‘No joke’: Young COVID-19 survivor ‘Stella’ happy to be home
Four year old Estella “Stella” Martin lost her father, Stanford Martin, to COVID-19 after he was diagnosed in April 2020 early in the pandemic.
Stanford had worked as a security guard at Isleta Resort and Casino.
“It was very scary for us to hear,” said Cassandra Yazzie, mother to Stella and her sister Lilia, 9. “I tried to talk to the girls about it. I tried to make sure that they knew that he loved them.”
After 10 days on a ventilator at Sandoval Regional Medical Center, Stanford Martin passed.
To this day, Yazzie has kept the last voicemail he left for their daughters.
Since they were exposed to the virus, Yazzie, Stella and Lilia went into quarantine and turned to their traditional ways and medicine for protection.
“We did a sweat lodge,” said Yazzie. “Everything that my grandma and my dad had taught us, that’s what we did.”
Five days after her father’s passing, Stella started developing symptoms.
“She fell limp into my arms and said, ‘Mom, my back hurts,’” said Yazzie.
Yazzie rushed Stella to San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington and they were swiftly airlifted to UNM Hospital in Albuquerque in the middle of the night.
They both tested positive for COVID-19.
Even though Yazzie was asymptomatic, the nurse told her she needed to go home to take care of herself so she could be well for her daughter.
“The hospital said I couldn’t come back until I had two negative tests,” said Yazzie. “I had to wait three weeks to see my little girl.”
During that time Stella was diagnosed with coronavirus related acute transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord that can damage the insulating nerve fibers (myelin) and block messages that the nerves send throughout the body.
“The doctors told me it’s an inflammation in her back where the bad antibodies go and attack her spine,” said Yazzie.
In Stella’s case this led to paralysis in her limbs.
Because she also had difficulty breathing, Stella was put on a ventilator and fell into a coma for over three weeks.
Then a blood clot in her leg almost went up to her heart, said Yazzie.
“She coded, but one of the RTs brought her back,” she said.
Yazzie said the team at UNM Hospital did an incredible job taking care of her daughter during the five months she spent in the Pediatric ICU and four months of rehabilitation at Carrie Tingley Hospital Acute Services.
‘She misses him’
After her nine-month battle with COVID-19, Stella was finally discharged from CTH on Jan. 27 amidst a procession of applauding UNM medical workers, which made news headlines.
Her mother Cassandra Yazzie said it was an emotional moment seeing a smiling Stella being cheered on by her caregivers as she departed the hospital.
“It felt really, really spiritual, how everyone really loved her,” said Yazzie. “I tried to keep myself together.”
However, while Stella’s condition has improved, she still remains on a home ventilator and has limited mobility.
Yazzie said she and her sister received a lot of training from the UNM medical staff on how to care for Stella at home, including physical therapy.
“The ICU trained us really good,” she said. “She is getting better.”
Despite her ordeal and all that she’s been through, Stella remains very strong and in good spirits overall, said Yazzie.
“The thing she would most want you to know is you’re OK, and she loves you,” said Yazzie.
Like other children her age she likes to watch children’s programs on TV and YouTube and have books read to her.
As Stella recovers, she sleeps a lot and likes to eat bananas and cereal and play with her sister Lilia, who loves to help out with her care.
However, the one thing that bothers Stella is that her father isn’t able to be with her, said Yazzie.
“Stella loves her Dad and she says she misses him every day,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by that she doesn’t think about him.”
She also misses her grandfather, Yazzie’s father, who passed away in February 2020 before the pandemic began.
“Me and both of my little girls lost our Dads,” said Yazzie.
‘For the kids’
Yazzie said at first she didn’t want to share Stella’s story and put her in the public eye, but after talking with her, Stella herself said she wanted to do that to help raise awareness about the dangers of COVID-19.
“She told me, ‘Yes, Mom,” said Yazzie. “I asked her why and she said, ‘For the kids’ – she wants them to know COVID-19 is no joke because she lost her father and her auntie from it.”
Stella is very smart and can be wise beyond her years, said Yazzie.
She even has her own Instagram page, Stella20162020, and a GoFundMe account, ForStellaMartin, to raise funds to support her ongoing recovery, unpaid medical bills, equipment, and permanent housing.
As an example, right now Stella needs a special wheelchair that has not yet been approved by the insurance company.
Yazzie said while she initially resisted starting a fundraiser for Stella, her sisters convinced her to do so because so many people wanted to donate and help out, especially with the loss of her father and because Yazzie has been unable to work.
“The only income I had was my unemployment and that was it,” she said.
So far, the GoFundMe has raised almost $37,000.
Stella has many ongoing needs and Yazzie says she’ll do whatever it takes to reduce stress on her daughter and help her continue to heal.
Their case manager even approached President Jonathan Nez and U.S. Senator Ben Ray Lujan for assistance.
Lujan’s press secretary Adán Serna followed up to say that the Senator has reached out to Yazzie directly to offer support.
“Our case work team has been in touch with their family to assist them as much as we can,” said Serna. “Stella is an example of perseverance and we are all so thrilled that she’s able to come home. Her story is extraordinary and special.”
The family is also receiving support from the Barrett Foundation in Albuquerque that provides shelter and support for women and children in need.
‘It was hard’
Last Saturday, Yazzie took Stella to the gravesite of her father Stanford in Counselor, New Mexico, for the first time.
“It was hard,” said Yazzie. “She was talking to her dad. I wanted to cry but I stopped myself because I wanted to take care of Stella first and make sure she was OK.”
While there is no guarantee Stella will recover fully, Yazzie remains optimistic.
“She’s proven them wrong before,” she said.
The healing process for transverse myelitis can take months to years, and some patients live with permanent disability, according to the Mayo Clinic. A variety of therapies can help with recovery.
Yazzie credits her sisters who have helped her and prayer for her own strength to endure and keep a positive outlook.
“I make sure I pray every night with my girls,” she said. “I’m pretty sure that the pandemic changed everybody’s lives, but it changed my life to where I have to take care of my daughter 24/7. I have to make sure everything’s good for my girls.”
Meanwhile, Yazzie says the nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists who treated Stella inspired her to want to go back to school to become a health care worker at some point in the future.
“They made a really big impact on my life,” said Yazzie. “They talked to me about my daughter and they helped me. They did so good with my little girl. That’s why I want to do what they did for me for somebody else’s family.”