COVID devastates South Dakota family

From top left to right: Kenneth L. Jewett Jr. and Wesley D. "Shep" Fire Cloud. From bottom left to right: Ethel Left Hand Bull and Randolph “Randy” His Law Jr. (Photos courtesy of Janice Howe Adrian)

Kalle Benallie

Updated: PORTRAITS FROM THE PANDEMIC

Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Within a short time, Janice Howe-Adrian learned that four family members tested positive for COVID-19. She would soon endure the devastating loss of them all.

“It was a horrible, horrible summer,” she said.

It began the morning of June 27, when Janice received a phone call from her son, Wesley Fire Cloud Jr., also known as Shep. He asked if she wanted to go out for breakfast and take a drive to Happy Jacks Casino in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after her dialysis appointment.

“Then, we’ll go make ourselves happy,” he told his mom. She said he always used to say that.

But while she was at her appointment at Avera St. Mary’s Hospital in Pierre, South Dakota, nurses told her she was receiving a lot of phone calls. She finally answered a call, and her aunt told her Wesley had been struggling to breathe so the ambulance took him.

“I said, ‘As soon as I get off here, I’ll go down there and see if they’ll let me check on him,’” she said.

She said she went downstairs at the hospital after her dialysis ended, but they wouldn’t allow her in, so she sat in her car in the parking lot. She called in to ask about Wesley and was told they would get back to her when they had more information.

Then, Janice received a call from her sister, Clarice, who frantically asked her for help because her husband, Janice’s brother-in-law Kenneth L. Jewett Jr., wasn’t breathing. Clarice said Jewett woke up with a fever and said he couldn’t breathe. 

She was getting ready to take him to the hospital when he suddenly collapsed. Janice told her to call the ambulance.

Meanwhile, the Pierre hospital called Janice and said Wesley had to be intubated. He had bilateral pneumonia and needed to be flown to the Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, about 230 miles southeast of Pierre.

Janice followed the ambulance to the airport to watch her son be flown out.

Shortly after, Janice’s other sister called and told her first responders were struggling to revive Jewett. They sent him in the ambulance to the same hospital as Fire Cloud.

Jewett died the same day, on June 27.

When Wesley arrived in Sioux Falls, the hospital confirmed he had COVID-19. He previously dealt with liver disease.

Two days later, Janice noticed her other sister, Ethel Rose Left Hand Bull, who lived near her in Big Bend, South Dakota, sounded like she had a sore throat. Left Hand Bull suspected it to be a case of her allergic asthma.

On June 29, Left Hand Bull was also flown to Sioux Falls and confirmed positive for COVID-19. She was put on a BiPap machine, which helps put pressurized air into the airways.

A few days later, on July 1, Janice said her cousin Randy His Law was taken to the Pierre hospital because he couldn’t breathe.

The next day, Wesley died in the Sioux Falls hospital. He was 38.

Randy died July 6 at the age of 34.

Then, around July 16, Ethel was put on the ventilator. Fluid was found to be filling her lungs, which became infected. Janice said health officials recommended not to intubate her.

“She lasted a long time on the ventilator,” Janice said.

Ethel died Aug. 22. She was 55. 

Janice said her family is still trying to grapple with what happened. But she wants to tell their stories and have people understand the seriousness of COVID-19.

“I know it’s really hard for me too, but people have to know that this is real and it kills you,” she said.

She wasn't certain how they got infected but noted her family and community took the virus seriously and were careful about potential exposure.

From top left to right: Kenneth L. Jewett Jr. and Wesley D. "Shep" Fire Cloud. From bottom left to right: Ethel Left Hand Bull and Randolph “Randy” His Law Jr. (Photos courtesy of Janice Howe Adrian)
From top left to right: Kenneth L. Jewett Jr. and Wesley D. "Shep" Fire Cloud. From bottom left to right: Ethel Left Hand Bull and Randolph “Randy” His Law Jr. (Photos courtesy of Janice Howe Adrian)

Wesley D. “Shep” Fire Cloud Jr., 38, Crow Creek Tribe 

Janice described her son as someone with a great sense of humor and a humble personality.

