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A Navajo Translator In Hospitals During COVID Is Now Pursuing Her Nursing Dreams

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When COVID-19 first struck the Navajo Nation, it spread quickly. In fact, at one point, the tribe had the highest coronavirus infection rate in the country. The Navajo president shut down the reservation to outsiders to try to get the numbers under control. Reporter Laurel Morales has the story of one Navajo woman who got COVID, recovered and is now pursuing her dream.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: In the early days of the pandemic, Marquerita Donald worked at a Navajo hospital as a translator. Even though she had to suit up in personal protective equipment every day, Marquerita loved her job.

MARQUERITA DONALD: It was the bomb. It was great to talk Navajo to a lot of the elders, just to hold their hand. It made me feel really good and felt that I was needed.

MORALES: But Marquerita found it difficult to be understood with a mask on, especially over all of the beeping of the machines. At one point, she was trying to explain a do not resuscitate to a patient who was dying.

DONALD: There was a couple of times I took my mask off because her oxygen machine was, like, really loud. She kept saying, what? I don't understand. I don't understand.

MORALES: This happened more than once until Marquerita, who's 49, caught COVID.

DONALD: I thought I was still young or whatever. My immune system - I can fight it. Uh-uh.

MORALES: It started out with congestion. Then came the fever, the vomiting and the shortness of breath. Her son Tyler came to the family sheep farm in Shonto, Ariz., to take care of her.

TYLER: It kind of felt like taking care of a baby, I guess. Seeing her vulnerable like that was hard.

MORALES: Tyler says the nights were the worst.

TYLER: Oh, just watching her trying to breathe, and I couldn't do nothing.

MORALES: Then one night, it became unbearable. Marquerita was gasping for air. So she went to Tyler's truck, turned on the air conditioning and put her face over the vent to try to push air into her lungs.

DONALD: I had, like, what we call a vision. And there's, like, a distance where there was a horse that was saddled. It's also my family - they said that, if you were to get on, that would be the end of your life.

MORALES: At first light, she called 911. The Navajo hospitals were so overwhelmed with COVID patients, they put Marquerita on a plane bound for Scottsdale, 300 miles away. It was a rough road to recovery, but after six weeks in and out of the hospital, she eventually got there. Messages from her family kept her going.

DONALD: My brothers, they call you, and they just start crying. And they're like, you're OK. Aren't you going to be OK? You know, it just made me realize that I was an important person to a lot of people.

MORALES: It also made her realize life was short. Ever since she was a teenager, she wanted to be a nurse. She started classes in the early '90s, but then her husband died in a car crash. She had four kids to raise on her own. She put off her goal and worked full time while her mom took care of the kids. But her hope of one day becoming a nurse remained constant.

DONALD: Off and on, I'd been doing my classes, raising the kids and taking care of my grandma, taking care of my dad.

MORALES: When her father and grandmother died, she grieved their loss. But she says getting COVID actually changed her.

DONALD: I think I look at my life differently now.

MORALES: Including making herself a priority and going after her dream of becoming a nurse - she just finished the second quarter of the program while continuing to do Navajo translation.

DONALD: I am not messing around (laughter). I don't think anything's going to stop me now, I said (laughter).

MORALES: For Marquerita Donald, the experience of having COVID and surviving has helped her return to herself.

For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.

KELLY: And this story comes to us from the podcast "2 Lives." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.