UPDATED MARCH 28. Alaska Native Medical Center saw the first in-state coronavirus death on Friday, according to Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink, COVID-19 took the life of 63-year-old Gloria Merculief.
Merculief lived in Anchorage with her husband and had not traveled out-of-state nor come in contact with anyone who had prior to getting COVID-19, according to her family who say they don't known how she and her husband contracted the disease as they "were homebodies" who were "social distancing as much as they could" but may have contracted it while running errands. Merculief was diagnosed with Alzheimers in 2019, according to her husband.
Last Saturday, Merculief woke up with stomach flu symptoms and was feeling weak and dizzy; her family says she struggled to walk up and down the stairs on her own.
On Monday morning, Merculief’s husband followed proper protocol and contacted ANMC by phone because she had gotten noticeably weaker was having difficulties with mobility, according to her family. The nurse cleared Merculief for the Emergency Room, were she was examined and tested for COVID-19. The couple were sent home under quarantine, the family says.
Tuesday evening, Merculief began having difficulty breathing. Wednesday morning, her husband called for the ambulance because, the family says, Merculief could "not stand on her own" and her breathing had "gotten extremely bad". She was admitted to the hospital.
A positive result was received from the state laboratory on Wednesday according to ANMC officials. The patient was placed in isolation in a negative pressure unit, according to hospital officials.
The family says they received a call from ANMC that evening advising Merculief "had pneumonia and it had gotten into her lungs and to be prepared that she may not make it through the illness."
Gloria Jane Merculief, known to her friends and loved ones as Glo, Glo-Bug, Strawberry Girl, Gloodge, and Glory, died Friday morning at 9:40 am, according to her family.
While her death is being attributed to COVID-19, the patient's underlying condition may have exacerbated the symptoms of virus, says Zink.
"Gloria was known for her easy giggle and good-natured spirit and she loved to laugh until tears rolled down her face," according to family members. "Gloria’s life was filled with adventure from riding in our family’s houseboat up and down the Yukon river, to riding her bike from California to Seattle, to flying solo in a plane out of the Honolulu airport when she was stationed there in the Navy in the 1980’s."
An unfortunate fact that healthcare workers report nationwide is that coronavirus victims die alone in isolation, far away from the comfort and closure of family, friends and loved ones.
"We wanted to thank the nurses at ANMC for being there with Gloria when we could not," reported her family. "We asked them to play her music, specifically the song, 'You Are My Sunshine' and they did. They called us regularly to keep us updated, and they said they were making her as comfortable as possible."
"They held the phone up to Gloria’s ear while her brother talked with her and prayed with her, and did it again for her husband to express his last words of love to her," said her family. "The most difficult part of all of this, beyond Gloria’s suffering, was knowing that she was without family during her last hours. We prayed for the nurses that were there with her and had faith that they were doing their best to comfort her and care for Gloria in a good way."
"We do know that social distancing at this time is essential to stop the spread of the virus to the ones you love and to those that are most vulnerable," said the family. "Our ancestors and Elders pass on wisdom and practices around how to be a good person, embedded in those practices are examples of responsibility for yourself and others, sharing and caring, reciprocity, and a deep love and respect for one another and the land. We are seeing acts of compassion and service every day in our communities during this challenging time and that inspires hope for the future."
Some rural Alaska patients may be flown to hospitals elsewhere while others may be cared for within the community, according to the ANMC website.
Governor Michael Dunleavy announced Friday that Alaska National Guard helicopters are being readied to transport those needing hospitalization from rural Alaska to medical facilities.
Sixteen new coronavirus cases were announced Friday, included nine in Anchorage, three in Fairbanks, and one each in Girdwood, North Pole, Ketchikan and Juneau - bringing the statewide total to 85.