NJ correctional police officer who responded to 9/11 battling COVID-19
Chris Stanek has been fighting for his life since he was hospitalized nearly two months ago
By Matt Gray
NJ Advance Media Group
BRIDGETON, N.J. — The last time Jean Stanek saw her husband in person was May 20 when he was taken from their Bridgeton home by ambulance.
Chris Stanek was having breathing problems, was disoriented and “very warm to the touch,” she said.
The senior corrections officer was diagnosed with COVID-19 and has been fighting for his life ever since.
Stanek previously volunteered for an ambulance squad and traveled to New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to help out at ground zero.
Now he’s the one who needs a hand.
While he has improved in recent weeks, Stanek faces a long recovery, according to his wife. Friends, co-workers, churches and local businesses are stepping up to help with donations for the family.
Stanek, 45, has worked as a corrections officer since 2003 and is stationed at South Woods State Prison.
He began feeling sick in May, Jean recalled. He’s diabetic, but she knew these symptoms were a sign of something else.
Stanek was taken to Inspira Medical Center in Vineland and a day later was in Cooper University Hospital, where he remains today.
His condition was touch and go for several weeks. He was intubated and placed on a ventilator twice and was on continuous dialysis at one point as the disease ravaged his organs, Jean said.
He would improve then nosedive and doctors told her she needed to be ready for anything. She didn’t know what to expect each time doctors called with an update.
“Not many survive this when it’s that serious,” she said.
She feared she could lose her husband, but credits her faith in God and support of family and friends for helping get through the toughest days.
Stanek has been off the ventilator for two weeks now, is breathing on his own and no longer requires dialysis. He could soon leave Cooper for a rehab center.
“It’s been a long journey … he’s improved a lot, but he still has a long road ahead of him,” Jean said. “He’s still in a lot of pain throughout his body. The doctor just increased his pain medication. His body has been through so much.
“He’s not able to sit up yet. He tries, but he’s still so weak.”
For her husband, the entire experience is still a blur.
“He’s talking now,” she said. “He did not remember what happened to him. He remembered the ambulance, but that was it. That’s how disoriented he was.”
Jean cannot see Chris in person because of continuing pandemic-related visitation restrictions at hospitals, so they stay in touch via Facetime visits. She tries to call daily, between holding down a job and taking care of their home and making sure the bills are paid. She assures her husband that everything is fine on the home front.
“Just focus on getting better,” she tells him.
After weeks of uncertainty, being able to hear his voice again has reassured Jean that he’s going to be OK.
“To actually hear him talk now, it really helps me a lot,” she said.
Family, friends and co-workers have rallied around Stanek and colleagues launched a GoFundMe campaign to help his family through this battle.
“I worked with him personally for quite a number of years and he’s a good guy,” said PBA Local 105 Vice President Mike Gallagher, who created the GoFundMe. “He’s a good employee and he’s always willing to help others.”
At least two state correctional police officers have died as a result of COVID-19. More than 780 state prison employees have been diagnosed with it, including 35 at South Woods, according to state records. More than 2,700 state inmates have tested positive and 45 have died.
Jean is certain her husband contracted COVID on the job, describing him as a homebody who doesn’t go out much, beyond trips to the store.
She was tested for the virus herself and had to quarantine for 14 days at home, but was in the clear.
She urged others to take COVID-19 seriously and protect themselves and others.
“This is very serious. It’s deadly,” she said. “Everyone should take all of the precautions needed. You have to be very careful.”
Jean and Chris met at the Bridgeton Emergency Ambulance Association, where they both volunteered. Service to his community has always been important to her husband, she said.
“As long as I’ve known Chris, he always helped people,” she said. “That was Chris … always helping others, caring for others.”
They married in 2004 and Chris is step-father to Jean’s three kids.
Jean has been amazed by the support the family has received from the community.
In addition to those donating to the online fundraiser, pastors at their church, Leila Sostre and David Morales of La Iglesia De Dios in Millville, and a local car dealership, South Jersey Motor Trends in Vineland, have made contributions to help the family. Pastors Ruben Soto and Suhein Perez of Iglesia Pentecostal En Manos Del Alfarero Inc. in Wildwood also reached out this week with a donation.
“It was very overwhelming,” she said. “I felt very happy for Chris and very appreciative of all the people that stepped up.”
©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.