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'Is your opinion really worth your life? It’s not.'

A Tongan nursing student shares the painful cost of long-haul COVID

by Tonga Victoria

“He brought it home from kava, and if I didn’t just give birth a month ago, I’m sure the experience would have been different,” she shared as we talked candidly over Zoom. The 26-year-old nursing student, whom we’ll call Siale, asked to remain anonymous out of privacy concerns.

Whether COVID is contracted in a kava circle or the coffee shop or while playing at the park, the deadly disease is relentless and indiscriminate. And, although the place of contact is unpredictable, the spread oftentimes materializes within the confines of our own homes.

Siale’s experience with COVID is one that could have ended differently, which is unfortunately not the case for a disproportionate number of Pacific Islanders who’ve died from the novel disease. As of September 11, 2021, a total of 73,036 Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders have tested positive for COVID-19. Of this number, almost 1,000 of those cases have ended in death.

Throughout our talanoa, the 26-year-old Tongan reiterated that death is not the only side effect. “For me and many others who deal with the long-haul impacts of this disease, COVID is with me for the rest of my life.”

According to Siale, life before COVID revolved around her newborn daughter and energetic 5-year-old while committing to hours of studying and classroom instruction toward becoming a medical nurse. When asked if she could paint a picture of what life was like before COVID, she released a sigh of nostalgia.

“I had just given birth in June 2020 to my daughter and was healthy before my pregnancy with no complications,” said the mother of two. “I was still doing school and living the mom-work-student life.” She led a life that required supernatural levels of energy and balance that her physical health and well-being could satisfy.

“So, my dad came home Sunday morning after kava, and I could hear him coughing from his room. So, when I woke up on Monday I felt sick, and I knew that I had COVID.” In Siale’s case, the incubation period for COVID was shorter and aggressive, she said.

“I had to go to the emergency room because I was considered high risk because I just gave birth a month ago,” she said. “I was kind of skeptical about going because I don’t like going to the doctor, but I was getting really bad chest pain. It felt like it was crushing my lungs; very sharp and painful.”

“They found a pocket of air outside my diaphragm and an infection in my lungs because of COVID. I was admitted to the hospital for a week where I wasn’t allowed to eat for a week. They would have me swallow some sort of medication that was dyed a certain color so that when they would scan my throat they could see if the water would be leaking somewhere in my windpipe or esophagus.”

Siale was admitted on a Thursday morning and discharged a week later. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of her experience was how COVID impacted her newborn.

“Before COVID, I was producing 100 ounces of breastmilk a day,” she explained. “But because of COVID, I was unable to produce any breast milk at all. When I got back to my baby, she was confused with my nipple versus the bottle, because that’s what she drank while I was in the hospital. I breastfed my first daughter until she was 2 years old, so I was planning on breastfeeding my newborn baby, too.”

The post-COVID complications don’t end there. “Because of the stress from the pregnancy and COVID, I developed heart failure,” she said. “I have to take a test for it every year. I have really bad shortness of breath, and I have to take my blood pressure medicine every day. I am considered immuno-compromised. So, this is what I live with. It really changed my life.”

Shortly after Siale was discharged from the hospital, the first round of vaccines were made available for frontline workers across America. She couldn’t wait.

“My siblings joke at how fast I got the vaccine, saying that I was the first Tongan in America to get the vaccine,” she laughed. “But I got it to protect myself, and my family. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to ensure that myself and my family are safe from COVID. Death is not the only thing that impacts a family.”

As she continues to find balance in life, Siale’s own experience with COVID has emboldened her to encourage others to stay safe and get vaccinated. She believes that hope and any sense of normalcy is on the other side of a community that is protected.

“I get it people have their opinions on whether or not the vaccine works, but is your opinion really worth your life? It’s not,” she said.

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