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Those we Lost: Helen Hine, 99, a nurse with 'an irrepressible sense of humor'

Editor's note: We are remembering the lives of those who died from COVID-19. Contact Julia Bergman at j.bergman@theday.com if you'd like The Day to write about someone you know who also was stricken by the pandemic.

Helen Hine wore many hats.

Not in the sense of taking on several different roles. Although that was true, too.

Hine would literally put things on her head — hats, bows at Christmastime. Oftentimes, she would pair them with an accent or a silly voice.

As her obituary put it: she had “an irrepressible sense of humor.”

That’s one of the ways her family will remember the 99-year-old Hine, who died May 21 about a month after getting COVID-19. She was living at Bride Brook Health and Rehabilitation Center at the time of her death.

“She was a kick,” said daughter Pam Hine, 65, of Old Lyme.

Hine recalled a trip to Italy with her mother, who was 80 at the time. They were on a walking tour of Rome and had to traverse a long staircase to get to one of the stops on the tour. Their guide told Hine’s mother that she didn’t have to go up the stairs if she didn’t want. The elder Hine took off and was “standing there taking pictures with her camera” when most of the rest of the group arrived, her daughter said.

“She was full-bore,” Pam Hine said. “She did everything full speed.”

Helen Tappan was born Feb. 24, 1921, in Baltimore, Md., and knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nurse. She was an exchange student in Europe at the start of World War II, and after returning to the U.S. and earning her nursing degree, she planned to return to help the continent rebuild after the war.

But then, in the spring of 1947, while working as a public health nurse in rural Maryland, she met a dashing naval aviator named Thomas Hine.

“He asked her to marry him on their third date,” Pam Hine said of her father. “She thought that was a little too soon.”

They married in December 1947 and spent 53 years together until Tom's death in 2010.

It was fitting that Helen ended up with a naval aviator, as all the men in her family were pilots. When she was a teenager, her brother, Benjamin, would take her with him when he flew Cessna planes. She would laugh when telling the story of how Ben crashed the plane into Lake Roland in Baltimore.

“Hellie’s brother, Benjamin Tappan was a decorated Douglas SPD Dauntless dive bomber in the Battle of Midway and years later Hellie would laugh and say she knew just how scared Ben’s machine gunner had to have been climbing into the cockpit with her brother — she’d been there,” her cousin, Thomas Bowditch, a retired Marine Corps colonel, said by email.

Helen and her husband raised three children together: Pam, Nancy and Peter, who predeceased Helen.

When it was discovered at a young age that Pam was having difficulty learning how to read and write, Helen was determined to help her through it, going so far as to track down a woman in New York City who was doing cutting-edge research on early learning disabilities.

“She always told me I could do anything I wanted. She said, ‘Don’t let them tell you you can’t do things.’ She didn’t raise any quitters,” said Pam, who is a senior lecturer in botany at Connecticut College.

Helen loved to travel and took trips with her children across the country and the world.

She climbed Mount Washington four times — at age 20, 40, 60 and 80. She went to the top by foot each time except the last, when she took The Mount Washington Cog Railway, said her daughter Nancy Hine Juliano, 63, of Morganton, N.C.

Helen worked as a nurse for many years, including 10 years at Connecticut Hospice when it was a new program.

“She retired at 75 and was working for hospice per diem,” said Juliano, who followed in her mother’s footsteps and also worked as a hospice nurse. “I used to tell her, ‘You know, Mom, you don’t have to go every time they call. You can say no.’ She would say, ‘I know but they need me or they wouldn’t call.’"

It was her own experience caring for her mother before she died that led Helen to work for hospice. Helen’s mother was adamant that she did not want any extraordinary measures taken to prolong her life, and Helen told her children the same.

The family knew what it meant for a 99-year-old to contract COVID-19, especially when she was already not in the best of health. Helen had dementia, couldn’t walk anymore and was deaf, Pam said. Four days before she died, she got double pneumonia.

When Helen died, Pam and her son Alex were by her side, like she had been, as a hospice nurse, for many families as they grieved their loved ones.

In her final moments, Pam held a phone up to her mother’s ear so Peter, her son who lives in San Diego and who had flown out to see his grandmother shortly after she got COVID-19, sitting with her for hours as they flipped through old photo albums, could say goodbye.

“He talked to her about all his favorite memories and how much he loved her. He told her, ‘It’s OK for you to go, Grammy. It’s OK. I will love you forever.’ I swear I saw her heart stop as he spoke to her,” Pam said. “As sad as that is, what a wonderful way to go.”

The family is planning a celebration of Helen’s life for when it is safe to gather in large groups, “when all the many people whose lives she touched can gather and throw a party as joyful as the legacy she leaves us all,” her obituary says.

j.bergman@theday.com

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