This Kan. officer almost died of COVID. Now she recovers, helped by fellow cops, community
Officer Lisa Sidenstick, who was in a medically induced coma for weeks, had to relearn everything from brushing her teeth to walking
By Aarón Torres
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The priest entered the hospital room alone, to pray for healing.
He also administered Lisa Sidenstick her last rites.
By this time in February, the Kansas City police officer and mother of four had been in a medically induced coma at North Kansas City Hospital for nearly a month. She was in grave danger of dying from COVID-19 and hope of recovery was slipping away.
For weeks, her father, Joe Arce, founder and publisher of the bilingual newspaper KC Hispanic News, had been preparing himself for the death of his eldest daughter.
“We just didn’t know if she would go at any minute,” he said.
Sidenstick’s long illness, at a time when much of the country has tried to move on from the pandemic, hit home for two particular communities in Kansas City.
At the Kansas City Police Department, where the nine-year-veteran of the force is affectionately known as " Mama Lisa,” an outpouring of support came from up and down the ranks, from officers to the chief of police.
And in the Hispanic community on Kansas City’s West Side, generations of Kansas Citians touched by Arce’s work over the years stepped forward to support the family in their time of need, including with a crowded fundraising event earlier last month at the Guadalupe Center’s historic facility on Avenida Cesar E. Chavez.
As a Hispanic person and a police officer, Sidenstick, 45, is a member of two high-risk groups for COVID at once.
The virus has been the No. 1 killer of police officers for more than a year. Hispanic Americans, meanwhile, have been at higher risk for hospitalizations or death from COVID-19, in part because of social determinants of health: lack of access to health care and higher exposure in the jobs they do.
But most of all, she was unvaccinated.
She was hesitant to get the vaccine before, she said, because it was developed quickly.
She plans to get it within the next few weeks.
“I wish I would have had the vaccine so this didn’t happen,” Sidenstick said. “But at the time I was scared.”
She was hospitalized in January after catching the virus for a second time. She woke up from a medically-induced coma in February, a few weeks after the priest read her last rites.
“The last thing I remember is the doctor saying I was really sick,” she said recently during a phone interview from her hospital room.
Sidenstick knew how bad COVID-19 could get. She had read the stories. She had seen the footage and the photos of overcrowded hospitals and overworked doctors. She watched videos of critically-ill COVID patients detailing their recoveries.
“I never thought that this could happen to me,” Sidenstick said. “I never thought I would be in a (medically) induced coma.”
Her life no longer in the balance, family and friends expressed relief at her miraculous turn for the better. Full recovery, however, is far beyond the horizon.
She will go through weeks of physical therapy to help build back her strength. It’s the first step on what doctors have said will likely be a monthslong road of rehabilitation.
As she begins that journey, she relies on help from her family and supporters in the KCPD and on the West Side.
“They showed up for me and (I’m) just very thankful to be here and to have a second chance at life and to be with my family and my kids,” Sidenstick said.
Long road to the police academy
From the time Sidenstick was in high school, she wanted to be a police officer.
She wanted to work with juveniles and at-risk youth. She knew troubled children and felt she could mentor and counsel them and help change their lives.
After she graduated from Oak Park, Sidenstick enrolled at the University of Missouri-Kansas City to pursue a career in criminal justice. But it would be more than 10 years before she pinned on a badge. Life events intervened.
A few months before her freshman year, she and her husband Aaron found out they were pregnant.
Sidenstick gave birth to her son Benito during her freshman year at UMKC. Taking care of a newborn didn’t stop her from going to class. Whenever she wasn’t able to take him to a daycare, he went to class with her, sitting in the chair next to hers. If he started crying, she took him to the hallway until he calmed down.
After 10 years as a stay-at-home mom, working part-time at her father’s newspaper, Sidenstick returned to her law enforcement dream.
She first worked as a corrections officer in Clay County and as a police officer at UMKC and in Blue Springs. She joined the KCPD after being recognized for helping to save several people from a house fire in 2012.
“I supported her from day one,” Arce said. “The only thing was when she graduated from the ( Kansas City Police Academy) I gave her a big hug and I told her, ‘I kind of wish you would have just went into the service because I would have had to worry about you for four years or six years, not my entire life.’”
