Death by numbers: The forgotten (young) faces of COVID

March 30, 2021 4:34 am

Former legislator Mary Moe of Great Falls with her grandson, Jack. (Courtesy of Mary Moe)

It’s hard to say when we became numb to the numbers. It’s the nature of numbers to obscure names and faces, to obliterate the story of one lost life with six digits representing hundreds of thousands of others.

But then someone sends along an obituary of someone you knew. Or you drift off to sleep listening to PBS’s “America, Interrupted,” telling just four stories behind those numbers. And you are jolted awake by numbers morphing into faces.

Numbers tell us America’s Indigenous peoples are twice as likely as white Americans to die from COVID-19. Crowded housing and chronic health problems make them more susceptible to respiratory diseases; underfunded or inaccessible health systems make them less likely to survive them. In South Dakota, where American Indians represent just 1% of the population, they account for 14% of all COVID cases.

Jesse “Jay” Taken Alive lived in South Dakota. Once chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, he worked tirelessly to reclaim indigenous artifacts and preserve Lakota language and culture. Regarded as one of the greatest Lakota leaders since Sitting Bull, he died on Dec. 14. Newspapers reported his death was caused by “complications related to COVID-19.” His son says it was a different complication entirely.

Jay’s wife Cheryl contracted COVID when he did. She died in November. His children tried to distract him from his loss with talk of future plans, but it was no use. He couldn’t stop talking about her, thinking about her, missing her. This man who had done so much for his people simply could not live without one of them. Thirty-three days after Cheryl died, Jay joined her.

Numbers could predict that COVID would ravage the Standing Rock Reservation, but they also reassured 20-somethings that they were 250 times more likely to survive the disease than their elders.  Jared Mellette beat those odds. Only 24 years old, he emerged from his bedroom one late autumn day, weak and struggling to breathe. His mother watched as paramedics carried him away on a stretcher.

“I prayed and prayed he would come home soon,” she said, “but he never did.”

He died on December 6. She keeps his bedroom just as it was and sometimes goes in to press one of his flannel shirts to her face, just to breathe in the scent of him.

Chris Miller was another 20-something with other numbers working against him. He was Black with underlying health conditions. Aged 21, the 6-foot, 300-pounder was finishing up his degree in business administration in preparation for opening his own restaurant. He contracted COVID in August.

As his family watched his condition worsen, they were also plagued with financial worry. Chris had no health insurance. His hospital bill was closing in on $3 million when he died in December.

“Sometimes I just want to lay in bed and ask God why,” his sister told PBS’s Amna Nawaz. “But his smile lets me know his spirit still lives in me.”

Adeline Fagan was 28. Fresh out of medical school, she had everything going for her. Except for asthma. That put her at higher risk for getting very sick if she contracted COVID. Adeline took that chance. Unfortunately, as a healthcare worker she was somewhere between 3 and 7 times more likely to contract COVID. Adeline’s is one of the faces behind those numbers.

She had been her parents’ pride and joy, the indefatigable go-getter with a heart for helping others. When she was hospitalized, they rushed to Texas to be near her. They couldn’t see her, of course, until she was diagnosed as no longer having COVID. By then, the disease had taken its toll. When her mother finally got to see her, she was shocked at how weak Adeline was. Even opening her eyes was a struggle. Mrs. Fagan shortened her visit with a simple request: “Adeline, can you open your eyes and give me a kiss?”

Adeline did and her mother felt a rush of foreboding. Mothers know. Adeline had a brain bleed two days later. Her parents sat helplessly by her side until all the tubes were disconnected and the beep became a flatline.

The 40-year-old man went to the motorcycle rally in Sturgis and died alone in his apartment a month later, afraid to go to the hospital because he didn’t have insurance … The mom who was so grateful her little family had made it through 2020, then got the sniffles a few days before Christmas and fell unresponsive to the bathroom floor 2 days after the holiday, leaving a 9-year-old-son and a COVID-stricken husband behind …  The son who returned to live with his parents after his divorce, unwittingly bringing with him the disease that would kill his father ….

So many stories. As I write, 548,000 in the United States alone. And counting. Yes, our numbers of daily deaths are steadily decreasing from the all-time high (knock on wood!) of 5,463 on Feb. 12. This is the first day since Nov. 6 that the 7-day average for daily deaths in the United States has been below 1,000 for two days in a row. Just two Twin Towers a week now, more or less. And we’re relieved.

Mary Sheehy Moe writes from Great Falls.

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