Sandra Knapp, a social worker who dedicated her career to helping society’s most vulnerable children — the abused, neglected, abandoned, and those in the foster care system — died at Saint John Ascension Macomb Hospital in Warren, Michigan on Monday morning, Feb. 28, with her daughter Krystal by her side. She was 73.
Sandra died as a result of complications from bacterial pneumonia and sepsis after an eight-month struggle to regain her health as she and her daughters also battled the healthcare system and Blue Cross Medicare. In June, a surgery at Ascension to remove her thymus gland due to a tumor went awry and compromised her ability to breathe. She spent 10 weeks on a ventilator and courageously battled her way back even when doctors were skeptical she would be able to do so. She continued to need a tracheostomy to breathe due to scar tissue caused by repeated intubations that had narrowed her trachea. The interventional pulmonology team at the University of Michigan accepted her as a patient and doctors said a laser surgery could fix her problem. Sadly, the nursing rehab facility she was at, Four Seasons Rehabilitation Center in Westland, didn’t treat her for pneumonia and she went into respiratory failure and cardiac arrest while visiting a specialist at Michigan Medicine in late October. She was revived after 20 minutes and fought back once again, spending five weeks at the University of Michigan hospital and another six weeks at a specialty hospital for ventilator patients in Ann Arbor. She then was cared for at home by her two daughters, Krystal and Revelle, until she became too sick to remain there. She was hospitalized again for pneumonia, but Ascension then discharged her to a skilled nursing rehab facility instead of an acute care hospital. Two weeks later she was readmitted to the hospital because her pneumonia had gotten worse. She died less than 48 hours later.
Krystal and Revelle were grateful that they could be by their mother’s side every day for the past eight months to support her, advocate for her, and take care of any needs they could meet. They tried to model the dedication and love their mother showed to her own mother in the final months of her life.
Two weeks before Sandra died, she met and was able to hold on her chest her oldest grandson’s newborn, Izzy. Krystal and Revelle will always be glad for such moments and the extra time they were able to spend with their mother. Her courage and fierce willpower over the past several months were an inspiration. Until almost the very end, she maintained her personality and sense of humor. Then she just became too tired to continue to fight as her suffering became worse in the final week. Her last words to daughters were words of love.
Born in 1949 in English, West Virginia, Sandra spent the first few years of her life in Tazewell County, Virginia with her grandmother, Hannah McCoy Kennedy, while her mother, Elizabeth Kennedy, went up to Detroit to work on the assembly line like so many other people from Appalachia did at the time. Elizabeth then met and married Robert Ream and they settled down in Saint Clair Shores with Sandra. She grew up there with a younger half-brother, Stanley Ream, and a half-sister, Patricia Ream.
In 1967, Sandra gave birth to her first daughter, Krystal. They first lived with Elizabeth and then moved to Long Beach, California, where Krystal’s father, Kenneth Knapp, Sandra’s high school sweetheart, was stationed in the U.S. Navy. They then returned to Michigan, living in Saint Clair Shores before settling down in Sterling Heights. Sandra gave birth to her second daughter, Revelle, in 1970. The family later moved to Rochester because of the excellent public school system there.
Sandra earned her real estate license and her associate’s degree while her daughters were in elementary school. She visited an institution for the developmentally disabled for a class and decided then to become a foster parent because she was so upset about the conditions for children with severe developmental disabilities at such institutions. Shelly, who was blind, and could not speak or take care of herself, joined the family when Krystal was in second grade. A few years later, Laurie, who had Down Syndrome, also joined the family. The experience taught Krystal and Revelle that family is so much more than biology. Shelly and Laurie were just as much a part of the family as anyone else. Sandra was dedicated to their care and made juggling everything seem easy.
As the girls grew older, Sandra went on to study psychology and social work at Wayne State University. She worked in a shelter for abused teens before accepting a job as a social worker with the State of Michigan, working in offices in Pontiac, Detroit, and Port Huron. She spent most of her career of three decades working for the state investigating claims of child physical and sexual abuse. Having a sometimes difficult childhood herself, she empathized with the children and knew how to get them to open up and talk about what had happened to them. She earned her master’s degree in counseling from Oakland University and later became a supervisor of a foster care and adoption unit overseeing people who worked with foster children. Her favorite part of the job was promoting the adoption of children who needed permanent homes. She had a strong sense of right and wrong that fueled her work, and she was a whistleblower when she saw injustices and dysfunction that could harm the children the state was supposed to be protecting.
