About the Author
Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.
Up until now, the Department of Health has relied primarily on statistics and charts to inform Hawaii residents about the ravages of COVID-19. And slogans like wash your hands and wear a mask.
But on Sept. 1, it launched a new media campaign featuring the personal and often emotional stories of three COVID-19 survivors who nearly died — all wanting to convey the lasting impact the disease has had on their lives.
The Department of Health is on the right track with this. Stories are what get people to slow down and listen. Stories are what make the skeptical identify and realize the same thing could happen to them. Stories stick in the mind in a way statistics and lecturing never will.
The long form videos of the stories are on the DOH webpage and shorter versions will be featured from now through December on broadcast and cable TV and radio, also in newspaper ads and on digital and social media platforms.
In one of the interviews, COVID-19 survivor Sarah Bolles talks about her overwhelming anxiety after she was rushed by ambulance to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Moanalua with a fever of 104.6 as she struggled to breathe.
She had a COVID-19 test two days before but the results had not come back yet. She knew she was in trouble when she tried standing up and couldn’t breathe. The EMTs had to carry her up the stairs of her Aliamanu home to the ambulance.
“They immediately put me into a room, isolated, with everyone in HAZMAT suits — they told me they were going to sedate me,” she says in her interview about her time at the hospital. “I thought literally right there I was going to die and that I would never see my family again.”
She said all she could think of was a friend who was similarly put into a medically induced coma and died while under sedation. “I called my family to tell them please pray for me because I am not quite sure I am going to make it.”
Bolles said, “Then I started crying. I said a prayer, ‘Dear God, if it is my time to go, I accept your call. Please help me. Please, Lord, protect my family.’”
Bolles, 35, is a single mother raising a 13-year-old daughter. She says she has underlying health conditions including diabetes and asthma.
Bolles remained on a ventilator in a coma for three weeks. After she was awakened, she was kept in the hospital for another three weeks, which she said was the worst part of her treatment, as she endured day after day of loneliness, yearning for her daughter.
The health department’s goal with the personal stories is to appeal to residents — especially younger people, many of whom continue to dismiss the seriousness of the virus by crowding together at social gatherings and refusing to wear masks.
“We have found people absorb information better through stories and especially in Hawaii’s culture of storytelling,” said Bronwyn Sinclair-White.
Sinclair-White is the health department’s communications coordinator, who put together the campaign with $480,000 of federal CARES Act money.
She said previous health department surveys show the two key messages that resonate with most people in Hawaii are the need to protect their family members from the coronavirus and the necessity of ending the pandemic to get everyone back to work.
Sinclair-White helped me get in touch with the COVID-19 survivors who were interviewed for the campaign to ask them more about their lives.
Sarah Bolles was formerly employed as the customer service manager at the Navy Exchange, Pearl Harbor. She grew up in the Salt Lake area and attended Radford High School.
Bolles suspects she contracted the virus in early March on one of her regular shopping forays to the Ala Moana and Waikiki area where she liked to go with her best friend to buy food and exotic spices for their love of cooking at Whole Foods and Don Quijote — delicacies they couldn’t find in their neighborhood — and window shop at the luxury shops in Waikiki.
She wore a mask but kept taking it on and off as she went into the often-crowded stores.
“It was in March at the beginning of the virus in Hawaii and as a young adult I didn’t take it seriously. Honestly, I thought then COVID-19 was just like the flu,” she said. “I let down my guard.”
She didn’t fully realize the full physical and emotional impact the virus had on her until after coming off the ventilator.
She had lost the hair on the back of her head and now wears hair extensions. Her eyes were red from the pressure of the ventilator pushing air into her body. She could barely talk and couldn’t walk, weakened by the loss of much of her muscle mass.
She continues to suffer from what she considers post-traumatic stress disorder; just thinking about the powerful experience of her sickness can make her cry.
“I am always faced with COVID every single day when I hear the cases are rising and there are deaths. I am faced with that every single day because I was close to death,” she said.
“While I was in the hospital all alone I thought I would not want anyone to be put in my shoes … with the feeding tube in my arm, with the air machine they use. I would much rather go through a lockdown at home than have to spend weeks alone, isolated from my family.
“I believe you can get through the physical part of COVID but not being able to see and hug and kiss my daughter and to breathe in the sweet, loving smell of my child’s head was so much worse.”
‘He Was As Healthy As An Ox’
In his interview for the DOH campaign, 45-year-old Gaualofa “Lofa” Nua says he thinks he caught the coronavirus in Las Vegas where he went for a construction products convention in early March.
Nobody was taking precautions in the casinos then. It was early on in the spread of the disease. People were in tight quarters indoors, touching dice, slot machines, everything around them.
A week after he returned from Las Vegas, he began to have trouble breathing and he had a fever that kept rising. He went for a COVID-19 test that came back positive.
He was taken to The Queen’s Medical Center where he remained for seven and a half weeks, half of the time on a ventilator and the rest recovering in isolation.
