‘She would light up a room with her smile’: a devoted grandmother who put herself last dies from coronavirus | Australia news

In the 1970s when Vicky Patsakos’s kids were young, she used to pack the family up and pile them on to the tram, travelling from Brunswick to St Kilda beach.

Vicky and her husband, John, grew up by the water, in the town of Nea Roda in northern Greece, so when they immigrated to Australia they never went long without visiting the beach.

“We would go around the pier to the rocks and dive for mussels, filling up the bags,” says Vicky’s second son, Nick Patsakos. “It was legal back then.”

“Mum had a little fire and would put the grill on top,” says Helen Karikas, Vicky’s daughter. “We would grill the mussels on the beach, squeeze lemon juice on them and eat them fresh like that.”

Vicky with her family and friends at St Kilda beach

Vicky with family and friends at St Kilda beach

They were often joined by Vicky’s sister’s family and friends they had made in Australia. Vicky would prepare meatballs and salads and, when the sun got too hot, they would all squeeze under the shade of a tree to feast.

“It was a Sunday tradition,” Nick says.

Vicky’s children have had to hold on to these memories tightly in the last few weeks, as coronavirus swept through the St Basil’s aged care home, claiming their mother’s life and dozens of others. Vicky tested positive on 27 July, after she was transferred to hospital from the home.

Her children were able to visit her while she was in the hospital with Covid-19. They were dressed head to toe in protective equipment, which made it tough for Vicky, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, to understand what was going on. But Helen said she made sure her mum recognised her.

“I said to her, ‘Mum, can you look into my eyes? Look, look into my eyes,’ and she did. She focused and I said to her, ‘We love you so much and it’s OK. It’s time for you to rest, and it’s OK for you to go with your sister and your mum and dad’… She wouldn’t let go of my hand.

“It didn’t need to be like this.”

John and Vicky as a young couple

John and Vicky married in Neo Roda before travelling to Australia in search of a better life

Although John didn’t live in St Basil’s, the stress of the outbreak still took a toll. He suffered a minor heart attack and was taken to hospital when Vicky was ill.

“It’s just devastating,” Helen says. “In November they will have been married 65 years and then he had to say goodbye on a FaceTime call.”

At 12.30am on Tuesday 11 August, Vicky died, aged 85.

“We are all proud that she was our mother,” Helen says. “I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word against her, ever.”

Says Nick: “She would not feed herself so we could eat. She was altruistic and self-sacrificing beyond the realms of imagination.”

Growing up, Vicky never had much. When she was a child, Greece was invaded by Axis forces during world war two, leading to a devastating famine. Life was tough and resources scarce. Some of the only treats she had were the chocolates given out by the Nazi soldiers as they paraded through town.

But out of this hardship, Vicky’s kindness and selfless nature were forged.

“Her mother gave her some money to go to the shop to buy some eggs,” Nick says. “She had them in her pocket. On the way back she saw some kids playing skipping ropes. She joined in and the eggs broke. Her family didn’t have any money to buy more and she got in such big trouble.”

Helen says: “I think that maybe influenced her a lot.”

When she was 20, Vicky married John, a fisherman from the same town.

“Even though she would get seasick, she would get in the boat to help him fish,” Helen says. “That’s the type of person she is. She would come back sick, but she would go. They wanted to be together.”

The couple together

John would visit Vicky every day he could while she lived at the St Basil’s aged care home

Often John would be gone on the boat for two or three days at a time, leaving Vicky to care for their three children alone.

In 1972 they made the decision to move to Australia, where Vicky’s sister lived. “We came here with $500 to our names,” says Nick.

Things were tough, with the family of five crammed into a one-bedroom bungalow, but Nick says his parents never regretted their decision.

The pair worked hard and saved up for a home in just four years. But a few years later things took a turn for the worse when John injured his hand so badly that he couldn’t work for years.

This left Vicky to look after the kids as well as being the family’s sole income provider.

“My mum used to work long hours at the factory, then care for us and look after us, and then finish off her work at home,” says Nick. “She had a sewing machine at home and we would help her, laying out all the fabric for her … She would work late into the night.”

But the family survived.

“She used to put her hand on your head and say ‘everything is going to be OK’,” says Helen. “She would look you in the eyes and tell you ‘don’t worry about a thing’.”

As Vicky and John grew old together they became grandparents nine times over. Their eldest grandchild is now in his 30s.

“She used to say because they were our children, she loved them twice as much as us,” Nick says. “She was so close to them. She wanted to do everything for them.”

When Vicky grew old and Alzheimer’s began to creep in, her worst fear was that she may be a burden to her family. She eventually moved into St Basil’s aged care home in Fawkner, where John would visit her often.

For many families of those who died in aged care Covid-19 outbreaks, the last days of loved one’s lives are muddied and soured by staffing crises, unanswered questions about care and neglect and outbreak control procedures that leave most alone in their final minutes.

“She was robbed, she was robbed of time with us,” says Helen. “And we were robbed too.

“That night we went to hospital, the grandkids were huddled around an iPhone in the car park and that’s how they said goodbye to their grandmother, to someone they loved unconditionally. Even the funeral – there are only 10 people allowed. There are nine grandkids.

“I don’t want her remembered as a neglected aged care resident. It breaks my heart when I hear that. Every time I read something or think about it, it breaks my heart. I want her to be remembered as the most beautiful soul,” Helen says, her voice cracking.

“She was selfless, nurturing, loving and she would light up a room with her smile. She would always smile. Always, always, always.

“Absolutely amazing. That’s how I want her to be remembered.”

This is one of a series of profiles of those who have died in Australia from Covid-19. If you have a story of your friend or relative to share, please contact matilda.boseley@theguardian.com