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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Remembering Dani Kater, COVID’s Youngest McLean County Victim

Names and faces get lost in the din of COVID-19 statistics. It's easy to become numb to it. But the family of McLean County's youngest coronavirus victim wants to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Danielle Kater, 30, of Bloomington died Nov. 3. The McLean County Health Department reported her death the next day as “a woman in her 30s” who did not have any prior health conditions and was not affiliated with a long-term care facility.

Dani’s family offers a more robust account of her life. Kater was an only child. Her parents, Tina and Bob Rubin, recall her always being kind, studious and passionate about animals.

Tim Kater describes his life with wife Dani as a "classic high school sweetheart love story." She graduated from Mt. Zion High in 2008.

She graduated from Mt. Zion High School in 2008 and went on to study accountancy at North Central College. She later brought her financial savvy to a career at Keplr Vision.

“She was just a very caring person and she frequently would put others first when she would always try to be empathetic and include herself and others shoes,” Bob Rubin told WGLT.

Tina Rubin said what bonded her and her daughter together was their voracious love of reading.

“She constantly had a book in her hand, constantly, thinking about the next book she wanted to read,” she said. “As a child, that was a two or three day in a row trip to the library with, you know, 10 or 15 books coming home with us at a time—whatever the maximum that was allowed.”

When her nose wasn’t in a book, Dani could be found at the horse barn. She loved riding, performing in shows and helping others foster their passion for the sport.

“She was always very good about understanding that she wasn't always going to be the best, you didn't have to win. But she always tried to make sure that she put on the best performance,” said her mother.

Dani met her husband, Tim Kater, when they were young teens. Kater said Dani’s loving, caring and genuine personality sealed the deal. They grew up, went off to college and managed long distance until graduation. Then came marriage, the dog and a house.

Credit Courtesy Tim Kater
Courtesy Tim Kater
Dani and Tim Kater on their wedding day.

“It's just your classic high school sweetheart love story,” Kater said. “It's really like, in high school, we just wrote a napkin sketch of what the rest of our lives was gonna be. And that's the way it played out up until now.”

Kater said his wife’s COVID illness was unexpected and fast moving.

“Dani was really careful—and it wasn't because we were ever concerned for ourselves. It's just that concern for other people, the more vulnerable, especially her grandparents,” Kater said. “She always wore masks, she always avoided the things where people would be together in big crowds and you just did everything right by the book.”

The first sign that she had contracted COVID-19 was a loss of taste and smell. That started the Tuesday before she passed. She got tested Wednesday, which came back positive three days later.

“Over the weekend, she was showing more symptoms. Breathing was a little bit harder, but we just thought it was something that we kind of needed to work through. I mean, it's a part of being sick. It’s just kind of got to run its course. We still weren’t all that concerned,” Kater said.

Come Sunday, Kater said, they were starting to feel a little uneasy. They called a doctor who sent them off with some prescriptions. Still, no real red flags were raised.

“Monday morning, we bought an oximeter, which clips onto your finger and tells you your oxygen levels in your blood. They're supposed to be about 95% typically—anything less, you should talk to a doctor. Her’s were 60%,” Kater said. “That's the moment it hits you that this is bad. This is not something that you should be handling on her own at home.”

They called an ambulance. Kater followed his wife to Carle BroMenn in Bloomington. Dani was admitted to the intensive care unit. Meanwhile, her husband had to leave her at the door, in accordance with safety protocols.

Kater said they put Dani on a mask to help her breathe, which she initially responded well to. But things started going downhill fast that evening. Doctors put her on a ventilator that didn’t seem to be working either.

“They tried everything they could think of and some surgeries that I'd never even heard before for trying to treat COVID,” Kater said. “She put up a really, really good fight. But she passed away that Tuesday morning.”

That was less than 24 hours after Dani was admitted to the ICU.

“Everything up until we called the ambulance, we thought it was just the routine, the normal—just the quarantine yourself, take care of yourself and, you know, another week we'll be through this,” Kater said.

Losing your loved one at 30 is unfathomable under any circumstances. Tina Rubin said the hardest part of her daughter’s death during the coronavirus pandemic is the loneliness of it.

“It's not your typical death experience where the family gets to surround you and you get to say your goodbyes, and you're holding their hand as they pass and you get to look them in the eye,” Rubin said. “This COVID has taken that all away … Was she afraid? Did she suffer? You just have to take the word of the health care (providers) because you weren't there. You couldn't help them experience it.”

Dani’s family was able to communicate with her for a while via text. Even in intensive care, they said, she seemed optimistic she’d be heading home soon. Tina Rubin said that lured them into a sense of security.

“Even when they were telling us that she might have already experienced brain damage when they were trying this last ditch effort, and how they were going to have to move her to another facility with the equipment (she needed), and how this could be a 3, 4, 5-month process for her lungs to heal—I just knew it was going to be OK,” Rubin said. “I left that night still thinking that we were coming out of this. And I think it was just such a shock.”

The virus also is keeping her surviving family apart. Tim Kater tested positive after his wife’s illness. Her parents tested negative, but are still cautious of possible exposure.

Kater agreed the loneliness is the most difficult hurdle.

“I don't know how this ever gets better,” Kater said. “It sucks, you know, the times we’re in, being in quarantine and having to grieve.”

Reminiscing about Dani helps, he said.

“Being around Dani was a bright spot,” Kater said. “It wasn't a collection of bright spots. It just was one big, bright, shining spot. It made life so great to be able to share that with her.”

Tina Rubin said the other helpful outlet is being her daughter’s advocate to help others take COVID-19 seriously.

“I think the thing that's going to help us get through is doing stuff like this, hopefully helping educate people that this is real,” she said. “It should’ve never become a political issue. It should have never been something where we didn't pull together and do all the right things.”

Rubin urged people to follow five basic rules: Wear a mask, wash your hands, avoid large gatherings, stay home if you’re sick and get tested if you have symptoms.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
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