His wife Tanya said, “It went from I just talked to you yesterday to he needs life support. Everything was failing. As a family member that was the hardest part. You cannot fight for them. You cannot do anything for them. You just have to suffer and hope for the best and hope people will take care of him as best as you would or you could.”
Nua and his wife Tanya own a business in Aiea where they sell large tires and install them on trucks and other construction equipment.
He had no underlying medical conditions. His work carrying truck-sized tires averaging 130 pounds each had kept him as physically fit as he had been when he played football and was a wrestler at Radford High School.
“He has no vices. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He barely touches coffee. He was as healthy as an ox,” said Tanya.
Lofa said if he knew what was going to happen to him, he never would have gone on his annual trip to the Las Vegas convention.
“It’s not worth it going from being a healthy person to them telling you that your heart stopped twice. Your lungs collapsed. It makes you look at life in a whole different perspective.”
At one point, his condition became so dire that even the ventilator would not support him. He was put on what is considered a last resort: a device known as ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine) that takes over the function of the heart and lungs by removing blood from the body to infuse it with oxygen before returning it to the body.
Alexander Bocchieri, the 31-year-old videographer filming Lofa and Tanya’s interview for the health department, said Lofa’s story really struck a chord with him.
“To hear how COVID brought down a big healthy man like him really brought it
home for me. Now I am constantly cautioning my friends to be careful, telling them that it doesn’t matter if you are young and healthy, you can still get it.”
Lofa has been recovering at his Ewa home since May with half of his lungs scarred. He coughs frequently and has difficulty breathing, requiring him to keep an oxygen tank nearby.
Tanya says he went from working six days a week to now having problems just sitting up in the sun; the heat makes him struggle to breathe.
He and Tanya worry that some in Hawaii still don’t care. He says, “If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t wear it. But at least when you are around people in public, just put it on so nobody else gets COVID.
“The longer that people don’t listen and don’t follow the guidelines, it is going to be that much longer that we are in this pandemic.”
Tanya and Lofa have been together since they met as high school sweethearts 27 years ago; they’ve been married 22 years. She says, “If I had lost him, it would be unimaginable. People are treating this too lightly, like it’s nothing. It’s not nothing.”
A Physician Becomes A Patient
Dr. Leo Pascua, another coronavirus survivor interviewed in the campaign, recalls what happened to him with the scientific precision of a clinician. Pascua grew up in Wahiawa where he is a longtime pediatrician.
He said he started feeling “not too hot” after he returned home to Hawaii from a family trip to New Jersey to celebrate his daughter’s engagement with Pascua’s wife’s mainland relatives.
He initially thought he had the flu but after a positive COVID-19 test he ended up in the ICU at Queen’s in the odd situation of not being in charge as a physician but as a patient.
“There was nothing to do but accept 100% that these strangers are coming in the room to be with you in full protective gear and all you can do to be the best patient is to comply.”
He was put on a ventilator for 10 days. His blow by blow description of that time is singular.
He says that just because you are anesthetized and chemically paralyzed, it doesn’t mean you are completely out and you can wake up after a long blink and say, “What did I miss?”
He describes instead a bizarre and sometimes terrifying time with his mind going in and out of consciousness. He says as the body metabolizes the sedative, sometimes some of it wears off. You hear voices. You see shadows.
As his own thoughts drifted in and out of dreams, often confusing and scary, he said he was overcome with despair, thinking about his family and his work and worrying about what would happen to him.
Running through his thoughts, as his courage was abandoning him, was the chorus of a song he was supposed to lead the choir to perform at Wahiawa United Methodist Church’s then upcoming Easter service. The repeating refrain of the church song was “Be not afraid.”
“I thought that’s it. Be not afraid. You can be fearful. You can be in despair. But don’t be afraid. Just get through this but without fear because once fear comes in, rationality walks out and it takes sympathy with it. And that’s what I tell people. Do not be afraid of COVID-19 but respect it.”
After he was taken off the ventilator, he remained in the hospital another 10 days, attended by people encased in protective dress whose faces he couldn’t see, who offered no human touch. He was too weak to walk to the bathroom. Unable to sit up and 25 pounds lighter.
His brain was so messed up that he was not able to answer when prompted to unscramble the letters K-E-C-A, to spell a word even after he was given the hint: “Something you eat at a birthday party.”
And still the words of the song kept coming back to him: “Be not afraid.” But now out of his sedated paralysis, instead of building his courage, the refrain made him cry uncontrollably.
He was embarrassed and apologized to the nurse. “She said, ‘Don’t worry. You have a lot to process after what you have been through.’”
Now he is back at work in Wahiawa where at first he offered advice only remotely by telemedicine. Recently his young patients have started to come to visit him at the clinic to get their back-to-school shots.
He has gone from being a humble patient fighting for his life to the confident physician he was before, prescribing to all who watch his story to “be not afraid” of the virus but rather respect it as we do the dangers of the wide vast ocean.
And, “Do what the scientists say. Put on a mask, social distance. Anything on top of that is icing on the cake. But at least do that.”
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
Join the conversation
IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email email@example.com to submit an idea.