Jennifer and David Neal were a match made at Hog Creek, the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference’s Southwest District center, where they met for the first time during the 2009 annual conference. By their third date, they knew they wanted to get married.
“March 26, 2021, would have been our 10th wedding anniversary,” said Jennifer, descendant of both the Mississippi and Oklahoma Choctaws. David was a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation. The two had built a life working in Dallas, Texas, which in July was a COVID-19 hot spot. They were active members of Dallas Indian United Methodist Church.
During a Sunday morning shopping trip on July 5, Jennifer noticed she felt exhausted and not well. She did not have a fever and continued to go to work. By midweek, David called out sick to his work, which was rare, and they both began running low-grade fevers.
“I thought it was allergies,” recalled Jennifer. “Once the fevers hit, I was panicking because we both had underlying health issues, and we had talked about the fact that we didn’t think we could survive the coronavirus.”
At first, they were able to function and care for themselves. A week after symptoms began, they tested positive for COVID-19 in a drive-thru testing center. As the virus progressed, they became weaker with bouts of coughing and difficulty breathing. Within days, family members had to deliver food to their fourth-floor apartment because they could no longer make it down the steps. They were doing their best to care for each other while recuperating in separate rooms and getting their medical advice from the internet.
“July 17th and 18th were my worst days,” said Jennifer. By then, she had been sick with the virus for 12 days. “I hallucinated that my brother walked by when it was David bringing me water. David was badgering me to drink fluids and to try and eat.”
By the 19th, Jennifer started to feel better, but David took a turn for the worse. “He was about three days behind me in regard to symptoms,” she said. “I thought he was hitting the hard days and would start feeling better soon.”
When Jennifer checked on him that afternoon, she noticed his labored breathing. The tips of his fingers were turning blue. She called 911, who came immediately to take David to the hospital. Jennifer said she did not know which hospital they took him to, and it took her three hours to track him down.
“A few days later, a CT Scan showed that David had a stroke,” said Jennifer. “The entire time, the doctors worked to help his breathing, his brain had been swelling, and they told me he wasn’t going to be able to recover.”
Jennifer and David were diligent about wearing face masks and using hand sanitizer in public. She said she does not know where they would have contracted the virus.
Data about the impact of COVID-19 on Native Americans in the United States is scarce due to a lack of reporting and inefficient information collection by health agencies. A recent article in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report states American Indians and Alaska Natives were 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than non-Hispanic white people. These numbers are grossly underreported according to that source. A second report released on Sept. 28, 2020 by the Indian Health Service states the Oklahoma City Area has now surpassed the Navajo Area in number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“As Indigenous peoples, we hover around 1 percent of the total population in the United States,” said the Rev. Chebon Kernell, executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan and the clergy who officiated at Jennifer and David’s wedding. “Losing one person is too much. They may be language speakers or traditional carriers, and we don’t want them to be harmed.”
Kernell is calling for all Native ministries within The United Methodist Church to stay diligent in protecting their communities by pausing activities, wearing masks and social distancing always.
“We don’t want anyone to suffer and carry the anxiety of ‘Will they recover?’” he said.
The Rev. Alvin Deer, retired clergy in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, tested positive for COVID-19 when he went in for issues related to cancer treatment in August. Once he tested positive, the family was no longer allowed to see him, and all cancer treatment was stopped to give his body a chance to fight the coronavirus.
“It’s been a real up-and-down roller coaster ride these past few weeks,” said Georgia Deer, the pastor’s daughter. “I worry about depression with all the patients who are there by themselves and not allowed to see their families.”
Rev. Deer’s health teetered for weeks, requiring him to be placed in the intensive care unit for breathing issues. Church members from Angie Smith Memorial Church, where he serves as pastor, held prayer services and vigils outside of his hospital window.
Rev. Deer’s health has improved, and after nearly two months, the family is hopeful he will be allowed to go home soon.
David Neal passed away on July 24, 2020, at age 46, just 19 days after contracting the virus. His wife and brother were at his side. Due to COVID-19 regulations, only two family members were allowed at a time. They originally planned to bring his remains to his home reservation in New Mexico, but the tribe was on lockdown due to the virus.
Jennifer said it has been difficult to move forward. She has returned to work and eats dinner with David’s parents and brother at least once a week.
“Our way of life talks about humbleness, love, forgiveness, and we must remember this when dealing with the rest of society,” said Kernell. “We have to be mindful of those around us and do our best to support and protect each other during this pandemic.”