First class in a second career: Mortuary Science alumna Kimberly Varela '13

Serving in the military was Kimberly Varela's Plan A, B and C. As she approached high school graduation in 1994, she enrolled in the Navy, intending to follow in the footsteps of her parents, three brothers, grandfather and uncle. During the enlistment process, however, doctors discovered that Varela had an epileptic condition that made her ineligible for service.Kimberly Varela

"I didn't have a non-military plan," Varela said. So she came to Wayne State University to explore her options. "I did what many freshmen do and kept trying different majors, looking a good fit."

Varela's career aspirations bounced from veterinarian to nurse to EMT until one day her advisor said, "We have an excellent Mortuary Science program that's unique to Wayne State." Intrigued, Varela toured the building, looked into the program and was about to commit when she was presented with the opportunity to become an international airfreight logistics specialist - a position that appealed to her and one that did not require a college degree.

"I loved that job and did it for 10 years," Varela said. "I expected to do it for the rest of my life." But then 9/11 happened. Air travel and cargo were directly affected, and by early 2002 Varela was among the many laid off during the country's economic collapse.

She needed a new plan. After a few years of making ends meet with an hourly job at McDonald's, Varela returned to Wayne State to pursue a degree in mortuary science. A lot had changed in the 12 years since she'd been on campus, including the program curriculum and even the MortSci building itself. Most of her cohort was younger than she was, and most entered the program with a background in funeral services - including some who'd been born into the business. Even so, Varela felt like she was in exactly the right place at the right time. "I loved the program the entire way through," she said. "Especially the embalming portion. Everyone has that one thing they love and embalming was my thing. I loved the science of it, the ethics and the art form."

Varela shows off her Restorative Art project during her first semester in the program.

That passion led to Varela earning the 2012 Gerald P. Cavellier Excellence in Embalming Award. "I never considered myself to be in the running because other students had grown up in funeral home legacies, so I was shocked to win," she said. "But when you're that interested in something, you tend to excel."

The competition was adjudicated by faculty members Sharon Gee-Mascarello and Roger Husband, who was so impressed with Varela that after she graduated in 2013, he added her to his staff at the Husband Family Funeral Home in Westland, Michigan.

"Kimberly came into the program with no experience and at the end of the program we presented her with our embalming award," Husband said. "She shined then and she shines now. She may not have been in the profession for that long, but she has acquired a lot of knowledge and can definitely hold her own."

Varela credits some of her success to on-the-job training she's received at the Husband Family Funeral Home. "I think Mr. Husband understood that I was willing to go the extra mile to become a good, well rounded, confident funeral director. At some funeral homes, if you're hired to be an embalmer, that's all you do. But on any given day, I may meet with a family, then go prepare a loved one, then host a visitation, then work in the office. I couldn't ask for better hands-on experience because each position informs the other."

Varela (left) relaxes with friends after embalming class.

She took it upon herself to bolster that experience with hospice volunteer work as well as returning to WSU Applebaum in 2015 for a post-bachelor certificate in Forensic Investigation. Her apprenticeship with the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office gave her crucial insight into what happens before she gets a call to handle funeral arrangements. "I made connections with people I still work with today, and it helps to know exactly how the autopsy process happens on that end," she said, adding, "I wouldn't say it's typical to get that additional background training, but it helped me provide families who are going through a difficult situation with a measure of professionalism and comfort."

Safe services

As much real-world experience as Varela gained after graduation, nothing could have prepared her for what was to come in March 2020. The coronavirus changed everything - not just for the Husband Family Funeral Home but for their colleagues across the state, the country and the globe.

"We were still wondering when we'd see the coronavirus come to Michigan when we got our first call about a loved one who had passed away from COVID-19," Husband said. "Kimberly was ready. She told me she'd already done a lot of research, talked to other professionals and had a detailed plan for how to proceed safely."

