Postcards From The Pandemic: Surviving COVID's First Wave

By Emily Cureton Cook (OPB)
Culver, Ore. June 28, 2020 6:07 p.m.

OPB reporters and photographers are capturing “Postcards from the Pandemic” to document the lived experience of people in the Northwest during this historic and unusual time.

Dyami Ellis plays with infant son Brave Bear seven weeks after their entire household tested positive for COVID-19. Culver, Ore., June 24, 2020.

Dyami Ellis plays with infant son Brave Bear seven weeks after their entire household tested positive for COVID-19. Culver, Ore., June 24, 2020.

Emily Cureton / OPB


Baby Brave Bear was born in February this year, just as the coronavirus began to spread in the U.S. He weighed around 12 pounds when he tested positive for COVID-19 two months later at an emergency room in Central Oregon.

Bonita Leonard remembers her son’s screams, as nurses tried unsuccessfully to catheterize him, and she remembers her own tears, as the family was separated for the first time.

A week later, Leonard was fighting for her life.

“I felt so close to death, and so powerless,” Leonard recalled thinking, as the virus made it more and more difficult for her to move or breath.

Now, she and her family are among more than 2,600 Oregonians considered recovered from the virus, according to state health authority figures from late June.

As new cases are on the rise in the state and across the country, Brave Bear's parents — Leonard and Dyami Ellis — met with OPB’s Emily Cureton outside their home in rural Jefferson County to share the harrowing story of what it was like to survive the virus' first wave.

A transcript of this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Bonita Leonard: I'm enrolled in [the Confederated Tribes of] Warm Springs. I'm also Wasco, Klamath, Umatilla. And I live here in Culver, Oregon. It's a small town, mostly country fields and farmers.

A view of Culver, Ore., June 24, 2020.

A view of Culver, Ore., June 24, 2020.

Emily Cureton / OPB

Dyami Ellis: It's home. We're in the front lawn and we've got a nice breeze going. Yeah, this is home. Safe and comfortable. My name is Dyami Big Eagle Ellis. I'm a Big Valley Band Pomo, from Clearlake, California.


Leonard: This is my son, Brave Bear. He is one day to four-months-old. He loves to laugh. He likes when you do funny faces to him. He wakes up with a smile all the time. He's a little fighter.

Ellis: I remember when we got the call. I was washing the van at the time. I was outside and Bonita came out and told me the news. I remember I dropped the rag.

Leonard: We got a phone call that a person we had allowed in our home, a close family member, had tested positive for corona. I was like, "No." We've been keeping ourselves safe. We never went out unless we needed to, we bought our food in bulk, we sprayed everything down all the time. We washed our hands all the time. We've only let minimal people in the house, and I didn't think they would have it. It wasn't until two days later that our test came back and they're like, "You guys are negative." And then our baby, he was really sleepy. So, I took his temperature and it was 101. I called the emergency room, and they're like, "Well, it could be a lot of things, so just bring him down."


Once we got to the hospital, they wouldn't let me in… They were only letting one of the parents in. I remember I called my mom and I was just crying. I couldn't even tell her what about. It was literally minutes of just crying. Because I couldn't even express everything I was feeling, or even get a word out.

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And then I hear that the parents don’t get to stay with the baby. The baby has to be in a separate room.  I started trying to calm myself down, but at the same time, I'm freaking out because, I'm like, "Oh my God, I've never been away from him.  They’re going to take him, like, what are they really doing to him? How come a parent can’t be in there?" And I just had all these questions in my mind.

Ellis: "Is my son going to be OK? Is my wife going to be OK? What if something happens to me?" When they released you guys, it was like 3:30 in the morning. [Brave Bear] still had a fever that continued into the next day… They called later on, a little after lunchtime. And that's when they said: "You guys are all positive." After the fever, the baby seemed to be alright. For like, four or five days, everyone was OK, nothing's showing up. And then the symptoms came, and it was just quick, just shot through the house.

Leonard: My lungs started hurting. And then every single day, it felt like it was getting worse, it wasn't getting better. I felt so close to death. I felt so close to death, and I was so powerless about it. The nurses kept saying, because they would call everyday to check on us, like, "Man, if it gets bad enough, you need to go to the hospital," and I'm like, "I don't want to go, I don't want to go."

If I die, that's not how I want to die. I want to be around my family. I want to be able to tell them I love them. What if I went to the hospital and couldn’t fight because I felt so alone? And so, I just was like, "No." If this thing is going to take me, it’s going to take me fighting, because I have people that depend on me. One of my friends prayed for me, and she started singing. She started singing and then all the sudden, I wanted to start singing with her. That was me fighting. I just kept singing and singing and over time, I started getting better. I started feeling hope, you know, a little bit of hope.

Ellis: Now, after everything, I just kind of take everything as a blessing. Every moment, I kinda just take in. This is another day I get with my son, and another day I get with my wife.When my son wakes up and he sees me, and he just instantly cracks into the biggest smile, little things like that.

Leonard: I just am finding courage to put on my mask, put on gloves if I need to, and still going out there. And at the same time still having care in my heart that even though maybe some people don't think [the virus] is real or whatever — and at one point I didn't think it was real — it's not just my life that would be affected, it's other people's lives.

Bonita Leonard, Dyami Ellis and Brave Bear in Culver, Ore. June 24, 2020.

Bonita Leonard, Dyami Ellis and Brave Bear in Culver, Ore. June 24, 2020.

Emily Cureton, OPB

Music for this story was composed by Chris Thomas of Bend, used with permission.