Ashlee Schwartz noticed 23-year-old Eric Robison looking heartbroken, peering through the glass into his wife Emily’s hospital room.

The nurse thought about the couple’s baby, born prematurely as Emily battled COVID-19 at Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith, Ark.

She saw Emily’s ventilator was working at maximum capacity, a dire sight, and wanted to help buy something for their newborn daughter, Carmen.

When Schwartz asked Eric where she could find their baby registry, he responded he didn’t know what that was.

“All I could picture was Emily walking in her house and just having nothing for this baby,” Schwartz told The Washington Post. “I just felt called. I got to get them what I can.”

Schwartz, a mother herself, sprung into action, creating a registry of items she knew the young family would need, from diapers to toys to gift cards. She thought if she shared the link with some co-workers, a few might pitch in. Schwartz didn’t expect what happened next: People from across the country saw the registry and read local news stories about the Robisons, then bought nearly everything listed. An additional GoFundMe raised more than $12,000 in just 10 days.

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Emily, though, would not get a chance to go home and see the stack of gifts at their house: She died on Sept. 20, more than a month after she was hospitalized and three weeks after Carmen was born by emergency Caesarean section.

“Two months ago, we were sitting here talking about Carmen coming,” Eric Robison said, looking at the bassinet and other baby gear scattered around their bedroom. “Now I’m sitting here with all these gifts, Carmen is in the hospital, and my wife is gone.”

The couple met via Facebook more than four years ago, and quickly fell in love, Robison said. They married months later and began talking about having children.

She had a goofy sense of humor and felt close to her family, wonderful attributes of a caring mother, Robison said.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Emily, who had asthma, frequently wore her mask, but he didn’t, Robison said. Neither got vaccinated.

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“We were young,” he said. “There are middle-aged people who get sick. You don’t think this would happen to you.”

Since the vaccine rollout, the virus has hit pregnant people especially hard. At least 171 have died from COVID-19 as of late September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although those who are expecting are more likely to experience severe illness and death from COVID-19, they are also less likely to get vaccinated after unclear recommendations and a lack of safety data.

In Arkansas, vaccination rates have lagged behind several other states. About 46% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by The Post.

It was Eric Robison who first felt sick. He believes he caught the coronavirus at work at a warehouse.

A day after he experienced the symptoms, his wife tested positive for the virus. When she stopped feeling Carmen kicking, they rushed to the hospital, he said.

They regretted not getting vaccinated, he said. Both Robison and Schwartz said they hope people who learn of this story get vaccinated. Schwartz said that regardless of someone’s vaccine status, it is important to “be cautious and take the virus seriously.”

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“Now, it’s a completely different story,” Robison said. “Everywhere I go, double mask, hand sanitizer in my back pocket. I’m super serious about it.”

While Emily was conscious, he wasn’t permitted to be in her hospital room. They called and texted, her pleading to see him. The last time they got to talk to each other, he watched tears streaming down her face in a video call. She typed questions about her care, asking what was happening. She couldn’t speak anymore.

“The last thing I ever said to her was ‘I love you,’ ” he said.

After he recovered from COVID-19, the hospital allowed him to sit outside her room. It became a daily routine: He would wake up, drive to the hospital, keep watch outside her glass-paneled room in the ICU. Then, he would go to the NICU to visit his daughter. Born premature, Carmen was 2 pounds and 9 ounces. She has since grown to 5 pounds and is expected to be released from the hospital in two weeks.

When he wasn’t in the hospital, he would go home, restlessly lying on their bed alone, feeling hopeless, Robison said.

He didn’t fully register when Schwartz called him and asked if she and other nurses could buy his family a gift, he later remembered.

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Now, Schwartz calls Robison her “little brother.” She has had him come to her house for dinner and helped him with preparing for Carmen.

“I would just hope that if our roles were switched and his story was my story or Emily’s story was my story, that someone would take my husband under their wing,” she said. “I want Eric to get as much help as he can get.”

Many agreed with Schwartz. Since hundreds donated to the fundraiser she set up, Robison said he has felt thankful for Schwartz — and the others who carried on her act of generosity.

“All the people who have donated to the registry, the GoFundMe, it’s unreal,” he said. “I know my wife is looking down and is absolutely thrilled.”

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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