Editor’s Note: The daily reports from Santa Fe of the number of positive COVID-19 cases and deaths can sometimes be overwhelming and seemingly have no connection to everyday life and what we are experiencing in southeastern New Mexico. So, we found five families who have all dealt with COVID-19 first hand and who would share their stories with our readers. These are their stories.
Bruelhart family comes together amid COVID 19
Janet Bruelhart, who teaches science at Lovington High School is not quite sure how she contracted COVID-19.
“It might have been from my son, Alex,” she said. “I began to feel bad a couple of days after contract with Alex and his family. He called to say a co-worker at this office tested positive and then Alex and his wife Emily tested positive.”
Bruelhart, who is known among students, colleagues and friends as having forceful opinions, resisted being tested.
“My daughter made me go,” Bruelhart said. “You know how daughters can be. When I got there, they tested me for strep and for regular flu and then for COVID and everything was negative except COVID.”
When she learned she was positive for the virus, she was afraid her husband Bruno might catch it from her, so they began to take precautions within the household and he escaped possible infection.
During that period of time, her fever spiked at 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit and stayed there for several days.
“That doesn’t sound all that bad when you compare it with temps of 103 or 104,” Bruelhart said. “But my temp is usually lower than average and so that was a lot of fever for me. I can always tell when I’ve got fever because I feel sick, but the body aches were pretty bad and I felt really sick.”
In addition to the fever, Bruelhart also experienced loss of smell and taste and that loss diminished her appetite.
“I didn’t lose as much weight as some people do, only about five pounds,” she told the News-Sun. “But the senses of smell and taste still haven’t come back and it’s been three weeks since I got sick.”
She had fever every day for a week but because her classes, like all others at Lovington High School, were being conducted remotely, she didn’t think she could miss the Tuesday meetings with students via ZOOM.
“And it was the end of the semester, and exams had to be written, and there were still papers to be graded, and then the exams had to be graded. So I got up and sat in a chair all day in front of the computer so I could get it all done. But it was hard because I was weak and got so tired.”
Getting a negative COVID-19 test doesn’t mean you are completely recovered from the effects of the illness, Bruelhart said.
“I am still weak and I get tired easily and have to rest. I’ve heard that it may be several weeks or even months before my sense of taste and smell come back. We don’t really know much about this illness and it seems to affect different people in different ways,” Bruelhart said. “What people need to do is respect it. If they get sick, they need to go to the emergency room and start doing what they need to do to get well.”
In Bruelhart’s case, the only medication she took was Tylenol to control her fever and the body aches.
“But I can tell you it’s scary to think you might get a lot sicker and to think there might not be a hospital bed for you if you need it. People should wear their masks and practice social distancing and stay as safe as they can,” she said.
Family dealing with patriarch COVID loss
Jesus Ernesto Cervantes was a loving husband, father and grandfather who woke up Dec. 8, 2020, with just a slight cough.
Even then, the novel coronavirus was the furthest thing from the minds of he and his wife of 33 years, Aida Cervantes.
“But we still tried to stay away from people, to wear masks,” she said. “We never thought it would be where he’d have to be hospitalized for it.
“We always thought (the virus) would be more like flu-like symptoms,” Aida said. “We’d go to the doctor, get medications, stay home and deal with it.”
That wasn’t the case, though. While many people who test positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 experience at worst mild symptoms, a growing number of Americans — more than 410,000 as of Friday — aren’t as fortunate.
Jesus Cervantes was one of the growing number.
“He just got up and had a little cough,” Aida recalled. “We didn’t think anything about it. I asked him and he said, ‘I just had to cough.’”
He woke up the next day and the cough was worse. And by Dec. 10, he was coughing more and started running a fever. Aida said she asked him to go to the hospital in Seminole, Texas, to be tested for COVID-19. Jesus was admitted to the hospital that evening.
Discharged from the Seminole hospital on Dec. 13, he was readmitted on Dec. 15 with extremely low oxygen. Doctors discharged him again only six hours after he was admitted, despite Aida questioning his doctors about the FDA-approved treatment, remdesivir.
“I was told he wasn’t a good candidate,” Aida said. “He wasn’t critical enough.”
By Dec. 17, though, Jesus’s condition had worsened enough Aida called an ambulance. He went to the emergency room at the former Lea Regional Hospital, now Covenant Hobbs Hospital, where Aida works in the Women’s Health Department. Doctors there almost immediately had Jesus taken by air ambulance to a hospital in Lubbock, Texas, where he would remain for the rest of his life.
Jesus died Jan. 3.
“He was still young,” Aida said, her voice cracking. Before he died, Jesus “was so worried he ruined our Christmas — bless his heart.”
Jesus and Aida met in Hobbs in 1987. Until his passing, Jesus was a welder who loved his work and loved his family, Aida said. At the viewing before his funeral, Jesus’s co-workers told his family there wasn’t anything he couldn’t make or build, often figuring out multiple ways to complete a project.
