Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

Health care workers clapped their hands and held signs. Others cheered behind their masks.

The celebration this week was spurred by 4-year-old Stella, a Diné COVID-19 survivor, who was able to leave the University of New Mexico Hospital for the first time in eight months.

“To be honest with you … I have not seen a child leaving with a big ceremony like this. She was the first,” said Dr. Senan Hadid, who was one of Stella’s doctors.

While Stella made a full recovery from the virus itself, the kind-hearted young girl is expected to live with complications from her infection for many years to come.

Stella now has a condition called acute transverse myelitis, which has left her paralyzed.

The condition happens when the immune system attacks the spinal cord as a reaction to an infection. In this case, it happened as a reaction to a coronavirus infection.

In addition, Stella recently lost her father, Stanford Martin, who was also Navajo, to COVID-19. 

Her mother, Cassandra Yazzie, says in April, Stella ran up to her saying her back was hurting. Then Stella’s body went limp.

The child was quickly driven to a local hospital but had to be airlifted nearly 200 miles away to Albuquerque for more immediate medical attention.

Stella is a little girl who loves Baby Yoda, "Star Wars" and unicorns. During her time in the hospital, she even frequently reminded her nurses that she loves them.

“She tells everybody she loves them,” her mother said. “You could be the meanest person in the world, but she’ll break you down and say, ‘I love you.’”

Now her family is one of many across Indian Country whose lives have been changed from the dangerous virus. Stella's father, who passed away last year, is among nearly a thousand Navajo citizens who have died, according to data from the nation.

(Photo by Cassandra Yazzie)

Cassandra Yazzie says the care her daughter received at the University of New Mexico Hospital was “very, very good.”

The facility is New Mexico’s only dedicated children’s hospital, treating more than 60,000 kids each year.

The care Stella received was intensive and included neurology, immunology and cardiology teams, her doctor said. It also included care for her emotional well-being because it left Stella “deeply saddened” to wake up and realize she no longer had mobility.

“We tried our best, not only with the medical part of things, but with entertaining and interacting with her,” Hadid said. Nurses and staff kept her busy by bringing her toys, games and even an iPad so she could listen to songs from her favorite movie: “Frozen.”

Stella even made friends in the children’s hospital, her mom remembers. She would frequently say hello to another patient who walked past her room. One day, she gave him a bracelet.

This spirit is what made the hospital staff very fond of Stella.

“She felt like a child to me, like my own child, not a patient anymore,” Hadid said. When the time came for Stella to go home, he had the honor of pushing her in her wheelchair to the elevator.

“I would say half the staff from the UNM pediatrics department were there on that day. They were so happy to see her getting out of here finally.”

(Photo by Cassandra Yazzie)

Stella’s mom says she hopes her daughter gets up, “starts walking and proves everybody wrong.”

“Whatever is out there, we’re still gonna be positive,” Yazzie said. “She’s only four years old, and she’s inspired so many people already.”

Her mother has set up an Instagram account for Stella to document her journey.

Her advice for other parents is to be really cautious with their kids.

“COVID is not a joke … and it does affect kids in so many different ways,” Yazzie said. “And even if COVID wasn’t going on, cherish your kids. They are very, very precious. That’s what my dad always told us.”

Hadid advises everyone to follow the precautions set out by health officials, including properly wearing a mask, washing your hands, social distancing and traveling only for absolute emergencies.

He added that Stella is a patient he will remember, leaving her with a message: “Stay strong and come back only to visit us. You’re not allowed to get sick again.”

Stella's family has set up a GoFundMe account to pay for medical bills. It can be found here

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com.

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This story has been updated with the family establishing a GoFundMe site.