shared her daughter Denelle, "but she enjoyed putting new things into her garden every year."

“Her favorite thing in the world was gardening,” Denelle said. “We have lots of different gardens around the house, with her lilies ... iris and peonies. She just loved it.”

Moving forward without her presence has been challenging. But, Denelle said it’s starting to get better.

“The days are getting a little lighter,” she said. “It’s not as intense and lengthy, but it took a good three months, at least, where I [was] losing it.”

With the time she still has left with her father, Denelle said she hopes to take him to yard sales, antique car shows and some of his other favorite spots.

More than anything, she’s cherishing the extra moments.

“There’s all these things you want to do” Denelle said, “but tomorrow might be too late.”

Douglas ‘Doug’ O’Neal

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Sarah and Shelby O’neal pose for a portrait holding photos of husband and father Doug O’neal on Monday, April 18, in Robin Hood Park. 

Douglas “Doug” O’Neal was known for his kindness.

The Keene resident would give the shirt off his back to a stranger. Open his arms to anyone who needed it.

“He was basically a big teddy bear ...,” said his daughter, Shelby O’Neal. “He just cared about everyone, especially me.”

The 50 year-old was also an avid NASCAR fan, often watching the modified stock cars race at Monadnock Speedway in Winchester. And, as New Englanders do, he rooted for the Patriots and Red Sox whenever he could.

His family said Doug also loved his work with The Sentinel, where he was a route driver and district manager for several years.

His paper delivery took him to all the lakes in the Monadnock Region, Shelby said, as he made connections with customers along the way.

“There was one guy he made friends with and he’d see him every single day, and they’d stop for like 15 minutes and have a conversation,” she said. “All of his customers loved him.”

Kim Ethier, administrative assistant for The Sentinel’s circulation department, described Doug as a very hard worker.

“He had so many health struggles but would try to keep a brave face while doing his job,” she said in an email. “He was a pleasure to work with and did whatever he could to help us out.”

In 2020, Shelby said, Doug had to step down from his position because he was having issues walking, caused by several health conditions he was diagnosed with the year prior, including diabetes, MRSA and cirrhosis of the liver.

Then, in January, he got exposed to COVID-19. He didn’t think much of it, with his only possible symptoms being a runny nose and a small cough.

“But if you’re sick, COVID is not something to joke around about,” said his wife, Sarah. “Obviously, he had signs of it and kept saying ‘Oh no, it’s bronchitis. No, it’s pneumonia.’ So he put it off.”

Doug’s mom, with whom he was living at the time in Hinsdale, made him go to Cheshire Medical because he kept passing out and had trouble forming sentences.

Once admitted, he tested positive for the viral disease.

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A collection of family photos from Doug O’Neal’s life are shown on a picnic table Monday, April 18, at Robin Hood Park by Shelby and Sarah O’Neal.

“He just kind of went downhill from there because of all his other health issues,” Shelby said.

Doug was in the hospital for 11 days, fighting to stay alive. But his vitals dropped too low. He died Jan. 25.

Shelby and Sarah couldn’t see Doug while he was in the hospital because of strict visitor protocols due to the mass influx of COVID-19 cases at that time. (The week after Doug’s death, the hospital’s policy loosened, Shelby noted.)

That comes with a heavy toll.

“My dad died in a hospital all by himself,” Shelby said, “and just the thought of that is sad.”

Both of them also can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if he got help right away.

“If he went sooner, when he started getting signs,” Sarah said, “maybe we wouldn’t be going through this.”

Edward ‘Pete’ and Freda Boufford

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Juli Langley flips through a photo album of her parents, Freda and Pete Boufford, at her home in Swanzey on Friday, April 22.

It was a love story for the ages.

When Edward “Pete” Boufford met Freda Deyo, they were just two elementary school kids, living three houses apart on Roxbury Street in Keene in the 1940s.

Pete, 8 years old at the time, would walk over to Freda’s house to play with her and her brothers and cousins. Sometimes they’d go to Robin Hood Park to swim and ice skate or they’d head to Sunset Rock to take in the view.

Best friends their whole lives, the couple got married in 1955, once Peter was out of the U.S. Air Force. Soon after, they had four kids: Jill, Jack, John and Juli.

“They were honey and bear ...,” Juli, whose last name is now Langley, said. “Their love for each other was such an example.”

After the Air Force, Pete worked for the former American Optical/Warner Lambert company in Keene and at Holden Co. until he retired. He also loved the saxophone, playing with the Keene American Legion Band from 1962 to 2015.

Freda loved music, too. She played the bugle for the Keene Drum and Bugle Corps for many years (which came in handy, Langley pointed out, to get her kids out of bed for school).

Aside from taking care of the kids, Freda also waitressed at several restaurants in Keene. She eventually became a server at Lakeview Restaurant in Munsonville, where she worked until it closed in 1982.

Pete and Freda, 88 and 91, respectively, were friends to everyone, Langley said.

“They enjoyed life to the fullest and the simplest things brought them great joy,” she said.

In December of 2020, Langley and her husband, Chris, of North Swanzey were helping out her parents by cleaning their house. She then started feeling fatigued, so they opted to get a COVID-19 test. Both came back positive.

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Juli Langley poses for a portrait outside her home in Swanzey on Friday, April 22.

“I was freaking out because we had been with my parents,” Langley said.

Pete started to not feel well, so he was taken to Cheshire Medical. He had also tested positive and was admitted to the ICU.

“I called up and talked to the doctor up there, and he said ‘Yeah, your father is doing really well for an 88 year-old man with COVID ... If he keeps doing this good, will have him home tomorrow,’ “ Langley said.

Freda — who had several health conditions including diabetes, dementia and Parkinson’s disease — was brought to Cheshire Medical’s emergency department on Dec. 10, 2020, to get her medications properly administered while Pete was in the hospital, since he was usually in charge of those.

She was sent home (the same one she grew up in on Roxbury Street) the next day with her proper doses. Because of her conditions, Freda didn’t know Pete was in the hospital. They didn’t want to upset her, Langley said.

While at the hospital, she also tested positive for COVID-19, but Langley said she didn’t show any symptoms.

However, her health issues proved to be too much. She was having trouble eating and drinking, and slept most of the days away.

“On the 20th ... I went up and saw her and talked to her and held her hand and I read her all of her Christmas cards,” Juli said. “I gave her a kiss and told her how much I loved her.”

By the next morning, Freda was gone.

Pete took a turn for the worse, too. He was put on a ventilator to help, but ultimately, he succumbed to the disease.

He died Jan. 13, 2021, unaware that the love of his life was already gone.

“It’s been terrible,” Langley said of the loss.

“But dad was that man that would follow his wife where ever she would go,” she added in a written statement. “They were meant to be together forever.”

Would you like your loved one to be remembered as part of an ongoing project from The Sentinel? Use the form here or at bit.ly/sentinelremembers to contact us. Sentinel staff created this series through the Monadnock Region Health Reporting Lab. Funding for the Monadnock Region Health Reporting Lab comes from several sources, including The Sentinel and several local businesses and private donors. We continue to seek additional support. The newsroom maintains full editorial control over all content produced by the lab.

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.

Olivia Belanger is the health reporter for The Sentinel, covering issues from the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic to mental health services in the region. A N.H. native, she joined The Sentinel team in August 2019.

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