For the first few months of the pandemic, they were scrambling with everyone else for PPE and sanitizing agents. "Hospitals were being prioritized to receive those supplies, but we also were working directly with COVID cases and having to take all the same precautions," Varela said, adding that necessity became the mother of invention. "When a friend at a crematory couldn't find bleach, they contacted a pool supplies company with access to chlorine. If I got my hands on a box of 500 masks, I'd give a pack of 50 to my livery guys, or we'd trade for gloves. We were battling in the trenches together so we shared rations, and it brought us closer as a community."

Varela (front row, center) with her class in September 2011

Now that vaccines are rolling out - with funeral home professionals in the highest priority category - Varela can see light on the horizon. But during March through August 2020, when restrictions were formidable and the death toll was unrelenting, she was physically and emotionally drained below her calm demeanor.

"It was all-encompassing," Varela said. "COVID changed the structure of how we met with families, how we ran services, how we prepared loved ones, how we handled staffing - everything."

Because they didn't want to put more people at risk, the Husband Family Funeral Home stopped bringing in service providers such as hairdressers, with Varela handling a mountain of additional responsibilities during that five-month period.

"I was working very long hours, sometimes staying overnight at the funeral home to keep my roommate safe," Varela said. "It was daunting. At times I felt like I was swimming against the current but I had no other choice than to try and keep my head above water."

Varela's primary concern was safety, but a close second was continuing to provide clients with everything they needed to honor their loved ones and lay them to rest. "We instituted live streaming for family members unable to travel, and we did a lot of electronic arrangements instead of face-to-face," Varela said. "Families were very understanding - you don't want to cause someone else to get sick under these circumstances - but eliminating physical touch changed the way we were able to serve families."

Under normal circumstances, "we bond with our families," Varela said. "They share stories about their loved ones and we laugh and cry with them. We stand shoulder to shoulder with them at the casket. We're their pillar of strength because we're handling a process that they cannot handle themselves."

Varela's mid-pandemic self-portrait

She said physical distancing has also affected the way families mourn together. "We served families last year who we'd served in the past, who'd had funerals attended by hundreds of people, and this time we had to say, 'It's going to be different for Dad than it was for Mom,' because only 10 people would be allowed in the room at one time even though the immediate family alone is 30 strong."

It was painful for Varela not to be able to hug these returning families, and watch them not be able to hug each other. "Seeing them go up to the casket one by one instead together, or seeing a son having to sit six feet away from his mom. It's difficult to watch and difficult to know what could have been."

Silver linings

The long, hard days at work affected how Varela viewed the world, even during her off hours. She tells the story of making an appointment at the Secretary of State, getting detailed instructions about their safety precautions, and then showing up to witness a mass of humanity not following guidelines, not wearing masks, not social distancing. "By the time I got to the counter I was having a panic attack. I had to cancel my appointment and sit in my car for 10 minutes before I could drive," she said, adding that she's also walked out of grocery stores empty handed for the same reason. "My job shows me the worst-case scenario. Every day, I see the death we're all trying to avoid."

Varela with coworker ShaQuita Johnson

Still, she can't help but see silver linings shine through. "Some good has come from this," she said. "Some of the practices we've instilled will make for better funeral services in the long run. And it definitely teaches you what you can handle."

While Varela didn't get the military career she planned, she looks forward to eventually being able to trade war stories with other funeral professionals who've battled their way through the coronavirus. "One day we'll all be sitting around a table together at a Michigan Funeral Directors Association convention saying, 'Remember that time we traded boxes of masks for gloves?' We will always have that shared experience and the unspoken understanding of what we've been through. Our industry has weathered a huge storm and it has brought us closer together."

An anchor in urban health care
The Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences is built on more than 100 years of tradition and innovation in the heart of Detroit. We have grown deep roots in our city, harnessing its powerhouse hospital systems and community service organizations as vibrant, real-world training grounds for students, with an ongoing focus on social justice in health care. And our research at all levels - from undergraduates to veteran faculty members - translates into creative solutions for healthier communities.

Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution offering approximately 350 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to more than 26,000 students.

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