“He was just a craftsman,” daughter Marissa Longoria said.
Jesus also had a passion for horse racing, Aida said. He loved to watch the horses run. He also enjoyed off-roading with his four sons-in-law, often going as a family to the sand dunes to ride.
Aida said it’s family — Longoria and her sisters Karina Sigala, Bianca Sanchez and Jessica Granillo — who’s helped her keep it together. The daughters are grown now with families of their own, all living in Hobbs. And they’ve rallied around their mom.
Youngest daughter Bianca Sanchez has moved her family into the home Aida and Jesus shared for 33 years. One or more of the daughters are with her daily.
“We haven’t left her side,” Karina said.
“Thank God they’re all here in Hobbs,” Aida said. “We’re just really united as a family. Life continues.”
Difficulties with COVID means safer practices
After a “terrible experience” with COVID-19, Manola Gunn and her partner Robert Coy say following COVID-19 safe practices are important personally.
“It’s real,” Gunn said. “A lot of people think to this day that it’s not real, but it’s real. We all know people who have died from it. People just need to be careful.”
Gunn’s Guns has been a staple in the community for decades, but Gunn and Coy sold the shop and retired at the end of December. Gunn said that during her years as a gun shop owner she was supported by the community.
After contracting COVID-19, Gunn enforced mask-wearing and noticed people reacted poorly, mostly as a response to the governor’s heavy-handed approach to the pandemic. But protecting the public and Coy after their experience with the virus was important to Gunn.
“They say you can get it again,” Gunn said. “Robert is scared to death to get it again because he was so sick. So, we have enforced the masks in here, which has made a lot of people mad at us.”
It was a fourth of July surprise when Coy tested positive for COVID-19. Gunn told the News-Sun the store was “down for a month” due to the pair contracting the disease. Gunn and Coy said they probably contracted the disease through someone in the store and most employees got sick, even if with just mild symptoms.
She was extremely tired and it felt like she was “hit by a truck,” Gunn said. Although she didn’t have breathing problems, she had head and body aches, lost her sense of taste — which still hadn’t fully returned months after she contracted the disease.
“I could just sit down and felt like I could just go to sleep,” Gunn said.
The day before Coy was about to have surgery on his gallbladder he passed out at their home, Gunn said.
He never got his surgery — Coy and was tested for COVID-19 as a hospital precaution and found out he was positive.
“We still attributed that to his gal bladder because he had been so sick,” Gunn said. “I told him on the way over there I think I’ve got COVID. I feel so tired.”
Coy suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and had severe symptoms of the novel coronavirus. Months after having the virus he continues to see after effects.
“I got sicker and sicker,” Coy said. “I was so bad with breathing, I actually thought I was going to die. … I was so scared. I was tired. I was scared to shut my eyes because I was grasping for my breath.”
It wasn’t until a Texas doctor advertised a steroid that is supposed to help with the recovery that Coy started feeling better. The steroid is for the lungs and helps asthma patients, according to Coy, he requested to the shot through the Veteran’s Administration (VA).
“Within a week I was going back the other ways, within two weeks I was almost my normal self again with the exception I was tired, and I couldn’t eat,” Coy said. “It came close to killing me, as close as it will ever come. … I’m a tough old bird, I guess.”
Grateful they made it through being positive with severe symptoms, both Gunn and Coy urged people to be cautious and follow COVID-19 safe practices to deal with the virus.
“Do the right thing not just for yourself, but for other people,” Coy said.
Family worries brought on by virus
For essential workers Mickie Holland and Nickie Blevins, every day is about caring for others, but when they contracted the novel coronavirus they had to learn to take care of themselves.
The mother and daughter work in the community to help with health-related matters. Holland is a Chief Clinical Officer at the Guidance Center of Lea County and Blevins works at the Eunice Health Clinic as a nurse practitioner.
Every day they put patients and clients first to help the community, but when they contracted COVID-19 they had to step into unknown territory — putting themselves first so they could recover.
Holland tested positive for COVID-19 first and is considered at risk due to her age and underlying health conditions. However, her fear wasn’t all for herself, she was scared of passing the virus on to her family.
“I was just a little bit shocked,” Holland told the News-Sun. “You don’t want to give it to your loved ones. It is a scary moment.”
Holland and her husband stayed in separate areas of their home and used every precaution possible to avoid passing it to others. Not having contact with family for weeks was lonely, according to Holland.
Working in mental health at the Guidance Center for more than two decades, Holland has learned to always put others first. In isolation, it was difficult for her not to think of others she had come in contact with.
“You also second guess yourself,” Holland said. “Did I do everything I needed to do so nobody would get sick because of me? I worried about the clients. I knew with the isolation, in mental health, when you isolate somebody for weeks, as many have been, the depression increases, the anxiety, fears increase. I felt desperate. I wanted to let them know it’s going to be okay.”
