Dolly and Tommy Salas flank their grandson, former Cleveland High baseball standout Treston Shallenberger. Courtesy photo.

Losing a loved one due to COVID-19 has become a fact of life for the friends and relatives of about 1,600 New Mexicans, and Vista Grande Elementary teacher Kathy Shallenberger is among them.
Her 72-year-old father, Tommy Salas, was among November’s pandemic fatalities.
As if trying to stay healthy while teaching in-person and virtual classes of little kids wasn’t stressful enough, Shallenberger had both of her parents fall victim to the pandemic.
“My concern was knowing both my parents were in the hospital and I was their point of contact; I knew I had to stay healthy,” she said.
Fortunately, her mother, Dolly Salas, survived — and was released from Lovelace Hospital on the same day her spouse passed away, the day after Thanksgiving.
“With my family, we always shared Thanksgiving,” she said. “This was the first Thanksgiving my family was not together.”
The year 2020 has had a way of throwing things into flux — and worse.
“He was an amazing guy,” Shallenberger said of her father. “He was a big Storm fan — he would wear his Storm gear everywhere.”
Shallenberger’s husband Shane — her high school sweetheart — is the Cleveland High Storm’s baseball coach.
Kathy Shallenberger has always been close to her parents, talking to them almost on a daily basis.
She remembered a recent phone conversation: Her dad asked her how school was, and she said it’d been great because she had amazing students.
“They have an amazing teacher,” he replied.
Nearly 30 years ago, she recalled, “When I told him I wanted to be a teacher, he told me I would be the best — he knew that was my passion, my calling. (But) I didn’t decide I wanted to be a teacher till I was in high school.”
Telling her story, it’s hard for her to hold back the tears.
After being diagnosed with COVID-19, Shallenberger said, her father was airlifted from the hospital in Portales to a Lovelace Hospital intensive-care unit on Veterans Day; her mother was airlifted from Portales to Lovelace four days later.
“This is pretty ironic — they wanted to airlift him to Arizona, because there were no beds in ICU in New Mexico, Texas or Colorado,” she said. “At the last minute, a bed became available in Albuquerque. When Mom was airlifted, they said, ‘Hey, her husband is in Albuquerque.’”
Dolly Salas wound up in Lovelace, too: “She was on the COVID floor; Dad was on the seventh floor in ICU.
“There’s no visitors,” she continued. “Two days before my Dad was put on a ventilator, he got put on Facetime. He had concerns for my mom.”
The phone call no one wants to hear — a loved one has passed — came at 2:50 a.m. Nov. 27.
“On Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 26), the doctor called me and said my mom was going to be released the next day; that was the day my dad died.”
It’s not going to be smooth going for Dolly Salas, her loving daughter said.
“It’s going to take her a long time to recover. She has oxygen 24/7,” Shallenberger said. “She has a little anxiety, is foggy — can’t remember anything.”
In her 16th year of teaching, Shallenberger said teachers are tired and stressed, but doing what the students need them to do — and health care workers are doing much the same for patients.
“I’m praising the doctors and nurses and what they’re going through — it’s chaos there,” she said of her experiences when her parents were hospitalized. “They were so compassionate and sincere during the most stressful three weeks of my life, knowing they were going through the same stress and concerns. I don’t know how I would have gotten through that, without (them) and my son and my husband.
“My dad will be missed, but never forgotten,” she concluded.

About the author

Gary Herron | Observer staff writer