On the last day of August, Shanette Harper’s brother died of COVID-19. She was nearby when it happened, though she didn’t realize it at the time.

Harper, a nurse, was caring for cardiac patients at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage when her brother was rushed to the emergency room in cardiac arrest. He had called 911, unable to catch his breath. Days earlier he had been diagnosed with COVID-19 pneumonia. As a medical team tried in vain to restart his heart, Harper was working her shift just down the hallway.

“It was the last of his life, and I was with him in the same hospital,” she said. “And I didn’t even know.”

Once she heard what had happened, she walked down a long corridor to the nurse’s station inside the emergency room. Someone took her to his body, so she could spend a few last minutes with her older brother. He was 43.

That night, Harper went home and typed a message on Facebook:

“My brother died today,” she wrote. “After 16 days fighting COVID. I was just so sure he’d kick it. We’d texted and the last I’d read he was feeling better Saturday. Please consider what informs your choice to not vaccinate, and then seek members in the medical community to ask questions so that your decision is truly informed.”

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She turned off the comments.

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“I just don’t want people to come down on my brother”

Two weeks later, tears slide under Harper’s mask when she talks about her big brother: He was tall, with a bass voice and a ready supply of jokes. He worked for more than 20 years at a bank in Anchorage. He was skeptical — including of pandemic restrictions. He saw his main job as protecting everyone he loved.

He didn’t get vaccinated.

Harper has agonized over whether to tell the story of his death.

She does not want his name published in a news story, though other family members have left it to her discretion. Her brother was a big presence, and a lifelong Alaskan. Plenty of people will know who he is.

But there’s so much anger, and judgment, and politics in everything about the pandemic now, Harper says. Including death. She can’t bear the thought of strangers belittling his memory.

“I just don’t want people to come down on my brother for his choice,” she said.

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At the same time, Harper wants to tell the story of losing an unvaccinated loved one to COVID-19 because so few in Alaska have shared publicly about the experience. She also thinks she could change some minds about vaccination.

“If one person lives over this story, that’s one,” she said.

Harper is Black. She is a longtime nurse. She, too, had questions about the vaccine but ultimately chose to be immunized. She knows people in her community who harbor fears and mistrust about vaccination, and she wants them to at very least ask their questions to a medical professional they trust.

“I need to talk about this,” she said. “Because I am a person of color. Because I hesitated to get (the vaccine). Because I did get it.”

And because her brother didn’t.

“Hey, little one, what are you doing?”

Harper has been a nurse in Anchorage for more than 15 years. She is also an actress who has performed in Alaska film, dance and theater productions.

“I felt COVID was very serious as a nurse working in the hospital,” she said. “But I felt very reserved about getting the vaccine.”

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When the vaccines were rolled out for health care workers back in December and January, she wanted to know about any potential impact on fertility. She asked questions of doctors she worked with, read scientific studies and felt comfortable enough to get her shots.

Harper and her brother were not raised in the same household but had been part of each other’s life since she was a young child, she said. In their 20s, they grew close. He called her “baby sis” or “little one” and said if she ever got married, he’d walk her down the aisle.

They’d gone through periods of estrangement in recent years. But in mid-August, when he got COVID, he texted his sister the nurse:

“Hey little one,” he wrote. “WYD. I caught the Vid. Don’t want it to turn into pneumonia.”

How did he get it, she asked?

Being out and about without a mask, he answered.

“I thought I was dying this morning”

They settled into a routine: He’d text to report his symptoms and she’d encourage him to take care of himself, giving him tips for staying hydrated, reducing fevers and ensuring he didn’t spend too long in bed. He kept her apprised of his fluctuating fever. He told her when he lost his sense of smell. Nothing he reported sounded serious.

“It just seemed like he was going to come out of it,” she said. Nothing, she said, made her think she needed to put on an N95 mask and race over to take him to the hospital.

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One day toward the end of August, he texted that he’d been to the emergency room. He’d been diagnosed with COVID-19 pneumonia and sent home.

“I thought I was dying this morning,” he wrote. Soon after, he posted on Facebook that he’d gotten an inhaler, which was working.

On Aug. 31, Harper’s brother called 911 — he couldn’t catch his breath. When medics arrived, he collapsed at the door, Harper said. He’d gone into cardiac arrest.

“They worked on him four cycles (of CPR) in the field and two in the hospital,” she said.

She doesn’t know exactly what happened. Doctors say COVID-19 can weaken the heart. The virus hits every person differently, she said.

The funeral is coming up. People in her family remain unvaccinated. Some have said they’ll take their chances with the virus.

“It’s really hard to hear that in the face of having someone taken away from me,” she said.

Harper says if she could have done it again, she would have pushed her brother harder to be vaccinated. As much as a younger sister can.

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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