Donna Nakahara’s recent phone calls with her mother-in-law, Yasuko Nakahara, have not been easy.
The pair have always had much to talk about, and they still do. But now they sob, comfort each other and discuss what they’ve lost.
Donna Nakahara’s husband – Yasuko Nakahara’s son – is dead.
From the coronavirus.
“It’s been hard, but you can’t turn back time,” Donna Nakahara, a Garden Grove resident, said by phone last week. “My mother-in-law is like me. We’re living day-to-day and wishing this wasn’t true.”
Glen Nakahara, the beloved music teacher at Jackie Robinson Academy, in Long Beach, died on July 26 at the Los Alamitos Medical Center. He was 61 years old.
And for the Nakahara family, it was the latest blow the coronavirus has dealt them: Donna Nakahara tested positive for COVID-19 while her husband lay in the intensive-care unit and, though she eventually recovered, she had to temporarily send their teenage daughter, Sammi, to stay with a family friend to protect her from the virus. And six weeks before her husband died, Donna Nakahara lost her father, 89-year-old Atsushi Taguchi, to the coronavirus.
Donna Nakahara’s husband and father represent two of the thousands of lives the coronavirus has ravaged across the nation since the pandemic began in March.
Orange County has had more than 780 people die from coronavirus complications. In densely populated Los Angeles County, the death toll is staggering – more than 5,200 and counting.
Much of the attention over the past several months has been on the climbing statistics – case and death totals, positivity rate, hospitalizations – and the folks who have died, isolated, in hospital beds.
Often overlooked, however, are the people the virus leaves behind.
“It just doesn’t seem real,” Donna Nakahara said. “He was such a wonderful man, son, husband, father, teacher and friend.
“He was young at heart,” she added. “I miss him so.”
The Nakahara family, like countless others, have had a tough time of late.
A year ago, Donna Nakahara’s friend of 35 years — Tak Nakamura, who was also her longtime boss at a warehousing and storage services company — died from a heart attack.
And then the coronavirus pandemic struck in March. When schools shut down, Glen Nakahara, a 30-year music teacher and lifelong trumpet player who performed in marching bands and at the 1984 Summer Olympics, was deprived of teaching his students in person, a struggle for him. Sammi, their daughter – a gregarious kid and basketball player – could no longer see her friends.
Then, tragedy struck.
Donna Nakahara’s father, who was living in a nursing home, died from coronavirus complications on June 11. The family held his funeral more than two weeks later.
The family grieved. Donna Nakahara lost her father. Glen Nakahara lost his father-in-law. Sammi lost her beloved grandfather.
“She called him ‘Jiichan,’ Japanese for grandfather,” Donna Nakahara said about what she called her daughter’s special relationship with Taguchi. “They teased each other a lot.”
Donna Nakahara, while mourning her father, also remained concerned about her husband.
He had underlying health conditions – as the vast majority of those who die from the coronavirus do – including high blood pressure and diabetes.
“He had a bad bout of pneumonia four years ago,” Donna Nakahara said, “and we almost lost him then.”
And, like pneumonia, COVID-19 is a respiratory disease.
Still, it seems, Glen Nakahara was careful: He worked online and wore a mask, even in the house.
But then, on July 8, something happened.
“I knew something was wrong,” Donna Nakahara said, “when he was drinking lemon and tea because of a sore throat.
“He texted me for some Tylenol,” she added.
Glen Nakahara’s symptoms worsened. Ten days later, on July 18, the family called for paramedics.
Sammi helped her father into the ambulance and it drove off to Los Alamitos Medical Center.
It was the last time the family would be together.
By that time, Donna Nakahara also began feeling ill.
So on the same day the ambulance took her husband to the Los Alamitos Medical Center, she too went there and, under a tent in the parking lot, was tested for the coronavirus.
She had it.
Donna Nakahara had a choice: join her husband in the hospital or recover from home, in self-isolation.
She chose the latter.
But she also sent Sammi to stay with a family friend, who, during that time, would also take her on a short vacation to Orlando, Florida.
While Donna Nakahara isolated at home, memories flooded over her.
She met Glen Nakahara at a bowling alley. She was 20 and he was eight years her senior.
“At first, we were just friends,” Donna Nakahara said. “We did a lot of bowling together in tournaments and I got to know him.”
The two, she said, fit together well.
“It just seemed like a natural thing,” she added. “One day he asked me, ‘What kind of ring do you want?”
They married on June 24, 2000.
Two months later, Glen Nakahara began teaching at Jackie Robinson Academy, another fit for the seasoned musician.
Glen Nakahara fell in love with music early. When he was about 12 years old, a neighbor brought a trumpet to his house for him to try. He’d play the instrument for the rest of his life.
After graduating from Santiago High School, in Garden Grove, Glen Nakahara went to Cal State Long Beach, where he played in the marching band. He graduated in 1981, eight years before his future wife, a Gardena native, also received her degree from there.
Glen Nakahara was also the head trumpet player in the Disneyland Parade and was even in a band for a while.
A career highlight came in 1984, when he played trumpet at the closing ceremonies for the Summer Olympics at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Among the set list was an enduring trumpeter piece called “Fanfare Olympique” by legendary composer John Williams, of “Star Wars” fame.
But teaching, ultimately, was his true passion.
