A Second Second Chance: A Black Woman's Story of Recovery from COVID-19

By Gwen T. Samuels

Triay Arts (2020, 121 pp)

Author Samuels warns readers upfront that her chronicle of ill health from her childhood home in New Jersey to Albuquerque, where she moved in 2014, is not for those who suffer from "white fragility."

Before she endured three weeks in the Presbyterian Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho for COVID-19 complications in March and April of this year, Samuels had survived T-cell lymphoma and the flooding of her home "on a New Jersey river" after the devastation of Super Storm Sandy in 2012.

Climate change, Samuels, a 27-year career retired teacher in the New Jersey schools, Spanish interpreter, fiber artist and poet, asserts, "affects Black communities, communities of color and low-wealth communities disproportionately." Her inherited New Jersey house and thriving Black community there were relentlessly afflicted by toxic floodwaters, emissions from a nearby incinerator, mold and essentially the indifference of authorities over decades.

What does this have to do with her COVID crisis of this year? she asks.

Everything.

"The trials, tests and stress I experienced in New Jersey surely compromised my immune system," Samuels affirms. She had been for years a "hard-working multitasking single mom" and caretaker to sick parents and siblings. Moreover, she emphasizes the "stress of intergenerational trauma that most all Black people, descendants of enslaved Africans in this country, suffer from (whether they admit it or not)." And that trauma often leads to "family dysfunction," she writes.

Finally ensconced in the dry desert climate of Albuquerque - however plagued by water issues especially affecting Native American communities, she notes - Samuels tackled the painful lesions manifested by the lymphoma and she returned to a holistic dietary regimen she had largely abandoned during the hectic years of child-raising.

In February of this year she visited her grandchildren in Atlanta, then flew to Philadelphia after the death of an aunt. And as news of the coronavirus began to spread, she invited two of her grown children, one from LA and one from New York City, to come live with her, "to a safer place."

She knew the risk -- "If anyone had to die from this wretched disease, it should be me," she writes.

Both children contracted the disease. Samuels nursed them successfully with "holistic remedies," but she did not respond to these remedies herself, and was refused a COVID test because the facility in Albuquerque had run out. Her fever spiked, and despite that her doctor over teleconferencing said that being in the hospital was "the last place you want to be," her children decided that her breathing sounded belabored and they took her to the emergency room.

Her children became her advocates every step of the way, from the initial intubation and induced coma ("to keep patients from fighting to take the tubes out"), to bringing healthy food from home and contacting far-flung relatives. Her daughter kept a daily journal of her mother's painstaking progress, especially after eight days in the emergency room under massive medication.

The other two patients in the COVID-19 ICU while she was there were both from the Navajo Nation, and both died.

Samuels was discharged 23 days later on April 22 -- Earth Day, she notes joyously. She was barely able to walk and could only breathe with the help of oxygen -- "a shadow of my former self." Her lungs were deeply damaged and it would take months to breathe without help and walk on her own.

Her children had planted the garden at her house and the medical bills piled up -- without her insurance and teacher's pension she would have been in $150,000 debt.

Samuels' memoir is an affecting affirmation of "why I came back" -- namely because the good Lord had "not finished with me yet," she writes. Her work asserts the power of healthy, locally grown farm food and the sense of social justice that goes with it. And though she cannot engage in the kind of physical activism she enjoyed in her youth, she is determined to send out the message by writing, praying and dancing - "to harness joy to feed your spirit."

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