It was impossible to know then that the greatest danger Sidenstick would face would come from a virus no one had yet heard of.
‘We were going to lose her’
It started with a sore throat. Then came the headache. The coughing. The difficulty breathing. Until suddenly, “it literally felt like I was dying,” she said.
She went to the hospital in early January. It was COVID-19. She had caught it before, in early 2020, and since then was forced to use an inhaler — something she’s never needed before.
This time, she said, doctors told her to hydrate and sent her home. She did not get better.
A few days later, still hardly able to breathe, she decided to check her blood-oxygen level at home with a fingertip pulse oximeter. Anything below 90% requires immediate medical attention.
Hers was 53%.
Frightened, she told her husband to get dressed and to drive her to the University of Kansas Health System, 24 minutes from their house in Gladstone.
During the drive, she wasn’t gasping for air so much as choking for it, she said. She couldn’t breathe. They couldn’t make it to KU. Her husband detoured and took her to North Kansas City Hospital, more than 10 minutes closer.
As she was hospitalized, she tried calling family, coworkers and friends to tell them what was going on. It became more and more difficult, like a workout.
“It took everything in her just to breathe,” her sister Rachel Rodriguez said.
In late January, Sidenstick’s family got the call at 4 a.m. that she was being moved to the intensive care unit. Once there, doctors placed Sidenstick on a ventilator and performed a tracheotomy, placing her in a medically-induced coma.
The hospital was not allowing visitors to the ICU at the time. Her family wasn’t allowed to see her in what was one of the scariest moments of their lives.
“We thought we were going to lose her,” Arce said, tears filling his eyes as he recalled the moments after the call. “Probably the most difficult thing that I’ve ever had to go through.”
For the next few weeks there was not much any of them could do but pray.
At one point, Arce was so desperate he went to the hospital just to touch the walls of the hallway — it was the only way he could feel close to his daughter.
Friends and family started holding a nightly rosary by video conference.
Sidenstick’s condition only got worse.
“Every time we’d talk to (the doctors) it seemed like the prognosis didn’t sound good,” Rodriguez said. “They never seemed like they thought she was going to come out on the other side of it. It was almost like they were preparing us for the worst.”
When the family was finally able to see Sidenstick in the ICU, they said her body looked swollen. Her skin felt dry, like leather, Arce said.
Her children would come to rub her favorite lotion on her arms and feet to keep her moisturized. Though she was sedated, family still came by, just to talk to her.
“I felt connected with her,” Arce said.
Soon, support began coming to the family from across the city.
‘Take care of our own’
During the months Sidenstick was confined to her hospital bed, her fellow officers supported her the best way they knew how.
Since she wasn’t working, she wasn’t getting paid. So they bought grocery store gift cards to help her family. Some officers even donated their own sick time.
“You don’t hear that many stories about people being on a ventilator for weeks and weeks at a time and making it out,” Sidenstick’s Captain, Jennifer Jones said. “It was really scary, and a very helpless feeling because there’s nothing we can do at the police station. We’re used to being able to jump in and help out and get hands on.
“With a situation like this where we couldn’t even visit her — it just felt very helpless.”
Jones had only recently become Sidenstick’s supervisor in east patrol and didn’t know her well. But once Sidenstick got sick they started texting, and that changed.
“We actually became really friendly that way,” Jones said.
“Police in general tend to really take care of our own and stick up for each other and so as soon as one of us needs help,” she said. “That’s when we band together. That’s really when we often are at our best.”
COVID has taken a toll on police in the Kansas City area. A KCPD officer never identified by the department died of the virus in June.
In October, Overland Park Police Officer Freddie Castro, 23, died of COVID after a five-week stay in North Kansas City Hospital. He was not vaccinated.
COVID-19 continues to be the leading cause of death among active duty police officers across the country.
Of the 85 officers who have died this year, 50 were from COVID-19, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Last year, 419 police officers died of COVID.
The Kansas City Police Department, by far the largest department in the area with 1,221 sworn officers, keeps no current data on COVID-19 infection or vaccination rates, Capt. Leslie Foreman, a department spokeswoman, told The Star.