He spent a decade at Long Beach’s Lindbergh Middle School before moving to Jackie Robinson Academy – where he’d spend the last two decades of his life.
Donna Nakahara looked at her husband through a screen.
Something was wrong. Glen Nakahara was on a ventilator. Hospital officials had called Donna Nakahara to ask if she wanted to FaceTime her husband.
It was around 2:30 p.m. on July 26, a Sunday, when she spoke to her husband.
“When he came on,” Donna Nakahara said, “I told him how much we all loved him and to not worry about us but to take care of himself.”
Then, the machine doctors had hooked him up to began beeping.
Until then, Donna Nakahara said, things had been looking up.
True, she suffered several symptoms from her own diagnosis. She lost her sense of smell and taste, she developed a cough, her joints ached and she had a fever.
But the fever broke after several days.
Donna Nakahara would check in with the hospital every day at 10 a.m. and those treating her husband said there were encouraging signs – including on July 25.
She began cleaning the house and preparing for Glen Nakahara to return home.
Then came Sunday. Then came a phone call.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said. “It was 12:54 p.m. I was told he was suffering side effects from Propofol infusion syndrome.”
Propofol infusion syndrome is a rare, but life-threatening condition caused from prolonged use of the anesthetic.
“They asked me if I wanted to do a FaceTime with him about 2:30,” Donna Nakahara recalled. “‘Does that mean,’ I asked them, ‘that something was wrong?’ They said yes.”
Glen Nakahara’s caretakers told his wife that he was on a ventilator, but not to worry about his appearance. He could hear her, they reassured Donna Nakahara.
But as she spoke to him, Glen Nakahara flatlined.
“The machine started beeping,” Donna Nakahara said, “and he went into cardiac arrest.”
The doctors, she said, tried to keep him alive. But about 15 minutes later, Glen Nakahara was dead. It was one month after the couple’s 20th wedding anniversary.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Donna Nakahara said. “Within one day, he went from having good signs to dying.”
Donna Nakahara was left to grieve the death of a second loved one in six weeks.
But she had one more ordeal to endure: Telling Sammi that her father was dead.
Sammi was still in Orlando and Donna Nakahara did not want to reveal the tragedy over the phone.
Sammie, the couple’s only child, was born Dec. 17, 2005.
Sammi, Donna Nakahara said, was “daddy’s little girl.”
Glen Nakahara loved watching her play basketball and did whatever he could to make her happy. They were inseparable.
They loved the Los Angeles Lakers, watching them on television — and even got to watch in-person as they beat the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals.
The Nakaharas, as a family, also loved camping and would go to Mammoth every year.
So Donna Nakahara wanted to be there, in person, for her daughter. She waited to tell Sammi about her father.
Sammi returned from Orlando on July 31 and Donna Nakahara broke the news.
But, Donna Nakahara said, her daughter is strong and handled it – and continues handling it – well.
“We raised her to be independent and confident,” Donna Nakahara said about her daughter. “She is worried more about me.
“She says we should stay busy,” Donna Nakahara added. “I don’t know what I would do without her.”
The Nakahara family has tried to heed Sammi’s advice by staying busy while also cherishing the memory of their patriarch.
They are planning a private funeral service for Greg Nakahara on Saturday, Aug. 22.
Donna Nakahara regularly talks to her mother-in-law, comforting her and receiving solace in return. Sammi who will soon start her freshman year at Los Alamitos High.
The family is “going to stay busy and move forward,” Donna Nakahara said, “just like he would want us to.”
But the coronavirus didn’t just create a hole in the Nakahara family. It also created one in an entire school community.
Glen Nakahara had been frustrated by trying to teach music online during the spring, his widow said, but he had been looking forward to the new school year – his 21st at the Jackie Robinson Academy, on Pine Avenue in Long Beach.
He was so beloved at the school that last week, teachers, parents, students and administrators held a virtual tribute to him – sharing memories of him.
Grace Castro, a reading specialist at the school, said Glen Nakahara made the best chocolate cake dessert, with whipped cream at the academy’s annual potluck dinner.
Others talked about how Glen Nakahara touched the lives of thousands of students with his caring manner, with one former pupil saying he would visit the teacher any time he returned from college. A parent said Greg Makahara could teach any subject.
“He loved this school, and we all are heartbroken with his loss,” said principal Salvadore Madrigal. “He has left so many memories and a wonderful legacy behind.”
But now, the Jackie Robinson Academy – its teachers, students and parents – must push forward without him. The students will take exams and turn-in homework and eventually graduate. The teachers will continue educating their pupils.
And the Nakahara family must continue on as well.
They will move forward because it’s what Greg Nakahara would want his family to do.
But moving forward is also all that remains, for the Nakahara family – and the thousands of others the coronavirus has left behind.
Glen Nakahara is survived by his wife, Donna Nakahura, and daughter, Sammi Nakahura; mother, Yasuko Nakahara; sister Karen Yoshikawa and her husband, Kenneth; brother Rick Nakahara and his wife, Denise; two other brothers-in-law, Roy Yoshida and Wayne Taguchi; and four nephews, two nieces and one great-nephew.
Kelley Ikeda, a longtime friend of the family, has started a GoFundMe page for the family. The fundraiser has already more than doubled its $10,000 goal. To donate, go to gofundme.com and search for “Donna Nakahara in Loving Memory of Glen Nakahara.”
Source: Orange County Register