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One of the last things Prea Nankieshore said to her fiancé, Marcus Khan, was "promise me I'll be OK."
They spoke over FaceTime as she was being treated in the hospital for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
"I told her that we were going to grow old together and have babies and get married. Watch our grandchildren grow," Khan told BuzzFeed News. She had chided him gently when he broke down in tears and reassured him that she would "be home in a couple of days." They had blown each other kisses over the phone and exchanged "I love yous."
Those were their final words to each other. On April 5, Nankieshore, a mother of twin boys and hospital worker, died from the coronavirus.
"Nobody knew that was going to be the last time. She’s only 34 — we thought she was going to beat this," Khan said. "I’ve dealt with friends passing away, I've dealt with family members passing away. But this is the woman I was going to spend the rest of my life with."
Nankieshore was an employee at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills, a hospital in Queens, New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the country. She started in 2012 as a customer service rep at Northwell Health, a hospital network LIJ Forest Hills belongs to, before transferring to LIJ Forest Hills the next year.
At the hospital, she worked in the emergency department registering patients, showing up to work every day until she started feeling ill in late March.
She was worried about contracting the coronavirus, but Khan said she didn't want to leave the hospital short-staffed, especially during such a busy time.
"I can't leave them like that," he remembered Nankieshore saying. "I've got to do my part."
LIJ Forest Hills said in a statement that employees are "devastated" over losing Nankieshore.
"She was among the brave team members dedicated to our community and patients during this challenging time," said Mary Curran, the hospital's chief nursing officer. "But as we grieve, we will also persevere in caring for our patients with the grace and strength that Prea displayed day in and day out."
As the national shortage of personal protective equipment continues to put frontline workers at grave risk, officials have been scrambling to find masks and other supplies. Khan said he found out Nankieshore was given a surgical mask to wear at work instead of an N95 mask.
"She said the hospital said the N95 is for doctors only," he recalled. "And I was very upset about that. ... She's the first point of contact."
Khan and Nankieshore met in high school. He had a crush on her then but didn't act on it.
"I was a street kid," he said, "and she was popular."
They reconnected years later when she friended him on Facebook.
"We started to talk, reminiscing about high school. And then we went on our first date," Khan said. "On the 24th of this month was supposed to be our 6th-year anniversary."
Nankieshore was "the most unselfish person I have ever met," Khan said. She was a dedicated mom who loved her 8-year-old twin boys, both of whom have autism, deeply.
After working the 11 p.m.–7 a.m. shift at the hospital, Khan said, she would rush home, get her boys dressed, and take them to school. Then she had time for a few hours of sleep before picking them up from school, helping them with their homework, and cooking dinner.
"She loved her boys. She lived for her boys," Khan said. "She was supermom."
Khan said her kids are "holding strong." He and Nankieshore's sister have been showing them some news coverage of her death, and some comments and tributes thanking her for her courage.
"I want them to see that their mom was a hero," he said.
"I used to tell her people searched all their lives for their soulmates, and I'm so lucky because I found mine," Khan said. "Words can't describe how much I loved this girl."
The other day, he woke up in the middle of the night and looked at his phone, wondering why Nankieshore hadn't called or texted him while she was at work.
Then he remembered — she was gone.
"I feel like I'm in a bad dream," he said. "A whole part of me is like, she's coming back. ... I feel like I'm going to wake up with text messages from her."
The couple had been planning to get married in December because both their birthdays fall on that month.
"My biggest regret right now is not getting the chance to say I do," he said. "I'm heartbroken that I can't spend the rest of my life with her."