“He was always teasing, and he just always wanted the basic stuff in life,” she said. “He was never one to, like a lot of people, have to wear the name brand shoes or clothes.”

Fire Cloud, His Law and Left Hand Bull all worked as COVID-19 checkpoint security for the Crow Creek Reservation. 

Fire Cloud was also a dedicated Pittsburgh Steelers football fan.

She said he was about to move to Pierre, 70 miles northwest of the reservation, and look for a job when he was hired as a security guard for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe.

She especially recalls when he helped take care of her when she was dealing with medical problems. She was flown to Sioux Falls and underwent surgery because of kidney failure.

She said her son often woke up early with her to make breakfast.

“He always (made) sure we had fruits like strawberries. He knew I liked strawberries, sliced apples,” Janice said. “He was always like that ever since he was little boy. He’d say, ‘Mom, are you OK?’”

Janice said she misses waking up and hearing his voice.

Fire Cloud is survived by his mother, father, five sisters, two brothers and three children, Kylis, Karter and Daniel Fire Cloud. 

Ethel Rose Left Hand Bull, 55, Crow Creek Tribe 

Since Ethel lived near her sister Janice, Ethel would frequently go over and talk in the mornings.

“Her attitude was just good. She had a good outlook on life,” Janice said.

Ethel was a fifth-grade teacher for many years.

“She really had the attention and respect of the children. She taught them really good; her class was always well-managed,” she said.

Ethel worked at the St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Reservation, which is about 140 miles southwest of the Crow Creek Reservation, and returned to Crow Creek on the weekends.

“In the summertime, she stayed here because she didn’t have a job in the summer. That’s why she took that job because she took care of her grandkids,” she said.

Thirteen of her grandchildren lived with her, and her oldest daughter also helped watch over them.

“She took care of them as best as she could,” she said. “Made sure they ate and had clothes.”

Janice said her sister laughed a lot and was always playfully teasing.

“She was never one to say bad things about people,” she said.

Instead, Ethel often prayed for them and burned sage and cedar.

Janice said they were raised Catholic, but when Ethel worked on the Rosebud Reservation, she started to go to Sun Dance ceremonies and became a sun dancer.

“She say, ‘I’m gonna go down there, and I’m gonna go pray for everybody,’ like if someone was not getting along, violence or whatever,” she said.

Around last year, Ethel began looking to complete her master’s degree in education at Sinte Gleska University in Mission, South Dakota. She was set to graduate in August.

Janice said the university called and offered Ethel’s degree and will present it to Janice in December.

She is survived by seven siblings, her husband, six children and 15 grandchildren. 

Kenneth L. Jewett Jr., 56, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe 

Kenneth and Clarice were together for more than 30 years, since college.

“Always together, doing something,” Clarice’s sister Janice said.

Kenneth achieved a degree in early childhood education and worked at the Crow Creek tribal schools as a paraprofessional educator.

“He was quiet, but he had a really good sense of humor,” Janice said.

And in the summertime, Kenneth worked in construction to keep himself busy and to care for his children.

“That was his life: his kids and his little grandson,” she said.

He is survived by his wife, Clarice, three sons, two daughters and one grandchild.

Randolph “Randy” His Law, 34, Crow Creek Tribe 

Although Randy was quiet, he enjoyed music. He played the guitar and keyboard.

“He always wanted to have a band,” Janice said.

Randy worked as a cook before being hired as a COVID-19 security guard for the tribe.

His mom was infected as well and admitted to the hospital after Wesley was flown to Sioux Falls. She later recovered, along with six other people in the household.

Randy didn’t express any changes in his health, but he quickly deteriorated after being taken into the hospital’s intensive care unit.

He is survived by two parents, two siblings and three children.

The entire family is still dealing with the grief, Janice said. 

“Maybe other reservations lost a lot more people, but these four were all our relatives, and they’re all gone, all within days of each other,” she said.

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Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at kbenallie@indiancountrytoday.com

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This story has been edited to tighten.

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