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Sent home from the hospital with a pneumonia diagnosis, he died days later of covid-19

Sterling E. Matthews, of Chester, Va., with his granddaughter, Devyn, in this undated family photo.
Sterling E. Matthews, of Chester, Va., with his granddaughter, Devyn, in this undated family photo. (Courtesy of Alice Matthews)

RICHMOND — Sterling E. Matthews and his wife were already busy raising their young son when they decided to take in a baby niece whose own parents weren't able to care for her.

“He just brought her on in, no fuss,” Alice Matthews recalled Wednesday, a day after her husband died of covid-19 at a suburban Richmond hospital. “He just was that kind of a man. He saw a need.”

Sterling Matthews, 60, who lived south of Richmond in Chester, Va., died Tuesday at Bon Secours St. Francis Medical Center.

He first went to the hospital on March 23 seeking to be tested for the novel coronavirus, but he was told he had pneumonia and was sent home, Alice Matthews said. His health continued to deteriorate, and on Friday, he went back to St. Francis by ambulance. He was admitted and tested positive for the virus.

Alice Matthews and other family members were not allowed to visit him in the hospital. She talked to him twice before he died.

“I haven’t seen him since Friday,” she said. “They would just call me and give me updates. They really are not letting anyone in, no matter what.”

Now she is grieving in physical isolation, given her likely exposure to the virus.

“I wanted to go down there and see her, but if I did that, then my 15 days [of isolation] start,” said their son, Jammal Matthews, 38, who lives in Prince William County. “My mom’s tough, she’s very tough. But, obviously, this hurts. . . . I’m checking on her, making sure she’s eating. I call her every three hours. I know she hates being in the house.”

Sterling Matthews, who would have turned 61 on April 13, grew up in Richmond, the son of a Philip Morris factory worker and a hairdresser, both of whom survive him. He met his future wife at Armstrong High School, then located in the city’s Church Hill neighborhood.

“I liked everything about him,” Alice Matthews said. “He was just kind and not one of these guys that you think you can date, and you can try and go figure out, is he playing you? If you was his girl, you was his girl. He didn’t stray away from that. He treated me like a queen.”

They would have celebrated their 40th anniversary in June.

Tracking coronavirus patients and deaths in the District, Maryland and Virginia

A veteran of both the U.S. Air Force and Army, Sterling Matthews was working in support services at Fort Belvoir, an Army installation in Fairfax County, when he became ill. He was relatively healthy, after beating prostate cancer a few years ago, his son said. His wife fiercely monitored his blood sugar to control his diabetes.

“She was a tiger lady on that,” Jammal Matthews said. “He never had a complication from his diabetic status.”

Sterling Matthews and his wife, an administrative assistant for the Virginia Department of Education, had been looking forward to retiring in two years. Their plan, Alice said, was to “be with our grandbabies.”

Jammal and his wife have a daughter, Devyn, 3. Michell Lyons, the cousin his parents raised as their daughter, has two children, Aaliyah, 12, and Caleb, 7.

Matthews was a deacon at Moore Street Missionary Baptist Church, assistant superintendent of its Sunday school program and a Sunday school teacher. He also mentored at-risk boys through the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which included taking the boys to etiquette classes to prepare them for the fraternity’s annual scholarship ball.

“They would teach them where to put the napkins, which fork to use, which glass to use, stuff like that,” his wife said. “He thought it was important for . . . the young boys to become men.”

Jammal Matthews said his father always gave “100 percent” to anyone who needed his help.

“He took an interest in people, and he always used to say, ‘You just can’t throw people away,’ ” the son said. “He always thought there was something redeeming about the human spirit and that encouragement in a positive way would bring out the best in people.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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