COVID-19: Stories of loss and survival
By Shelia Kirven and Christian Toews
July 1, 2021
Jerry and Shirley Lowman, beloved Choctaw elders and highly respected teachers of the Choctaw culture, were from a small community in McCurtain County, Oklahoma. Both contracted COVID-19 in October 2020. They died eight days apart. Shirley was 73 and Jerry was 75, and they had been married for 55 years.
The Lowmans had been so careful to keep themselves safe, rarely going out in public after the virus started going around. Then Jerry injured his knee, which caused an emergency room visit, a transfer to an out-of-state hospital and surgery.
Because of visitor restrictions at the hospital, Shirley could not visit until after his recovery from surgery. When she was finally able to visit, she caught the virus, as did Jerry, and then so did other family members. Jerry and Shirley ended up in the same hospital at the same time. Neither knew the other had passed away.
Jerry’s sister, Jackie, who lived within walking distance, also passed away with what the family believes was the virus.
After the deaths of her beloved family members, the Lowmans’ niece, Keosha Ludlow, said she was one of the first to get the vaccine. She then worked to encourage other family members to get vaccinated as well.
Though some were skeptical, Ludlow says they are now glad that they went ahead and received the vaccine.
“If the vaccine is offered to families or to tribal members, I encourage them to get it. Right now, it’s the right thing to do to protect yourself and to protect others,” said Keosha.
Tammie Dugger, an emergency room RN at the Choctaw Nation Health Center in Talihina, Oklahoma, said the last year and a half of the pandemic has been very hard.
“We would come in and hit the road running. Constantly patients were coming from every angle,” said Dugger.
She said it was a different situation with each patient, and they never knew how bad it would be or if the patient would survive.
“We were having to send people to Denver, to St. Louis, to Washington, because there were no beds available,” explained Dugger. “We’d never seen stats that low before. You would have a very healthy person, and they would be the one who passed away. And then you would have a person will comorbidities, and they would survive. There has been no rhyme or reason on who survived and who did not survive this.”
Dugger talked about the immense sadness associated with patients who were not able to have a loved one with them as they were in the hospital. People were dying in hospitals by themselves. Dugger herself lost her own mother to the virus and had to watch her pass away through a glass door.
“We want to get the vaccine so we don’t get back into that pandemic, that state where we can’t let anybody back here with their loved ones. That was hard to watch,” said Dugger.
Dugger emphasized the seriousness of the illness for those readers who may not take the threat of COVID-19 seriously or don’t feel that they need the vaccine.
“You have to think about your loved ones. You may be a carrier and not know it. Your viral load may be low, and then you give it to someone else, and they just can’t fight that off,” said Dugger.
Dr. David Young is an emergency room physician at the Choctaw Nation Health Center in Talihina. Not only did he get the virus himself, but he also lost both his grandmother and a cousin to the virus.
Hospitalized for eight days, Dr. Young became seriously ill before the vaccine was available.
“Having to intubate patients with Covid due to their respiratory status, you are right in their face. Even though you are gowned up and wearing an N95, there’s the risk of getting it. I wish they would have had a vaccine before I had those types of exposures, but I just got lucky.”
Still experiencing side effects, Dr. Young explained, “We need to start taking it more serious. They are doing a really good job of making it (the vaccine) available. People need to wake up and understand the severity. It is not a joke. It is not influenza. People are dying from it. You get a lot of stuff in the media that is wrong or pushed; you get a lot of rumors that this is just made up, and a lot of people believe that stuff, so they choose not to be vaccinated. And others are just scared of it. They don’t know what the side effects might be long-term. I think there are a variety of reasons that people just don’t. But the best thing for us to do is push education and listen to people that deal with it and have had it. I couldn’t express any stronger for people to get vaccinated from it.”
For those who think they have the immunities because they may have had Covid, Dr. Young said, “Your natural immunity you get from having Covid, as far as what we know now, lasts 6-8 months. Then you lose that immunity. I think that having the vaccine will extend that immunity. I think there’s going to be a booster at some point. But we still recommend they get vaccinated. I was vaccinated after having Covid. They knew I had antibodies, but I wanted to extend that out. Your immunity may start to falter, and the vaccine will certainly boost that immunity.”
Dr. Young stated that the vaccine will also have some immunities to the variants that are coming out now. He explained that when vaccinated, you can still get a virus variant, though most of the time, your symptoms may not be as severe as if you were unvaccinated.
