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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

In early September, Elvia “Rose” Ramirez was a 17-year-old girl who was fitted for a cap and gown, ready to graduate Parshall High School in Parshall, North Dakota. She was planning to attend college, take her siblings to Disneyland and to go on a trip with her boyfriend to meet her father’s family.

None of her plans happened.

More than two weeks later, she contracted COVID-19, fell ill and never recovered. She died Oct. 6.

“She always had a smile on her face,” her mom Susan Three Irons said.

Elvia was an enrolled member of her father’s tribe in Arizona, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and was highly interested in her culture. She lived on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in western North Dakota, home of Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and her mom’s nation.

Elvia was even thinking about possibly majoring in Native American history at Nueta, Hidatsa, Sahnish Community College in New Town, North Dakota, and teaching it one day.

“She was like ‘I don’t know if you can get paid for that’,” her mom fondly said.

Her mom said Elvia loved to basket dance and loved to learn about her mother’s tribe by listening to her grandfather’s stories.

“She was always just enjoying it,” she said.

The precocious child

Elvia was a typical teenager who liked to make her own TikTok videos, sometimes with her siblings. Her passions included drawing and watching anime. And she preferred to be called Rose, her middle name, because her aunt jokingly called her Elvis instead of Elvia.

But her mom also said Elvia was always serious and a daughter that she never had to worry about.

“I go to the store and she always tell me, ‘mom, remember, no junk food, no candy, no donuts –– regular food,’” Three Irons said.

Her mom would tell Elvia that she could be the adult and she’ll be the child.

Elvia would frequently reply her favorite words to her mom, “Really mom? No, just no.”

As the third oldest of nine children, she regarded taking care of her younger siblings like taking care of her own children. She took a parenting class once and didn’t see the point of taking care of a fake baby.

“She always look at her siblings and say, ‘I have you, I don’t need to have kids anytime soon,’” her mom said.

Besides, she was already set on becoming a “cat mom.” Her mom said that Elvia and her older sister loved kittens since stray cats would always come around the house.

Her caring nature also extended to new teachers by helping them at the concession stand when classes were fundraising.

“She’d stop and talk to them. Even if she wasn’t feeling good or in a bad mood, not happy or whatever, she would always smile,” she said. 

Rose (right) with her older sister (left). Photo courtesy of Susan Three Irons.

‘She got worried’

Before Elvia got sick, she was attending school in-person because she loved interacting and talking with others. It was the school that recommended she be tested after she came home with headaches.

On Sept. 18, she and her boyfriend were tested, but she started to feel better and went on a double date the next day on Saturday to a pumpkin patch –– it is about 125 miles northeast of the Fort Berthold–– in Minot, North Dakota.

Later that night, Elvia came back, feeling ill. Her mom said she had a fever, felt dizzy and weak.

The doctor called the next day and confirmed that Elvia and her boyfriend tested positive for the coronavirus.

“She got worried when I told her that they did turn out positive,” Three Irons said.

Her mom said it was possible that it originated with Elvia’s boyfriend, whose job at Subway may have exposed them.

In the next few days, Elvia’s appetite was low, her breathing started to struggle and she had to use her inhaler. Doctors said Elvia’s high blood pressure, asthma and obesity were contributing factors.

Then on Tuesday, Sept. 22, her mother took her to the emergency room at Trinity Health in Minot.

They told Three Irons that Elvia was developing pneumonia. At first, they were unsure if she could stay with her daughter since she was minor, but she tested negative and was allowed to stay.

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Three Irons said that Elvia was on oxygen and IV fluids. She was also prescribed steroids and antibiotics.

She was then put on high-flow oxygen therapy and the hospital did not allow Three Iron’s to be in the room. Her mom recalls at that time that she was not satisfied with how Elvia was being treated during her stay.

“The nurses only came around every hour,” she said. “I was the one taking care of her if she would’ve stopped breathing from walking.”

She also said that it was hard to get extra water for Elvia after she would get a dry mouth from walking around.

Three Irons requested to have Elvia transferred to the Sanford Children’s Hospital in Fargo, North Dakota, which is about 260 miles southeast of Minot. Elvia was flown out and intubated Sept. 24.

“She was scared because they made me leave the room. She had to be by herself and she wasn’t sure what was going on, and her breathing was heavy,” she said.

The next day her mom met her at the hospital where Elvia required a ventilator.

‘Going haywire’

Almost a week later, Three Irons became sick, experiencing a loss of appetite, feeling weak and unable to taste.

She tested positive for the coronavirus on Oct. 4 and was admitted to Sanford Medical Center’s separate COVID unit for adults in Fargo. Three Irons said it was across town.

While at the hospital, doctors informed Three Irons that her daughter’s vitals were becoming hard to manage because her blood pressure was dropping and her heart rate was racing.

“Her body was pretty much going haywire. Her sugar (was) going all over the place where they were giving her insulin and everything,” she said.

The nurses set up a video monitor for Three Irons to see her daughter’s face. They were worried Three Irons was contagious and could get others infected if she came to the hospital.

“They knew she wasn’t going to make it much longer,” she said.

While Three Irons was watching her daughter, the video suddenly fell to the floor. She called the nurse station to ask what happened. They told her that they were doing CPR on Elvia because her heart rate stopped.

They worked on her for 25 minutes.

The doctor called back and informed her that Elvia had died. They put the phone to Elvia’s ear to let her mom say goodbye.

She told her that she loved her, the family would be okay and that she was proud of her.

Elvia’s body was taken to Arizona for Salt River’s traditional cremation ceremony.

“They cremated her and then buried her ashes down there,” she said.

One distinct memory Three Irons has of her daughter is how much fun she had with her siblings.

About two years ago, during a heavy snowstorm, Three Irons remembers her daughter and her little brothers playing in the snow, playing the children’s game, King on the Hill.

Elvia won.

“She was bigger than them and easily knocked them down….and just smiling,” she said.

She said she will also remember her daughter’s sincere thoughtfulness for others.

“(She was) always kind hearted, she would always be there for whoever needed it,” 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 Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.

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