‘She’s been through a pandemic before’: Bethel elder who had COVID-19 is one of the first to get vaccine

A selfie of two Alaska Native women, one older one younger
Xenia Jackson with her daughter Yvonne Jackson before the pandemic. (Yvonne Jackson)

Yukon-Kuskokwim Elder’s Home resident Xenia Jackson was one of the first people in the Y-K Delta to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Dec. 2020. The shot capped off a tumultuous year in which she tested positive for COVID-19.

Jackson, originally from Kasigluk, has been at the Y-K Elder’s Home for the past two years. She said her daughter and other family members used to visit her, but the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation banned visitors in March 2020 to protect residents from COVID-19. For Xenia, that was devastating.

“Nobody can come since the sickness came, and that makes everything lonelier,” Xenia said.

Her daughter, Yvonne Jackson, said this is the longest she has gone without seeing her mother. Hearing how lonely she is makes it even harder.

“She tells me on a daily basis that she feels like she’s in jail,” Yvonne said. “She just feels like she’s trapped, and she can’t go anywhere. She can’t see anyone.”

Despite strict measures to try to keep the virus out of the Y-K Elder’s Home, three residents tested positive for COVID-19 in November 2020. Xenia was one of them.

“I was so sad. I was just thinking, ‘So I’m the one that’s going to die this year,’” Xenia said.

But she didn’t die or get sick. She said that neither she nor the other residents who tested positive experienced any symptoms.

“Nothing. I was just seeming normal every day,” Xenia said.

So, she told her daughter Yvonne not to worry.

“She said that she’s been through a pandemic before once in her lifetime and that this was gonna pass just like the first time,” Yvonne said.

Xenia’s first experience with a pandemic was during the tuberculosis outbreaks of the 20th century when she worked as a village health aide. Public health measures weren’t as well-known back then. She remembers times when people coughed directly on her face while she was treating them.

“I wish I had known masks in those days,” Xenia said.

Back then, she was the one administering vaccine shots. When Xenia was on the receiving end for the COVID-19 vaccine, her own reaction surprised her.

“I was kind of scared like I wasn’t supposed to be,” Xenia said.

She should not be scared, the doctor said, because she had given shots like these thousands of times before. Hearing that, Xenia was able to relax.

She is hopeful life will soon change for the better. She said that she wants to leave the Y-K Elder’s Home and move to Kenai, where her daughter Yvonne lives. There, Xenia wants to quietly practice her skin sewing.

“There’s not much good, experienced parka makers anymore or mukluk makers,” Xenia said.

And once gatherings are allowed, Xenia wants a chance to meet her youngest family members.

“I’m a great, great, great, four times great-grandmother now,” Xenia said.

Yvonne said if there’s anyone who will thrive after the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s her 82-year-old mom.

“She’s one of the strongest people I know,” Yvonne said. “And she’s led by example to let us know you can have a good life after a pandemic because, obviously, she’s lived through a pandemic before us.”

Yvonne said she hopes to bring her mother Xenia to Kenai with her in March.