She always found time to celebrate every occasion no matter how busy she was at work or home. She was an excellent cook and was always learning new recipes. Her children almost always had a homemade lunch to take to school. She was also an expert gift giver and a perfectionist when wrapping gifts. She was a talented seamstress and made most of her children’s clothes herself when they were younger, and also sewed all of their elaborate Halloween costumes. She volunteered as a class assistant in their elementary school and also enjoyed chaperoning school dances with her husband when her girls became older, embarrassing her daughters by dancing at the dances sometimes. Sandra made personal sacrifices so her daughters could pursue their passions, whether it was paying for flute and oboe lessons, ice skating lessons, horseback riding, a student exchange program to Germany, a band trip to Chicago, or room and board for Krystal to attend Smith College.
She enjoyed time with Krystal in Princeton sitting at Small World Coffee drinking a latte, visiting the flea market in Lambertville, shopping in New Hope, and seeing musicals in New York City. She sometimes traveled to see Krystal when she was attending journalism conferences in the Midwest. She would sneak into sessions herself and buy books about investigative reporting that she ended up using in her professional work. It was not uncommon for Krystal to open up a cute card with puppies on it to find an article inside that her mother had clipped out about tips for making a Freedom of Information Request. She was her daughter’s biggest cheerleader when she decided to become a journalist, and always supported her when she started her own news website. She even conducted research for Planet Princeton, checking public databases and court filings for stories. She would also text Krystal to tell her she had a typo in a story within 15 minutes of the story being published.
After her retirement, Sandra enjoyed reading books, collecting glassware and antiques, and correcting people’s grammar on social media. She was banned from more than one Facebook group for telling someone they should try googling something first. Krystal joked that she was going to buy her a t-shirt with the words “banned for life” emblazoned across the front. Sandra challenged disinformation on social media and kept a notebook near the television called “Trump’s lies” where she listed all the contradictory things he said and did. She read every book about his presidency and took on his supporters in forums like Nextdoor. When people in her neighborhood kept stealing Biden signs, she had Krystal place hers in a tree. Her favorite show was Columbo, and she liked to end conversations with his phrase “just one more thing.” She teased Krystal for loving the shows Little House on the Prairie and the Waltons, and would send Krystal Michael Landon memes and end their Sunday night calls by saying “Goodnight, John Boy.” She enjoyed going to singles dances, was still dating in her 70s, and liked to entertain her daughters with tales of her blind dates gone wrong, including the one where a senior wearing tube socks, shorts, a fanny pack, and a cowboy hat met her for coffee and invited her to a shooting range for their first date, leading to a fight about gun control and a claim by the man that he was packing a piece in his fanny pack.
The greatest joy in her final two years was her great-granddaughter Lily. She enjoyed buying her books every month and watching Lily’s development. Her second great-grandchild, Izzy, was born in December. Sandra cried when her daughters noted that Izzy had her great-grandma’s eyes.
Sandra is predeceased by her mother Elizabeth Kennedy Ream, her father William Kitts, her stepfather Robert Ream, her brother Stanley Ream, and her first husband, Kenneth Knapp. She is survived by her daughter Krystal Knapp of Princeton, New Jersey, her daughter Revelle Klomp of Livonia, Michigan, her three grandchildren David, Mark, and Taylor Moody, her great-grandchildren Lily and Izzy, her sister Patricia Ream, and her nephews Brian and Keith.
Memorial contributions can be made to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital or Michigan Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA).
Krystal would like to thank all of the Princeton friends, readers, journalism colleagues, Trenton Times alumni, and high school classmates for all of their support over the past eight months. She is especially grateful to everyone who donated to the Go Fund Me campaign that enabled her to cover some of the expenses related to her mother’s care and her time in Michigan. The support enabled Krystal to stay in a hotel in Ann Arbor for more than 80 days so that she could be just a few miles from the hospital and stay with her mom for several hours every day. Krystal would also like to extend the family’s heartfelt gratitude to the doctors, nurses, and staff at the University of Michigan, and all of the respiratory therapists along the journey who helped her mother during such difficult pandemic times.