Together to the end

Together to the end
Sandy and Andy Duet on their wedding day.

By Hannah Docter-Loeb

Alexandria couple Andrew “Andy” Stephen Duet Jr. and Sandra “Sandy” Engelhart Duet both died on Dec. 18, 2022 within hours of each other following 44 years of marriage. Theirs was a love story to the very end, as they each spent years tending to each other’s health before dying about eight hours apart one week before Christmas.

The passing of spouses in such close proximity seems like a one-off coincidence, but this phenomenon has been previously observed. Some dub it “broken heart syndrome.” A Johns Hopkins nurse who had been caring for Sandy referred to it as ‘sweetheart syndrome.’ Regardless of what it’s called, it’s certainly an apt description of Sandy and Andy’s relationship.

When Sandy and Andy’s obituaries ran side-by-side in the Alexandria Times last month, we were profoundly interested in the story of how this long-married couple, with the unlikely last name of “Duet,” could have departed this world in the same way they had spent most of their lives – together. With the help of Sandy’s sister and a work colleague of Andy’s, we were able to piece together the narrative of their remarkable love story.

I do take thee

Andy was born on Aug. 26, 1955 in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana and graduated from Hahnville High school. He had been a drummer in a local jazz band, according to the St. Charles Herald Guide, and was the first person in his family to attend college. Andy attended Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana for two years studying journalism before switching to a paralegal program – but photography remained his passion.

Andy owned a photography studio in Luling, Louisiana, worked as a stringer for UPI, as a reporter for the Times Picayune and as a reporter for several local newspapers, according to the Herald Guide.

Lenny Gray, who went to high school with Andy and worked with him at various publications, recounted that if there was ever a disaster going on, Andy was quick to arrive on the scene. Andy even won an award from the Louisiana Press Association for pictures he took of a small plane which crash landed after taking off from Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans.

“He was out there. He loved talking. He loved to interview people,” Gray said. “He loved to be where the action is.”

Sandy was born on Feb. 12, 1951 in Cairo, Illinois. Her childhood was spent moving fairly often, as her father built major bridges in Mississippi and elsewhere. Despite attending three different high schools, Sandy graduated as salutatorian from Red Bud High School in southern Illinois. She attended Southeastern Missouri State University and graduated cum laude with a teaching degree in physics, according to the Herald Guide.

Sandy then moved to Louisiana, where she started teaching science in a high school before entering an emerging field as a cardiovascular sonographer. She earned multiple certifications and worked at West Jefferson and Touro Hospitals in New Orleans.

It was in Louisiana that Sandy and Andy met at a bar in the mid-70s.

While it wasn’t quite love at first sight, according to Cindy Engelhart, Sandy’s sister, Sandy was nonetheless moved by Andy’s humor and compassion, and the two began dating. They were a couple for a year or two before marrying in 1978, according to Engelhart.

“When I asked her why she married him … and what was special about him, she said ‘He made me laugh and he was more concerned about me than himself,’” Engelhart explained.

Andy’s compassion extended beyond his relationship with Sandy. He spent much of his life being a caretaker, tending after his ailing mother for five years after she had a stroke. In 2001, Sandy moved to Alexandria to take a job at Sibley Hospital where she trained ultrasound students from Montgomery College and worked as chief cardiovascular technician until her retirement in 2012.

For better or for worse

Andy stayed behind in Louisiana to take care of his mother, but his devotion to Sandy never wavered. Engelhart recounted that Sandy was supposed to come up for a job interview right around the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but all flights were canceled. That didn’t stop Andy from trying everything he could to get her to D.C. He spent hours on the phone trying to get Sandy on a flight so she could make the interview.

After his mother’s death in 2005, Andy moved to Virginia and the two settled in Parkfairfax, where they bought a condominium. Unfortunately, Sandy’s kidney health started to decline in the early 2010s.

Since Sandy worked 10- hour days, Andy took on the caretaker role, driving her to work and cooking more. Sandy retired from Sibley in the fall of 2012 when she started dialysis. Dialysis was difficult for Sandy, so Andy would drive her to and from her appointments. After a successful kidney transplant in 2015, Sandy’s energy level rebounded and the pair became more active, even taking a few trips to visit friends in Louisiana.

While Sandy stayed active during the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of social activity severely impacted Andy’s health, particularly his mobility. By December 2021, he was no longer able to walk and was limited to their apartment. He was admitted to the hospital in September 2022 with pneumonia and congestive heart failure. During this time, Sandy coordinated his health care with their dedicated doctors. Andy quickly recovered and was discharged from the hospital in late October.

Unfortunately, the stress of Andy’s hospitalization impacted Sandy’s health. Her diverticulitis flared up, and then she had an autoimmune reaction to the antibiotics being used to treat it. She was admitted to the hospital in October, and while the doctors worked diligently to heal her, every time they tried to fix one illness, a few days later something else would fail. Eventually she was transferred to Johns Hopkins, but it became apparent that Sandy would not recover.

Until death do us part

Unable to travel to Hopkins on the day Sandy’s ventilator was disconnected, Andy and Engelhart spent four hours on a Zoom call talking to Sandy, the hospital chaplain and her nurses. Eventually Engelhart left the call, but Andy continued to talk to Sandy even as she became unresponsive. Around 9:30 p.m. or so, Andy lost the Zoom call connection and he decided to go to sleep, Engelhart said.

“One of the things I remember Andy telling her is ‘It’s ok to go. Your mother and father are there. Margaret [his mother] is waiting,” Engelhart recalled. “[He said] ‘I will come and join you soon.’”

But the next morning, at 7:50 a.m. on Dec. 18, 2022, it was Andy who was pronounced dead, having aspirated at some point after the Zoom call. About eight hours later, at 3:51 p.m, Sandy also passed away at Johns Hopkins Hospital from embolic strokes.

Dr. Vivek Sinha, chief medical officer of Belleview Medical Partners in Old Town, has seen similar things happen in his practice, of spouses dying within a few days or weeks of one another, but never within a few hours. However, he said it’s not surprising why it could happen.

“I’m a big believer that what happens in the mind affects the body and what happens in the body affects the mind,” Sinha explained. “We do know if somebody has chronic comorbid conditions like a kidney transplant or any underlying heart disease or undiagnosed things like high blood pressure, anything that would make their immune system more susceptible to illness, we know if something stressful or major happens, that can affect them in major ways.”

Sinha is also aware of broken heart syndrome, or “takotsubo cardiomyopathy” as it’s officially called in medical literature. The condition is usually diagnosed as a dysfunction of the left ventricle, which can mimic signs and symptoms of a heart attack. Sinha emphasized there’s no way to know for sure whether this is exactly what happened.

It’s clear from speaking to those who knew Sandy and Andy that they were soulmates.

“They deeply appreciated each other and cared about each other,” Gray said. “It was a love story. You never saw one without the other.”

They were a couple without any real hobbies or many outside interests apart from each other. In fact, Engelhart said that when Andy had to cover a story, Sandy would often go with him.

“I once asked my sister, ‘Why is it that you don’t have a hobby?’ Everything they did, they did together,” Engelhart said. “They felt like they were each other’s best friends.”

“They loved each other to the very end,” she added. “There’s no doubt about it.”