The fear of COVID-19 was even worse when her daughter, Blevins, tested positive almost a month later.
“You want to be there if your family member is sick, but you can’t,” Holland said. “That for me, the emotional part, you want to make sure you’re family is okay. That was difficult.”
Blevins is not considered at-risk but felt the severe effects when she got COVID-19. Not only was the experience lonely she too feared passing the disease to loved ones, patients, and other clinic workers.
“This disease doesn’t discriminate,” Blevins said. “It affects everybody.”
Not only did she have to miss Thanksgiving with her family but Blevins also missed out on the flavor and smell of holiday cooking because of the loss of taste and smell. However, she said she had much to be thankful for.
Like Holland, Blevins works at putting people first and felt guilty not being at work. She also had to re-learn prioritizing herself during her COVID-19 experience.
“I think as a nurse practitioner you often forget how to take care of yourself,” Blevins said. “With COVID you don’t really have a whole lot of choice. You don’t have energy, you have to make yourself rest.”
One of Blevins’ children also contracted COVID-19 but no one else in the Holland and Blevins families saw a positive test. It was a nightmare, as a grandma and mom, to see their family sick, Holland said.
“It takes many days before you hear someone say, it’s better today,” Holland said.
Blevins added, “It was very eye-opening to me, the number one thing is the importance of my family.”
Now that both Holland and Blevins have recovered, they continue to work and help others. Both took something positive away from their experience in dealing with the virus and its symptoms. Holland took time to reflect on her life during isolation.
“14 days gives you a long time to think about — ‘am I going to get well? When I do, what should I do different?’” Holland said. “You have time to reflect a lot. Now there is a greater empathy or sympathy for those who are going to be COVID diagnosed.”
Blevins also said she has more sympathy for those with COVID-19 and explained she approaches telling a patient who is positive differently now that she has faced it.
“I think I have a new outlook now,” Blevins said. “My heart really aches for them (COVID-19 positive patients). I can sympathize with them, the physical complaints as well as the mental. It is very lonely to be isolated.”
Although both Blevins and Holland never doubted the disease was real, and took precautions like wearing masks and washing their hands frequently, they more strongly urge people to follow COVID-19 safe practices, but not just for themselves.
“You do the cautions really for others, it’s to protect others,” Holland said. “When you see somebody who is sick, you’ll do anything to help them get better.”
Hobbs man, born during Spanish Flu pandemic, recovers from COVID-19
Russell Lam came into the world near the end of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919.
He remembers learning to drive a tractor when he was 7 years old, shifting the gears while his mother engaged the clutch. He remembers being so sick with appendicitis doctors had to come to his family’s Missouri home to operate by lamplight under the willow trees in his front yard.
But the 101-year-old Lam doesn’t remember how he contracted the novel coronavirus, the virus responsible for the respiratory disease COVID-19.
According to information from the Landmark at Desert Garden assisted living facility in Hobbs, Lam was diagnosed by routine test after being admitted to the hospital in Las Cruces for treatment of a broken hip suffered in a fall. He remembers that part, he said.
“They took me by airplane,” Lam said. “They didn’t want to get in any traffic jams, ‘cause I was sick. They wanted to get me there as fast as they could.
“I was real sick,” he said. “I remember that.”
Lam doesn’t have any family living in New Mexico, according to a former neighbor who asked her name not be used. But he has several nieces and nephews living around the country, from Oregon to Wyoming and South Dakota to St. Louis. And Lam credits those nieces and nephews with making sure he got back to his current home at Desert Garden, though most of their efforts were via numerous telephone conversations.
“My family really did everything they could,” he said.
Lam grew up in a farming family in northwestern Missouri, not too far from Kansas City. He recalled, during his senior year in high school, plowing a piece of ground surrounding the high school he attended on three sides when two of his classmates convinced him to try out for the senior class play.
“I had a major part in that play, I remember that,” he said. “I’m trying to remember the name of the play.”
After high school, he got a job with Douglas Aircraft Company. He was sent overseas to repair aircraft shot down around the beginning of World War II. One thing he did before he left was get a tattoo on his right forearm.
“I didn’t have any identifying marks, so I went and got a tattoo so they could identify me if something happened,” he said. “That was a nice deal, being able to help repair those airplanes.”
Lam later worked for the Pontiac division of General Motors Corp., working with car dealers and service personnel, for 30 years.
“I even went to the factory, in Lansing, Mich.,” Lam said. “I learned all about how they build the cars.”
Lam told the News-Sun he doesn’t remember much of the six weeks he spent in the hospital, recovering from COVID-19. And, he said, he is recovered.
“Now, I feel real good,” he told teh News-Sun. “I really do. I just don’t know of a thing wrong with me” aside from the lingering effects of his broken hip.
“Now, I can do anything I want to do, I feel good,” Lam said. “I don’t feel like I’ve got any physical problems keeping me from doing anything.”