Severe COVID-19 Complications Lead to 26-year-old Death, Family Struggles

By Mary Hennigan
Arkansascovid.com

SPRINGDALE, Ark. – After fighting for her life for four months, 26-year-old Alejandra Arevalo ultimately lost her life to COVID-19 on Oct. 23. While diagnosed with the virus, she was shuffled among five hospitals where she went through cardiac arrest, kidney failure and an amputated leg. Arevalo spent her final days alone, unable to speak because of a ventilator, in the Intensive Care Unit at Northwest Medical Center in Springdale, Arkansas.

For the last few months in the hospital, Arevalo was stable enough to sit through Facetime calls with family and friends, but not strong enough to complete necessary heart surgery. This complication, in part, was from the thickening of blood because of her COVID-19 diagnosis, something which previously caused a blood clot in her leg that resulted in an above-the-knee amputation.

Alejandra Arevalo, 26, poses with her daughter Angelina Ayala, 6, for a portrait. No friend or family member, including her daughter, was able to visit Alejandra in person since early September. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Arevalo.

With no preexisting conditions before her infection and the unpredictability of the virus, it was impossible to predict how COVID-19 would affect Arevalo, who worked at the Walmart Inc. home office in customer service.

“Typically, most 26 year olds will have a fever, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath,” said Nikhil Meena, director of Medical Intensive Care at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock. “There’s no way to tell before you get infected that you’re going to be okay or not.”

Arevalo’s age group, 25-34, is experiencing the greatest number of cases in Arkansas. The group totaled more than 19,000 total positive COVID-19 cases Nov. 3, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. However, this group is one of the least likely to die from the disease, with 24 total deaths among 25-34 year olds so far.

During her months in the hospital, Arevalo’s kidney failure required a dialysis treatment four times a week. She grew bedsores on her body and final sources of nutrition were through a feeding tube in her throat that passed by a tracheostomy tube.

In addition to all of the health complications, she hadn’t seen a family member, including her 6-year-old daughter, in person for over a month.

Arevalo was depressed and could only communicate with hospital staff by a number of blinks, one for yes, two for no. Facetime calls with her family sounded like a one-way conversation. One friend sent text messages that received no reply.

When visitors were still allowed, Arevalo’s sister, Jennifer, would assure her that everything would be OK.

“I just kept telling her, ‘Your daughter is fine, we’re going to take care of her, you’re going to be out soon,’” Jennifer said, wiping away tears during her lunch break.

Arevalo and her sister were not always close. When Arevalo was admitted to the hospital, the two began to mend their bond, apologizing for past arguments like they wouldn’t have another chance to.

 “When someone needs you, you have to be there,” Jennifer said. “It would be nice to just have at least one person there, the doctors did tell us it was good for her. She was allowing the doctors and nurses to do more for her.”

Jennifer Arevalo, 22, poses on her lunch break in Bentonville, Arkansas, Oct. 12. With her sister in the hospital, Jennifer is the main link of communication for her family members who speak Spanish. Photo by Mary Hennigan.

Arkansas’ Hispanic community has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 with the total cases at 757 per 10,000 population as of Nov. 3, more than double the white rate of 288 per 10,000, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

Two major factors that have caused spread within the Hispanic community are the number of essential workers and the cultural traditions of family importance, said Geovanny Sarmiento, vice president of community engagement and inclusion for the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce.

It was especially difficult for members of the community to spend time away from each other during the beginning of the pandemic, Sarmiento said. When apart, “you feel lonely; you feel like you have let someone down,” he said.

Arevalo’s close friend Tania Salas was used to seeing Arevalo weekly and would talk with her daily. Since the hospitalization, Salas had to adjust to a life without that connection. 

The two met in high school, eight years ago, when working at Burger King. Over the years, they became close friends and Arevalo was expected to stand beside Salas at her wedding day in March. Because of the pandemic, Salas postponed the wedding to October, but ultimately had to get married without Arevalo there as a bridesmaid.

Alejandra Arevalo, 26 (left), and Tania Salas, 24 (right), smile together during pre-pandemic times. The pair would typically see each other weekly and talk daily. Tania sent Alejandra encouraging messages frequently during her hospitalization. Photo courtesy of Tania Salas.

Arevalo was working from home for Walmart when her mother, Jovita Carranza, 40, was exposed to the virus at Ozark Mountain Poultry in May. As an essential worker, her mother played a vital role in ensuring a steady food supply during the early-pandemic months.

Before long, six other family members were infected, including Arevalo’s 89-year-old grandmother and her 18-year-old brother. Jennifer was the only family member that didn’t contract the virus, she said.

No one in the family had any preexisting health conditions. In Arevalo’s case, “she was perfectly fine and then it just escalated,” Jennifer said. While her mother visited the emergency room a few times, no one in the family had a case as severe as Arevalo’s.

“How you do depends on how aggressively your body monitor responds to it,” UAMS Pulmonologist Meena said. “It’s not as much the virus itself, but it’s the body’s response to it…we still don’t really know how one person will respond to it.”

Life stands still outside Northwest Medical Center in Springdale, Arkansas, Oct. 12. Inside, 26-year-old Alejandra Arevalo has been fighting for her life against COVID-19. Photo by Mary Hennigan

Although insured, Arevalo has faced an estimated $20,000 in hospital bills, Jennifer said. It is uncertain how high the final total will be.

Jennifer started a fundraiser on GoFundMe in June with a goal of $25,000. Nearly 300 donors have supported Arevalo and her family and have helped to raise almost $12,000 as of Nov. 3.

To increase morale and support each other financially, the family has come together to live under one roof, despite the parents’ previous separation.

Jennifer, who often takes care of Arevalo’s daughter, has picked up more hours at a part-time job in addition to her full-time pharmaceutical work. Her mother, who depended on Arevalo to pay half of their bills together, had to return a newly bought car to supplement funds.

In some ways, Arevalo’s absence brought the family closer as they leaned on each other for support through a difficult time. 

“I never thought that we would be in this situation,” Jennifer said. “I would never wish [it] on anybody.”

Story Published Nov. 5, 2020

Mary Hennigan

Mary Hennigan is an ArkansasCovid assistant editor and a graduate journalism student at the University of Arkansas.

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The University of Arkansas School of Journalism and Strategic Media operates this site as an independent source of news and as a community service for Arkansas residents. Students produce the content here under the supervision of Rob Wells, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Journalism. The data presented here is collected at roughly the same time each day from the Arkansas Department of Health website.

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