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Retired St. Louis nurse’s ‘language of love’ is volunteering at vaccination clinics

Retired St. Louis nurse’s ‘language of love’ is volunteering at vaccination clinics

From the Enjoying the 'little things,' a restaurant pivots, couple saves to buy home, remembering a teacher who died: A year of COVID-19 series

ST. LOUIS — Karen Strombach is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, has plenty of time on her hands and hungers to help others stay healthy.

Perhaps what she needs most these days is to hug her grown children again. Her son lives in Seattle; her daughter in Orlando. They haven't seen each other in person for more than a year, even before the pandemic spread to St. Louis last March.

The retired St. Louis Children's Hospital nurse says she can't wait to cook them a meal, chat over coffee, tidy up their homes or tend to her son's garden.

"I think we'll fall right back into place like it was before, but I do think the whole world has changed," said Strombach, 65, of St. Louis.

Phone calls, texts, FaceTime and Zoom sessions have kept her in contact but haven't stemmed feelings of isolation over the past year.

"You're always afraid of disconnecting," she said. "… We forget that communication is huge."

Strombach retired in September after 29 years as a nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit at St. Louis Children's Hospital. She didn't treat COVID-19 patients last year, but like other healthcare workers quickly adapted new protocols to limit risks of exposure. When a vestibular disorder last spring kept her home for months, she realized after returning to work that she was ready to retire.

"It was a tough decision," she said. "I was the grandmother. It's hard to be a nurse in an ICU, and it's hard to be a nurse for pediatrics. There were people who'd come and tell me their troubles and ask me, 'How did you freakin' last so long?'"

She remains a nurse at heart. Last year, she said, she designed and sewed more than 500 cloth facemasks and distributed them through the freestanding library in front of her Tower Grove South home. 

Until she can travel, she is helping St. Louisans get vaccinated by volunteering at immunization clinics in the region. 

"I've got nothing else to do," she said. "I just like people. I love people. They're fascinating. They have stories to tell. It's a need. That's my language of love, giving to whatever. It's fun."

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