“But you still don’t want to run that risk. If you have COPD or some comorbidity, even a person who has had the vaccine can still get really sick from it,” stressed Dr. Young. “The chances of them having severe disease are less with the vaccine is what the studies are showing right now.”
When asked about children getting the vaccine, Dr. Young said, “I think that target population would be a huge benefit to get vaccinated because they’re not going to be spreading it as much as they are, because they don’t know they have it.”
Dr. Young went on to say, “We are definitely making progress. I do not attribute most of this to herd immunity. I think it is because of the vaccines. People need to look at that. They need to ask themselves why is it better? It is because the vaccine is working. What more proof do you need than that? People need to use common sense and don’t think that it’s over.” He urged, “Use common sense and follow the CDC guidelines.”
Perry Thompson, Choctaw Tribal Councilman, has been in a continual battle against the virus for over seven months. He first became ill in November 2020. His wife, Gail, tested positive three days after he did, and then several other family members did as well.
Low oxygen first sent Thompson to an emergency room. Over the next few months, he was in and out of multiple hospitals, the first-time stay being for almost a month.
Gail said it was touch and go during that time. According to Gail, the pulmonologist said he was lucky to be alive and that God must have another plan for him.
Earlier this year, Thompson got pneumonia and was hospitalized for the third time. During this winter’s ice storm, he had just gotten to come home when his oxygen levels dropped again, requiring the next hospital stay.
Within a few short weeks, he was admitted again, and then went on to a rehabilitative facility for a few weeks. After being able to go home, he was quickly back at a nearby hospital and was then transferred by airlift to a Texas hospital.
Doctors discovered he had a severe infection that would require hospitalization for yet another two weeks and high-powered medication to get the infection under control. Thompson is finally at home but still taking medications, along with having tests to gauge his progress and physical therapy. The virus nearly took his life.
Thompson said he wants the readers to know the importance of getting vaccinated for this virus.
“I just hope everything goes back like it used to be because this is pretty rough.”
When asked if he would encourage people to get the vaccine if they are able to, he said, “Yes.”
He also expressed gratitude, “I want to thank everyone who prayed for me. Thank you for that.”
Gail said, as the wife of a survivor, she would tell others, “If they have any reservations about getting the vaccination, they need to rethink it, because this has been a rough seven months of this, and it puts a stop to normal life. You just cannot do what you have been used to doing.”
Belinda Webb, a tribal member and CNO associate, said the last thing she remembers is getting an IV upon arriving at the hospital. That was July 3, 2020. She was airlifted a few days later to another hospital, where she stayed in the ICU for around three weeks.
During that time, she remained unconscious.
Her next memory was getting out of ICU and going into a regular hospital room. She said after leaving the ICU, it was a miserable experience. She said she could not eat or feed herself and was incredibly weak.
When asked if she would have taken the vaccine had it been available she said, “Yes, I would have. It is better to get that shot than be in that kind of misery, knowing that you might not ever be able to walk again, might not be able to do anything again. Yes, I would have taken it.”
Belinda calls her recovery a miracle. She said she still has several long-term side effects she is dealing with, although she has been able to go back to work.
As of June 6, 2021, ABC News reported that over 300 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine had been given in the United States to more than 49% of eligible Americans, but it is not enough. Oklahoma is still averaging around 100 new cases of the virus per day, with approximately 900 active cases going on at any given time in the state.
Statistically speaking, the fight to end the pandemic is far from over, and new cases of the virus are still popping up daily all over the world in alarming rates.
Research and statistics are proving that the benefit of receiving the vaccine far outweighs the risk of contracting the virus. In addition, the vaccine has been through all the same trials and research as any other vaccine and has been shown to be safe and effective.
If you need to schedule your vaccination, appointments are now available to anyone 18 years and older at any Choctaw Nation Clinic. Those 12-18 years old can receive the Pfizer vaccine at our Durant, Poteau and Talihina locations. Appointments are encouraged and will be limited daily per clinic.
If you live outside of the Choctaw Nation, there are several ways to find a vaccine.
Visit www.ihs.gov/findhealthcare to search for an Indian Health Service facility (IHS) near you. Search vaccines.gov, text your zip code to 438829, call the National COVID-19 vaccination Assistance hotline at 1-800-232-0233 or contact your state’s health department.