My mom died of COVID-19 on Nov. 14, 2020, in Montana — 14 days after her first symptoms and five days after she went to the hospital. Although it is agonizingly similar to others, the trauma, pain, guilt and suffering is all mine.
My mom was Barbara Huber Earley. She was born on May 28, 1938, in what was then Yugoslavia. An ethnic German, she had to flee with her family to Austria at the end of World War II. My mom grew up in a displaced persons camp until 1956, when she came to the U.S. with her family and promptly became a U.S. citizen. She had a life and a story, and she deserved better than dying alone in a hospital bed, struggling to breathe.
Throughout the summer of 2020, I kept watching the case numbers, laying low, hoping that the coronavirus would be controlled by the end of the summer. I followed the mandates and recommendations by working from home, not traveling, wearing a mask in public and avoiding inside gatherings. As everyone was told to avoid traveling, I helped my neighbors and hoped that my mom’s neighbors were doing the same for her. She always assured me she had everything she needed. She lived on her own in a small community in Montana, but knew several of her neighbors and had close friends in nearby towns.
It was a pandemic; everyone worldwide was in the battle against the coronavirus together. In October, I looked around me and realized that wasn’t true. While I was staying at home and not visiting my mom to protect her, others were traveling around the country to take advantage of cheap flights and lodging. I had scheduled a flight from Fairbanks to Great Falls on Nov. 11, 2020. I was so relieved to have a trip planned to see and help my mom. I knew I needed to take precautions, but I was excited and relieved to have a plan to see her. She was my mom, and I had been worrying about her every day during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t get to see her. My mom called me on Nov. 6 to tell me that she had been feeling sick and tested positive for COVID-19. I would need to postpone the trip; she didn’t want to infect anyone else. She cried when she told me, so I tried to be strong and optimistic for both of us.
The next days were filled with calls to her to ask about symptoms and to try to get her to go to the hospital. She waited to go to the hospital until she had trouble breathing — directions given to her by the local health department. Sadly, I didn’t know about COVID brain at that time. I should have flown from Alaska to Montana to take her to the hospital myself. When she finally went to the hospital on Nov. 9, I was at first relieved to know that she would get the help she needed. New drugs and treatments were available that would help those infected survive COVID-19.
When she arrived at the ER, it was like she stepped behind the Iron Curtain. My siblings and I, none of us in Montana, were all trying to get concrete information from the hospital staff. Had she been admitted? What was her room number? What was the prognosis? How do we talk to her? A day later, I finally talked to the attending doctor. I asked about remdesivir and was told that it is given until Day 10 from the start of symptoms. Since my mom arrived at the ER on Day 10, the original doctor decided to not give it to her — or any other treatments. When the current doctor took over, he didn’t change anything. In total, it was five days of struggling to get in touch with the hospital staff only to learn nothing with each response. One day, she was improving; the next day she needed a ventilator.
My mom was still coherent enough to decide for herself that she didn’t want to be placed on the ventilator. We were allowed to talk to her by Zoom twice to comfort her in her last days and to say goodbye. We told her that we loved her, reminded her of all that she had done in her life, and told her that we would always be with her. She told us that she loved us and would always be with us, too.
It still breaks my heart that I couldn’t hold her hand, hug her, comfort her, and just be with her. She died alone, struggling for breath, as so many others have with COVID-19. My sister received a call from the hospital in the early hours of Nov. 14 telling her that our mom had died. I had woken up around 2 a.m. in Alaska and couldn’t go back to sleep. In some way, I hope I was with my mom as she took her last breath.
Since this experience, I have learned so much more about COVID-19. The hospital protocol is to give the patient oxygen and treat any failing organs as the virus ravages the body. Since my mother had no organs failing, she was only given oxygen and steroids to help with breathing until her heart stopped beating.
My mom’s medical records had two entries — one on the day she was admitted and one on the day she died. The records gave little information and answered none of the lurking questions that will never be answered. Two sets of lab results showed markers indicating that my mom had a high exposure with a high chance of mortality — the cytokine storm. Did the hospital staff share this information with my mom but not with us? Why wasn’t she given any experimental drugs and treatments? It has been noted that those admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 and these markers should be given everything available, since the chances are slim anyway. My mom was given nothing but oxygen through a mask and steroids.
Knowing these lab results, I feel as if the hospital staff left her to die alone. Yet, those with money, power or influence receive remdesivir, monoclonal antibodies, cholchicine, dexamethasone, and endless other treatments the moment they test positive, whether they are vaccinated or not and regardless of the mortality indicators in their lab results. Since my mom was told to stay at home and recover, she avoided the hospital until she started having trouble breathing. When she arrived at the hospital, the staff decided that she wasn’t eligible for any of these treatments. She never had a chance.
My experience, feelings and response to the loss of my mom to COVID-19 are not unique. Families of more than 712,000 Americans who have died are left with feelings of loss, guilt, regret and anger. There are unanswered questions from the hospital, such as being told that our loved one was improving and planning to be sent home with oxygen, only to be told that a ventilator was needed the next day.
Those who have not been affected personally show no sympathy toward those who have, increasing the suffering. Those who have died are just numbers in a tally to most Americans. There has been little recognition for those lost to COVID-19. Twenty years later, America still publicly mourns the loss of 3,000 people on Sept. 11. When will the more than 712,000 lives lost to COVID-19 be recognized? They deserve more than being a number in a daily tally. They were spouses, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, children, uncles, aunts, and friends.
Instead, these grieving families see the same people who might have killed their loved ones continue to refuse to wear masks and refuse to get vaccinated, because it is their right to disregard human lives and disrespect those around them. As we grieve the loss of our loved ones, we need to continue to protect ourselves from those who have been given the right to kill by not wearing masks and not getting vaccinated. Dealing with this complicated grief has left us emotionally vacant to suffer in silence while those around us deny the pandemic or act like it is over.
My mother was Barbara Huber Earley. She died from COVID-19 on Nov. 14, 2020, alone in a hospital struggling to breathe. She deserved better.
Heidi Young is a Fairbanks resident and has lived in Alaska for more than 20 years. She is a COVID-19 survivor.
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