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‘I survived’: Couple, both COVID-positive, keep it together

(Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series)


Mary Tom could hear her four-year-old son crying and pleading to see her. He was just outside her bedroom door.

Her son was still too young to understand why he couldn’t be with his mother, whom he had slept next to every night since he was born.

“It was so heartbreaking when he cried, trying to come into the room and instead his dad pulls him away,” Tom said as her voice cracked.

Tom’s son is her youngest of four and the only boy. She has three daughters and all her children are under 10.

It was mid-March and Tom was in self-isolation after being tested for COVID-19. The names of the Tom family have been changed for their protection.

“I thought I would never see it on the reservation,” Tom said during a phone interview. “I thought we were kind of safe, but to walk into it and contract it …”

It all began on March 7 when Tom and her family attended a yearly gathering of the Nazarene Church. This was the first time her family attended the gathering.

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Previously it was described as a revival. However, Tom describes it as more of a yearly meeting where all the congregations in what their church calls the northern zone come together to discuss finances.

This zone rally included congregations from Forest Lake, Cameron, Kaibeto, Lechee, Shonto and Chilchinbeto, which are all part of the northern zone.

It was March 7 and the Nez administration was stating there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Navajo. The Navajo Nation government was still running as normal. There were no closures and no stay-at-home orders.

The illness was still a faraway thought as clusters started to pop up in major U.S. cities like Seattle.

Little did anyone know the first cases of the virus had already started to spread across Western Agency. This is where Tom contracted COVID-19 and began her harrowing journey.

Tom is immune-compromised because of a kidney transplant in 2018 that saved her life.

On March 11, her husband started to feel sick and called in to work. This is when she started to feel the body aches that were similar to when she got influenza A in late January.

Two days later, the Nez administration sent non-essential executive branch employees home for three weeks. There still was no shelter-in-place order and Nez even hosted an in-person press conference on March 13 at the Navajo Nation Museum where some 30 people were in close proximity to one another.

One day later in Shonto, Tom was still feeling unwell and went to the Kayenta Health Center’s emergency room. Tom and her husband were both tested for influenza. The results were negative.

“They just sent us home,” she said. “They said it was maybe something more viral like a cold going around.”

Tom still didn’t have a fever, cough or trouble breathing.

The next day she attended church in her home community of Shonto for about 15 minutes. The pastor wanted to make an announcement.

“He was saying that the headquarters of the Nazarene Church had mentioned that they needed to start canceling church service and stop meeting in groups,” she said.

The next day Tom and her family went to a birthday party at her mother’s home.

It was March 16. This is when schools in New Mexico and Arizona closed. Navajo Gaming met that day to discuss whether or not to close their four casinos. In-person voting in Arizona was set to happen the next day despite the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic.

The Nez administration was still saying there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

But that evening Tom started to get a fever and the coughing started.

Just one day later on March 17, the Navajo Nation reported the first positive case of the disease.

The next day Tom started to have trouble breathing. She went to the ER in Tuba City where she was tested for the disease.

“It was scary,” she said through tears. “And to think, to survive from getting a kidney transplant to thinking this viral disease would take me, oh, my God, that was scary.”

This is when she went into self-isolation and when her symptoms got worse.

“The pain I would say was like just laying here, body aches was stabbing pain all over my body,” she said. “Breathing was like when somebody grabs you and just squeezes you. That pain from that squeeze is how it feels just to breathe. But coughing was like, I don’t know, a million pieces of glass going into your lungs.”

She was so lethargic that her husband, Steven Tom, had to wake her up to eat and drink water.

“It’s hard for you just to wake up,” she said. “I remember just nodding when he asked me if I’m OK but right after that I’d go back to sleep.”

Steven was sick with COVID-19 too but not to the extent his wife was.

“I’m like that person who is tough,” Steven said in a phone interview. “But I cried. I got emotional but I kept going.”

He had to. Steven was the only one to care for their four children and now his ill wife.

“I did cook, clean, sanitize,” Steven said. “I changed the bedding for my wife. I changed her clothes.”

Steven was also feeding his wife and trying to get her up to move around.

“My grandparents always told me that you have to get up when you’re sick. Don’t just lay around or it’ll get worse,” he said. “That’s why I was telling my wife, ‘You need to get up. You need to eat. If you don’t eat and you don’t nourish your body, you will start losing strength.’”

Mary lost her appetite and was too lethargic to get herself up to eat and drink water.

Steven continued to monitor her condition including her oxygen levels. It wasn’t until her levels started to dip into the low 90s and when she coughed it would go into the 80s that they returned to the hospital on March 25.

Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation admitted her for observation for two days before discharging her home.

“I think I got over the period where you get worse and then you start toward recovery,” Mary Tom said.

She’s better now but is still dealing with lethargy. She describes it as feeling drained.

“I don’t know why but I had a kidney transplant and I survived,” she said.

After her recovery, the Tom family is confronting the stigma of having COVID-19 and its emotional trauma.

Read about this in next week’s paper.

About The Author

Pauly Denetclaw

Pauly Denetclaw is Meadow People born for Towering House People. She was raised in Manuelito and Naschitti, New Mexico. She was the co-recipient of the Native American Journalist Association's 2016 Richard LaCourse Award for Investigative Reporting. Denetclaw is currently finishing her degree in multimedia journalism from the University of New Mexico - Main. Denetclaw covers a range of topics including genetic research, education, health, social justice issues and small businesses. She loves coffee, writing and being with her family. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Her handle is @pdineclah


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