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Islanders honoring healthcare workers as fans return to Nassau Coliseum

Islanders fans cheer their teams first period goal

Islanders fans cheer their teams first period goal against the Rangers at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on Jan. 16, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Laura Zelenka-Dufresne still has a hard time believing she’ll be going to Thursday night’s Islanders’ game against the Devils, or anywhere else, without her husband, Bob Dufresne, an avid sports fan who passed away at age 55 on Jan. 22 because of COVID-19.

"I think Bob’s story needs to be told because we are a very careful family who are highly cautious," said Zelenka-Dufresne, a registered dietician and health educator at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. "The fact he got this is incredible."

She and their two children, Megan, 18, and Tyler, 15, who live in Levittown, along with her brother, Brian Zelenka of the New York City Fire Department, will be at Nassau Coliseum as fans are allowed in the building for the first time this season.

The Islanders are hosting 1,000 Northwell Health front-line workers and their families as guests in appreciation of their work and sacrifices during the pandemic.

"No one should have to really experience this," Zelenka-Dufresne said. "But we did. And I’m thankful to Northwell Health for letting us have this experience."

Alejandra Hernandez of Uniondale, an outreach coordinator at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, will also be one of the Northwell Health guests along with her sons, Bryan, 15, and Andrew, 4, as well as her sister, Catherine Hernandez of Oceanside.

She lost her uncle, Bartolome Camo, and great uncle, Cornelio Camo, both who lived in Guatemala, as well as family friend Claudio Bustos of Roosevelt to COVID-19.

"It’s hard to assimilate it," Hernandez said. "It feels like a dream. You say, ‘Oh, I just saw them. I was just talking to them.’ Suddenly, they’re just not here and you don’t really believe it."

She said being able to attend a hockey game with her family will help create new, better memories for them. She’s also appreciative of being among the first fans to be at the Coliseum.

"It feels like a privilege and it’s nice because we feel like we are noticed," Hernandez. "It’s nice to recognized. Even with the Super Bowl, the gesture that they did giving some of the front-line workers tickets to go. I think it’s a great thing they’re doing.

"We’re like family," Hernandez added of the front-line workers. "We know what we go through and we know what we experience. It’s nice to have somebody who knows what you feel."

Zelenka-Dufresne, too, is trying to honor her late husband’s wishes by being strong for her children and showing them life must continue.

It was Dec. 19 when Zelenka-Dufrene shared a long and emotional hug with her husband after receiving her first vaccine shot. They happily cried, assuring each other "We’re going to be OK, we’re going to be safe again."

He tested positive on Dec. 31 after showing some mild symptoms. By Jan. 3, he was in the hospital.

"I’m so glad I got the vaccine. I never caught it. I was negative four times," Zelenka-Dufresne said.

She would undress at the front door when she came home from work and long refrained from physical contact with her family to try and keep them safe. Everybody’s hands were washed frequently.

Her husband was an information technology specialist working with security systems. He often worked at home, though his job as a field agent also required him to work outside the house.

"I want people to know this is a very serious virus," Zelenka-Dufresne said. "We believed in this virus from Day One. We follow CDC guidelines. I knew this wasn’t a hoax. The fact that it happened to us is surreal. We’ll probably never know where he got it. And maybe that’s OK. There’s no pointing fingers."

Megan Dufresne said it will be interesting to be at the Coliseum — the family’s first sports outing since a Mets’ game in 2019 — to see how people do, or do not, interact with each other.

"I work at a retail store so I often see big crowds, so I’m used to it," Megan Dufresne said. "But not as big as a crowd at a game. I think it will be interesting to see how they follow social distancing rules and who’s wearing a mask, who’s not wearing a mask. Who’s following directions."

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