“The most important thing for us was that they were together,” said Karen Kreager, the late couple’s daughter.
Before their deaths, a couple who had been married for nearly seven decades were able to spend their final moments together, holding hands at a Tennessee hospital.
Tommy Stevens died on Sept. 8 at the age of 91 — one day before what would have been the couple’s 69th anniversary, per his obituary. His wife, Virginia, also 91, died nine days later.
Karen Kreager, the couple’s daughter, told Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s VUMC Voice that her parents “both lit up” when they saw each other during their reunion at the hospital before his death.
“He was awake when she came in,” Kreager said of her father. “His eyes were open. He wasn’t communicating a lot — just in small whispers. But he knew that she was there and that she was going to be right beside him. They [didn’t stop] holding hands the whole time.”
Doyle Thomas “Tommy” Stevens Jr. and Virginia McKarem hailed from Kingsport, Tennessee, and met at Dobyns-Bennett High School, according to his obituary. The two later attended the University of Tennessee and married on Sept. 9, 1954.
Tommy began his career as a transportation manager for Burlington Industries after serving as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, his obituary added. He later founded Distribution and Transportation Services (DTS), Inc. In addition to working with Tommy at DTS, per her obituary, Virginia was active with local church, school, and civic groups.
Tommy and Virginia lived in Memphis, where their two children, Karen and Greg, were born and raised. Following their retirement, the couple moved to Franklin to be near their children and grandchildren.
In his advanced years, the veteran had Alzheimer’s disease, per VUMC Voice. He moved to a memory care unit at an assisted living facility, where he and Virginia resided.
Breathing issues and dangerous low blood pressure prompted Tommy to be taken to VUMC, where he was diagnosed with sepsis and pneumonia, per the hospital, adding that he was later moved to VUMC’s Palliative Care Unit when further treatment was no longer possible.
On the same day that Tommy was taken to the hospital, Virginia experienced a fall and was transported to the same hospital. Virginia was admitted to VUMC’s Trauma ICU, suffering six broken ribs, a spinal fracture, and a hip injury.
As the couple’s family was going back and forth between seeing Tommy at the Palliative Care Unit and Virginia at the Trauma ICU, VUMC staff brought the couple together to make it easier — first by placing Virginia in a room next to Tommy’s and then putting a bed beside his so Virginia could be with him to provide comfort.
“You know, it helped me a lot,” Virginia told VUMC Voice. “It just gave me peace that I wouldn’t have to worry about him. He was going to be with me.”
A photograph taken by the family showed Tommy and Virginia holding hands from their hospital beds.
Kreager recalled the couple and their family reminiscing about their past vacations spent together on the beach as well as holiday feasts. “We were able to focus on both of them at the same time versus having to worry about going back and forth,” Kreager said. “And the most important thing for us was that they were together.”
Dr. Mohana Karlekar, the medical director of VUMC’s adult Palliative Care Program, remembered Virginia holding her husband’s hand while they were at the hospital and fussing with him in an affectionate manner.
“She was able to tell me Monday that she was at peace with what was going on, and she wanted to be there until the end,” Karlekar told VUMC Voice.
Virginia was by Tommy’s side, along with their family, when he passed. Then Virginia died surrounded by family on Sept. 17.
“What a love story,” read Virginia’s obituary. “In life, in death, in life eternal. Together.”