Christopher Benjamin’s late wife caught COVID-19 while in the hospital for late-stage cancer
Carleen Nelson-Benjamin and Christopher Benjamin at 2001 wedding.

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She already faced a poor prognosis from metastatic breast cancer.

Rep.-elect Christopher Benjamin said his wife, before her death, contracted COVID-19 in the hospital while being treated for breast cancer.

Carleen Aneesa Nelson-Benjamin died Sept. 6, less than three weeks after Benjamin won an Aug. 18 election in House District 107. She had been fighting stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, after first being diagnosed in 2017.

“Would she have survived the cancer? Probably not,” Benjamin told Florida Politics. “But did COVID quicken her death? I think so.”

Benjamin said his wife strongly supported his candidacy for House. She personally organized the launch party for his campaign in June 2019. When he won an open Democratic primary over Ulysses “Buck” Howard last month, the two already started making plans for his swearing in later this year.

The excitement of the election came on a Tuesday, and two days later, Benjamin recalls his wife took him out to a dinner to celebrate while the children stayed home.

But that night, she started to show health problems. After seeing a decline over the course of the weekend, she went to see a doctor for an appointment. Physicians said sometime between Thursday night and Monday morning, she suffered an acute stroke. That was the second such setback she’d endured since her cancer diagnosis.

“The doctors were not hopeful this time,” Benjamin said. “Her overall health was not good.”

She was admitted to Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood the same day. As is procedure during the pandemic, she was swabbed for the coronavirus. At that time, she came up negative. But Benjamin received a call days later that an outbreak occurred on her hospital floor and her roommate tested positive for COVID-19. Nelson-Benjamin was tested again, and this time it came back positive.

Benjamin stressed his wife held the breast cancer treatment center at Memorial Regional in high regard, which is why she had appointments there. He has not been given an explanation to date as to how an outbreak occurred on the floor.

As Benjamin prepares for a new stage of life as a public servant, he must do so now as a single father of four — AmirLaylaAaliyah and Jannah. His children range in age from 7 to 20.

“It’s heartbreaking to watch my children mourn their mother,” he said. “She raised some strong kids.”

Benjamin met Nelson-Benjamin while she was a student at Florida Atlantic University around 1997. She was promoting an event with her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, when they first met. He’s a member of Omega Psi Phi and attended Florida Memorial University.

The two dated somewhat casually for a few years but became serious in 2000. The two married in 2001. The same year, both converted to Islam; Benjamin will be the first Muslim member of the Florida Legislature.

He’s been an attorney in South Florida for years, but said he’s always had an eye on elected office. When he got a call from outgoing Rep. Barbara Watson suggesting he run for that seat, he had a heart-to-heart about it with his wife.

“The only reason I even ran is because she said it was okay. She knew it was one of my aspirations to become a legislator,” he said. “So even though she had already been diagnosed, her treatment was going well. She said let’s do it and she planned the entire launch.

“That’s how it was with every decision in my life, whether it was opening my law office, where she came in and decorated my entire office, if I was involved, she was involved.”

That continued after his election.

“We were already talking about decorating my office. I said, ‘You’ve got two offices to decorate now,’” Benjamin recalls, referring to both his district and Tallahassee workspaces. “She was so looking forward to that. And she was already getting volunteers to do a motorcade. She was into it.”

Now, he says the experience of her health issues will inform his policy-making, most obviously in the health care arena. Of course, as a nursing director at Northshore Medical Center, Nelson-Benjamin had excellent insurance. But the couple met many families who didn’t and struggled to pay for chemotherapy and other treatments.

And now, there’s urgency in containing the ongoing pandemic, he said.

Most of all, Nelson-Benjamin’s dedication to helping others in every facet of life, professional and personal, will drive his actions every day.

“My wife lived by the edict that people don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” he said, “and that love means very little if you don’t care for people. That’s what she taught me.”

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].

One comment

  • Peter Webley

    September 11, 2020 at 9:07 pm

    Hello Jacob, Peter Webley here, publisher of Caribbean Today in Miami. Could you please give us permission to run this story on our web site

    Very kindest regards,

    Peter A. Webley
    Caribbean Today &
    9020 SW 152nd. Street
    Miami, Florida, 33157
    305-238-2868 X 11
    305-252-7853 Fax
    305-479-8229 Cell

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