Native COVID survivor: ‘We are not replaceable’
Indian Country Today
Rebecca A. Miles started experiencing a frequent headache around late September that she would wake up to, and it would not go away.
“That felt really strange to me. It didn’t feel like a normal headache,” the 47-year-old said.
On Sept. 30, the Nez Perce woman was diagnosed with COVID-19 at her tribe’s health clinic in Lapwai, Idaho. It marked the beginning of what would be a grueling, weekslong ordeal that included “fever after fever,” hallucinations, stifled breathing and urgent hospital trips.
Now, Miles is sharing her story and the ultimate lesson she learned, especially in her darkest moments: Never let the virus beat you, mentally or spiritually.
“I hope somebody can get the positiveness of fighting,” she said. “It’s so easy to fall into the negative, or fall into the severity of this sickness.”
'I COULDN'T BREATHE'
Months prior, in June, Miles helped foster three children, including a 10-month-old. The baby tested positive for the virus, but the rest of the family did not.
They quarantined, and Miles noticed the baby would blink a lot when the lights were on. She said she turned them down in case they were giving the child headaches. The baby later recovered.
“She was a trooper,” Miles said.
Miles ended up contracting the virus later, at a time when cases were rapidly rising on the reservation. The tribe’s health center, Nimiipuu Health, reported 367 positive COVID-19 cases as of Nov. 17.
“I kind of felt like maybe this time I didn’t escape it, and sure enough, I didn’t,” she said.
The day before her diagnosis, her lungs were severely affected. Miles grew up with serious respiratory problems through allergies and asthma, but lately they had subsided — until COVID.
“All of a sudden, it’s like I couldn’t breathe, like I started wheezing and felt like I was circling debris,” she said. “I had to use my inhaler, and I haven’t used an inhaler in a long, long time.”
Based on her symptoms, Miles received a rapid test at Nimiipuu Health.
'UNDER FULL ATTACK'
Miles’ son, who lives with her, was very protective of her when the pandemic hit. If they went to Walmart, he would go inside instead of her.
After she was diagnosed, she made sure no one would be at her house while she quarantined; her son and his girlfriend temporarily moved out.
She said the doctors gave her a pulse oximeter, a small finger clip that measures oxygen in the blood. They told her if the level got below a certain number, she would need to immediately go to the hospital.
One night while afraid to sleep on her back, Miles used the device and found the reading dangerously low. She called the ambulance.
Nez Perce law enforcement arrived first and provided desperately needed oxygen.
Health care workers continued to monitor her and do X-rays at a Lewiston hospital, 15 miles west of Lapwai. She was diagnosed with pneumonia.
“It just feels like your body’s under full attack,” she said. “At that point, my body just seemed like I was getting really, really sick.”
'IT JUST NEVER ENDS'
Her breathing gradually stabilized, so hospital workers released her with a prescription for steroids.
Miles' mind was foggy from the illness, but she remembers late on a Thursday, she started feeling better. However, the next day she woke up and could not swallow. She had a slightly weaker fever and body aches.
“All of a sudden, it was like I relapsed or got sicker,” she said. “I thought the first part was bad when I got tested positive and had to go to the ER.”
This time it was relentless.
“When you’re laying there, you’re just lethargic, and you’re just sweating out fever after fever,” she said. “You think this will be the last fever, and then you get another one. It just never ends.”
Miles heard a couple of other people in the community had the same symptoms, which included hallucinations.
“Sometimes I’d think the floor was moving,” she said.
After some time, Miles started to wonder if she also had strep because her throat hurt badly and felt like it was closed shut.
“It took all of me to drive down to the clinic,” she said.
Nimiipuu Health told Miles her pneumonia had worsened and her oxygen levels were in the 80s — 95 percent or higher is considered normal.
Doctors prescribed antibiotics, but Miles said even though she felt somewhat better, she was sweating out her fevers and her appetite was still low.
She started improving near the end of October, but it was still an adjustment to get back to normal.
“Even though I work at home, it was still really hard. I really get wiped out and tired," she said.
Miles’ family moved back in after she checked with the doctors about the status of her symptoms. Their return made her realize how isolated she'd been, with no one around to talk to and the lights often dimmed.
“It was nice to be able to have a conversation when my son got back home and to kind of have some of life back into the house again,” she said.
Unfortunately, she still struggles with her breathing.
During her sickness, she used the root of couscous, an herb the Nez Perce people utilize, to make tea and to boil it with mountain tea for the aroma it would release in the air.
Miles said she would use it when her kids were sick.
“It’s a really good mixture, those two together, because you can get that medicine and be able to drink with your tea,” she said. "It’s really nice to have those going, especially if you’re having respiratory issues."
She remembers when she ran out of tea, her cousin who was going into labor helped out.
“She had her husband drop it off before they went down to have their baby,” Miles said, laughing.
NOT A HOAX
Miles noted she is disappointed to see people debate the validity of COVID-19.
She said arguing against wearing masks and calling the virus a flu is belittling to her experience and to those who have died.
“I really feel for people who are elderly because the Indian community is really resilient as our people have been surviving so many different things,” she said.
She added family, friends and others in the community were very supportive, and she was grateful to have them care for her.
To keep up her spirits when the virus was hitting her especially hard, Miles would watch videos her brother sent, including one of CNN anchor Chris Cuomo talking about his own COVID battle.
It was extremely encouraging, she said. “It changed everything for me.”
Another video of her cousin’s husband, who also tested positive, contained the message to keep fighting by getting up and walking around, even if you are struggling to breathe, and to be aware of your surroundings.
“It gave me the sense to fight,” Miles said. “I still get emotional about it because I remember being a child feeling like I wasn’t going to live; I couldn’t breathe.”
The videos instilled in her the will to overcome the virus’s emotional and physical toll.
“They made all the difference in how I existed with having COVID.”
Today, Miles prays for those still dealing with the virus, especially Native people since they experience chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity at a higher rate than any other ethnic group.
“Our people, we are not replaceable,” she said.
Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.
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