When COVID-19 first entered the national consciousness, Yamni Jack was transitioning from his long time role at Lower Brule High School to his new job as Activities Director at Lakota Tech. He had no idea the profound impact the virus would have on his job and on every reservation school, how it would eventually find a backdoor into his own life, infect his family, and put him in the hospital fighting for his life.
Lakota Tech was a brand new school, and Jack was happy to be returning to his home reservation. He had played for the Pine Ridge Thorpes back in the late Nineties, wearing the number 30 jersey, and back then he was a cat quick, wiry strong guard filling up baskets with his jumper. His talent for the game eventually led to college ball, at Norfolk, Nebraska, where he met his wife, Taren Estes. Injuries from a car accident ended his competitive playing days, but after college he relocated to Taren’s home reservation, Lower Brule.
Jack is a humble man, and trusts to Tunkashila that things will work out for the better, and so everything did at Lower Brule High School. He started as a janitor, because that was the only opening available, worked his way up to Activities Director, and as head basketball coach of the Kul Wicasa boys team, he twice fought Eldon Marshall’s vaunted LNI multi-champion White River Tigers to a standstill, losing nail-biter decisions. These games were about as intense and well coached as LNI basketball gets. But life is a series of chapters, and every chapter must give way to the next.
“Back in November (2019) I took a sabbatical from work,” Jack said. “Really didn’t know what I was going to do about coaching and work. Come February I threw my hat in the ring (for the Lakota Tech job), a lot of people were asking me to apply, and I went through the whole hiring process. My interview went very well, made a very good impression. They called me back right away and told me they wanted me to come on board.”
Lakota Tech was a golden opportunity for Jack to be part of a reservation wide program designed to prepare students for college and skilled vocations. With over 300 students, grades 9-12, Lakota Tech will be designated Class A, with a gymnasium capable of seating 1800.
“It’s always your dream to come home and work for your people,” Jack said. “And so this is where I landed.
That first school year would not begin until September and so the staff had a generous six-month window to solidify preparations. But as the COVID threat escalated across the nation, it became increasingly obvious that no reservation school was going to open doors in September, and with the passage of the Tribe’s Shelter-in-Place ruling, all students would be restricted to remote learning.
As an educator, Jack was involved directly with the concerns and actions directed at COVID, and an integral part of that responsibility had Jack exercising sensible personal precautions from the get. If any reservation family had a possibility to resist COVID, it would have been the Jack family.
As the weeks and months rolled by, Jack saw the impact of COVID going beyond the health threat. Sheltered in place, unable to mix and mingle, children began to struggle with the stress and isolation.
“There are so many mental health and behavioral issues along with the COVID,” Jack said. “Multi-generational families, the capacity of some of those houses is anywhere from five to twenty-five people in one house. Look at some of the data…it’s really sobering…”
While the students were networked academically through ZOOM and other internet connections, they had never met each other as a student body. Football was canceled because it violated social distancing restrictions, but Jack said golf and cross country were allowed because they were open air activities, with no concentrated fan seating, making for a low risk contact situation.
These two activities did little to alleviate the overall stress socially isolated students across the reservation were experiencing.
“The kids are reaching out, they’re lashing out,” Jack said. “Some of the stuff we’ve faced here, 13 suicides in the past three months…the kids aren’t doing anything, no activities, haven’t seen their friends. They really start developing the conditions we see, and we don’t have the resources to handle it. Their parent or guardian may not be stable with mental health themselves, and these kids have to deal with that, too. The face masks, the social distancing, the hand sanitizer, not having close contact for over 15 minutes, this pandemic really has people living in fear. A lot of families rely on the schools, for meals, and social stuff, and just education in general, and most of that has just come to a halt right now.”
Jack’s son Kaedom is a talented athlete and he has lived with a grandparent near Martin so he could attend Bennett County High School and play quarterback. Despite all the sensible precautions the Jack family took over a long stretch of time, COVID would slip into their lives through a sequence of fateful events.
“I got seven children, two in the elementary level, two in the middle school, and one in the high school,” Jack said. “I really monitored their activities and had conversations with them. My wife is a teacher and just a very caring person when it comes to things like that, checking on welfare of the kids.”
The Jack family rendezvous with COVID-19 started the night Hot Springs hosted Bennett County in football. After the football game, Yamni and Taren planned on driving Kaedom to Sioux Falls to attend a wedding.
“We were actually in Rapid City the night before the wedding,” Jack said, “getting ready to shop and go to (Kaedom’s) game in Hot Springs. While we were up there we got the call from the Department of Health. They said we were in close contact with someone that was positive in our car pool. That put a halt on everything. We just picked up and went back to our house in Rocky Ford to quarantine. I let my son know that we were quarantined and were not going to be able to make the game.”
