It was love that brought COVID-19 crashing down on Carmen Vega. It was caring that left her struggling for every breath. It was compassion that left her isolated from her family and frightened that she would not survive.
“This is a very lonely illness,” said Vega, Shelter Coordinator for Lazarus House. “I was so scared. No one wants to be around anyone who has COVID.”
Vega had successfully eluded the disease while caring for Lazarus House Guests at its emergency Shelter, even in the days before masks were readily available. Ironically, it was when the shelter closed as a precaution and its residents moved to a temporary city-run shelter at the DoubleTree Hotel in Andover, that Vega says, “I stumbled.”
While the City of Lawrence was providing lodging and meals at the hotel, driven by caring and responsibility, Vega could not resist the need to connect with those she cares so much for.
“The Guests were at the hotel, but they still needed to hear me say, ‘Everything is going to be OK.’ There were things they needed help with.” Vega brought hope, kindness, guidance, and snacks for the children each visit.
“I walked into a room where one of our Guests was coughing, but she made a really good excuse. She said it was her allergies,” said Vega. “I go back to that day and wonder, ‘Carmen, what were you thinking?’”
Within days she was suffering the initial symptoms of COVID-19, within a week she could not catch her breath.
“I have asthma, so I know what it is like to have breathing issues, but this was something I had never experienced,” Vega said. “There were days upon days when I did not sleep. Because anytime I would go to sleep, I would stop breathing. Every breath had to be intentional. I had to breathe intentionally, and it was easier not to breathe.”
She feared she might not survive.
“I knew a couple of people who had passed away, so I had to block all that stuff, and continue to listen to the voice of God.”
While the prayers left on her voice mail brought hope, a greater despair came when her 10-year-old daughter, Mikeyla-Serenity, developed a fever and other COVID symptoms.
Mikeyla-Serenity’s health care providers said there was no cure, nothing they could do.
“When the nurse said that, I said, ‘You don’t say that to a mother’,” Vega said. “I felt my heart just sink. I felt guilty.”
While her daughter recovered quickly, Vega remained alone and isolated from her family who had often expressed reservations and concern about her continuing to take the risk of going to work.
“My husband did not say ‘I told you so,’ he just felt so bad for me,” she said. “They didn’t hold it against me. They know that this work is what I love.”
When we talked Carmen was 25 days into the disease, she had lost 13 pounds and pain remained in her lungs. She worries about reinfection and reliving the “agony when you are trying to breathe.”
Yet the love, caring and compassion that paradoxically brought her COVID-19 will push her to return to Lazarus House again.
“I love the Guests like they’re my kids. Even though some are older than me, I feel like a mother to them,” she said. “We love so hard, and we love what we do. It’s not a job.”