Janee Christensen was a stay-at-home mom until the younger of her two daughters went off to school. She went to work as a special ed paraprofessional for the New York City Board of Education. Her older daughter, Sharon Rico, said that is where she found her calling.
“She went back to school nights and weekends”, Rico said. “She worked so hard, and got her master's degree in psychology and sociology, with a minor in education. She graduated with honors.”
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That accomplishment was even more amazing because Christensen herself lived with a hearing disability.
In early March, she suffered a broken leg and was taken to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Queens. After a successful surgery, she was sent to Cliffside Rehabilitation in Flushing for physical therapy.
But she was back in the hospital within days with a fluctuating heartbeat. That’s when her husband, William, learned she had tested positive for COVID-19. Her condition deteriorated rapidly from there.
“When she first got to the hospital, I was able to see her every day,” Wiliam Christensen said. “I wasn’t allowed to see her at all at Cliffside. When she went back into the hospital, I brought her some food, because she hated hospital food, and I was told I wasn’t allowed to see her.”
She died on April 22 in the hospital where she had just spent her 65th birthday trying in vain to fight the virus. Her husband was allowed to spend just five minutes with her.
“They said I’d be allowed to see her if I wore a hazmat suit,” he said. “I knew there was something wrong, mentally. She wasn’t answering her phone. She gave me only yes or no answers. The only time she brightened was when she talked about our granddaughter.”
Janee Christensen grew up in Breezy Point, the only girl with four brothers. A childhood accident left her mostly deaf, but her disability never slowed her down. She went to St. Agnes High School in College Point. She met William through friends, and their relationship endured through college; he went to Hofstra University, she to Queensboro. They had what Christensen called a “bicentennial” wedding, meaning they married in 1976, and had two daughters, Sharon and Amy.
“She was an amazing mom,” Sharon said. “She had this amazing ability to make everything we did into a lesson. Now, I strive to do this with my own daughter.”
Janee Christensen would spend the next 30 years in the New York City public school system, teaching emotionally disturbed children at the Lifeline Center for Child Development in Jamaica, a job she clearly loved.
“She was a dedicated teacher,” William Christensen said. “She worked very hard and cared for all her students as if they were her own. She always went above and beyond to help struggling students.”
Over the past 15 years, she was beset by medical issues: a broken collarbone, COPD, dialysis. She also suffered from MDS, a form of Leukemia which required a bone marrow transplant. None of her brothers were a match, so she was put on the national donors list, and just weeks later, she found a donor.
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“The treatment was long and hard,” Rico said, “and we didn’t know how she’d get through. But she did. She beat it. That transplant gave her another 10 years with us.”
Three years ago, her physical challenges overtook her dedication to teaching and she retired, determined to spend all of her time doing the things she loved, with the people she loved.
“Some of my best memories are summers,” Rico said. “We spent summers in Sag Harbor, where my grandmother had a summer house. We spent our days at the beach, and nights either on the deck at home, or walking through our little town.”
“She loved the beach,” William Christensen said. “She loved Atlantic city, mostly for the beach. We went once or twice a year. She loved that it was a short walk from the boardwalk to water, because she wasn’t getting around like she used to.”
But most of all, she loved being a grandma to Charlotte, whom everyone called Charlee.
“When I had my daughter was when my mom decided it was time to retire,” Rico said. “And we were so lucky she did. She got to spend three years being a grandma to Charlee. It was such a blessing that we got to spend almost every day with her.”
As with so many other families, COVID-19 has left a hole that will be impossible to fill, a wife, mother and grandmother who loved and was loved.
“She was a loving wife and mother and for a while took real good care of us,” William Christensen said. “We’ve been through some hard times, and it was gratifying that, at some point, we got to start taking care of her.”
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