Officers are also not routinely tested for the virus, she said, though police officers are instructed to follow guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Support on the West Side
David Tinoco, president of the Greater Kansas City National Hispanic Heritage Committee, was heartbroken when he learned how sick Sidenstick was.
He has known her father for most of his life. His oldest brother, Albert, grew up with Arce on Kansas City’s West Side. Tinoco had seen how Arce grew in stature in the community, from a cameraman for the local NBC affiliate, to a reporter who highlighted and told stories of Hispanic people across the metro to, finally in 1996, the founder of KC Hispanic News.
"(He) has never asked for anything in return,” Tinoco said.
At the NBC affiliate, Arce had noticed stories about Latino and Hispanic people lacked depth. He knew more could be done to represent the Hispanic experience in Kansas City. He knew his community deserved that.
One of the stories he told was that of Primitivo Garcia, a 23-year-old Mexican immigrant who was shot and killed in 1967 after protecting a Westport High School teacher. Arce’s story helped lead to the naming of Primitivo Garcia Elementary.
“If you don’t know the opinions of the Latino community, you don’t really have a good idea of who they are and what they stand for,” Arce said. “There’s a lot of Latinos that are making a difference in our community and in our society and I just want to be sure people are aware of that.”
During the pandemic, COVID-19 has torn through Hispanic communities across the country. The death rate among Hispanic people in Kansas City is higher than that for Black and white Kansas Citians.
When it came to Sidenstick, Tinoco felt he had to do something. Along with the board members of the Hispanic heritage committee, he organized a fundraiser to help support her family.
They put it on at the Guadalupe Center’s historic facility on Avenida Cesar E. Chavez. About 1,500 plates of food were sold at $10 apiece, with all the proceeds going to Sidenstick and her family.
The event even brought together Sidenstick’s supporters from her two communities, with Capt. Jones and Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith attending.
Notably absent was Sidenstick herself. She was still in the hospital but chatted by video call with various guests from her room. For her, it was overwhelming.
Arce remembered, as he walked around various tables, shaking hands and exchanging hugs, that he almost decided not to have the fundraiser at all. He doesn’t like bringing attention to himself or his family.
“I’m used to giving but I’m not used to receiving,” Arce said. “That’s part of our culture, to help, there’s just no way about it. It’s part of our culture.”
Still, he was pleasantly surprised by the turnout.
“You don’t realize sometimes how you touch people,” he said. “To see, not only the people from Missouri, but from Kansas, come in and partake in this fundraiser. It just unites the community...I’ll never forget it.”
Starting all over again
When she woke up in February, Sidenstick couldn’t talk. She could barely move. Communication with her family and her nurses came via eye and head movements.
Rodriguez gave her a dry erase board so she could write down answers, but all she could jot down was a squiggly line.
Parts of her recovery process have hurt her pride and emotions. Before her illness, she was used to working out three days a week, lifting weights, doing cardio. Now, daily tasks are arduous.
Unable to stand for long periods of time, she had to brush her teeth from her hospital bed at first. She had to wear an adult diaper.
“Like a baby,” Sidenstick said. “You’re starting all over again.”
For now, Sidenstick relies on a walker to get around. She lost close to 30 pounds and can’t climb a flight of stairs without running out of breath. She doesn’t go anywhere without an oxygen tank.
Her memory is foggy and she has coughing attacks so severe sometimes that she vomits.
She plans to return to duty, Sidnestick said. It just depends on her physical shape and how her lungs perform in the recovery process.
Sidenstick left the hospital Wednesday in a wheelchair, to the cheers of gathered family and fellow officers.
Her son, Anthony Martin, helped her into the passenger seat of her black sedan, oxygen tank at her side. She rode away with a police escort.
At her Gladstone home, Sidenstick had not even made it the six steps to the front door before she was embraced by her father and co-workers Capt. Jones, Maj. Kari Thompson and detective LaSonia Whaley, who is one of Sidenstick’s best friends and was part of her graduating class at the police academy.
For Sidenstick, the near future brings weeks of physical therapy: lifting small weights, climbing stairs, and learning how to write again.
She knows it will be a long road. For now, she settled for walking through her front door again.
(c)2022 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)