Kaedom played the game, and during that game his throwing hand struck the helmet of a defender. He kept that injury to himself, and after the game, drove east to the wedding in Sioux Falls.
“When he came back he told us that his hand was really swollen,” Jack said. “He’s a tough boy. The whole weekend he had a swollen hand and his grandfather called us and said you guys need to take him to get an x-ray, because we think it might be broken. We headed up there that Monday to Rapid City Monument Hospital Urgent Care, and they found out that he was COVID positive.”
Kaedom couldn’t quarantine with his grandfather because of high risk to the elderly, so a bedroom was prepared for him in Rocky Ford. He had access to a bathroom, had his own refrigerator. Only Taren went in, always masked, always using hand sanitizer.
“We tested at that time,” Jack said. “We were negative and Kaedom was the only one that was positive. A week went by and my wife started developing symptoms. Pretty soon it went from her to the kids. All had different varieties of the symptoms, not all at once, but one had a headache, one was throwing up.”
Taren had a rough couple of days, but none of the kids got very sick, and Kaedom was and has remained asymptomatic. The most vulnerable target for the virus in the Jack household was Yamni, he was in the high risk group, but he was the only one who did not test positive for the virus.
“I was praying and talking to my higher power,” Jack said. “Asking don’t let my family get the severity to the point they are hospitalized, give it to me, I’ll take it…so you have to be careful what you ask for when you pray! I was the last one in my family to get it. I had it for a couple of days with no symptoms and then overnight it just hit me. I started having chills and fever, throwing up. When I get sick my wife babies me because I hardly ever get sick, but when I do, I really get sick. I lay there in the fetal position, trying not to do anything. Eventually, my doctor told me that was the cause of me getting COVID pneumonia. Because whenever you are lying around not doing anything, that’s when the bacteria gets into your body and settles into your lungs, and it just takes off from there.”
Jack’s cough worsened. He couldn’t catch his breath. He weakened to where Taren had to assist him to get outside for fresh air. Once outside, heavy snow was falling.
“My wife said we gotta take you in to the ER,” Jack said. “We called IHS, let them know I was positive, let them know the severity of my symptoms.”
Jack wasn’t prepared for the reality of what he would find at the hospital.
“I walked through the doors to the ER every single bed was taken,” Jack said. “There were people laying in the beds in the hallways. It kinda looked like a war zone to me, and it was scary to hear the coughing and the moaning and all that other stuff that comes with sickness. Sure enough my x-rays came back and I had COVID pneumonia in both lungs.”
Taren had to wait out in the parking lot for about five hours before they determined whether Yamni should be admitted or sent home.
“The doctor finally told me they were going to have to keep me over, because my oxygen level was not over 85, and it was supposed to be somewhere between 90 to 93,” Jack said. “It was a six-day stay. A day or two into it I wasn’t getting better. I was hooked to IVs and oxygen and I was very lonely, and my doctor said we have this new medication but you are going to have to sign a waiver for it. It wasn’t approved at that time, it helped with the symptoms, to try to keep it under control. They hooked me up to that, and I had a steroid, but all of that stuff that was going in every four hours pushed my blood sugar up, and they had to start giving me insulin shots.”
Jack had hour after hour to lie there and listen to the sufferings of other people. Delirious with fever, it all intensified in his mind, magnifying the grief he felt for those suffering around him.
“I was like, man, I got to get back to my children,” Jack said. “And all the time I was in there (Kaedom) was feeling very lonesome, and was feeling bad, and my wife was trying to console him. The younger kids were confused and wanted to know where their dad was, and started developing some anxiety and depression. I tried to talk to them and tell them I was ok and I was going to do my best to get out.”
Jack could not be discharged until his oxygen levels got back over 90, and he forced himself up, to use the bathroom, to walk the hallway, and eventually that struggle paid off.
“It was one of the scariest moments of my life,” Jack said. “I was one step away from them flying me out to St Jude’s Hospital in Aurora, Colorado.”
Jack is recovered now and back at work, but knows firsthand what it is like to be a family targeted by COVID-19.
“Even though I went through all of this,” Jack said, “I still try to have some kind of normalcy with my family.”
Despite having been to death’s door, Jack is deeply concerned about the social impact shelter-in-place orders are having on the reservation. Social isolation denies families traditional Lakota ceremonies for the loss of a loved one.
“The grieving process from losing someone to COVID is so disheartening,” Jack said, “because we don’t get to practice our traditions, get to cry and grieve with loved ones. You have to put your relative into their resting place without having any chance to go through what you need to go through.”
After sharing the painful details of his ordeal, Jack paused for a moment, perhaps searching for some words that could sum up the threat that has terrified and isolated his fellow tribal members.
“It’s here,” he said, after a time. “The virus is here.”
(Contact Jimmy Davies at skindiesel.msn.com)