Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'A Failure On Our Part': Despite Calls For Help, Navajo Mountain Mother, Son Can't Be Saved

An elderly navajo lady wearing a turquoise necklace sits in a chair
Courtesy of Holly DeJolie
Jean DeJolie, left, who died March 31 after testing positive for COVID-19, served as a Navajo Mountain chapter official. Both she and her son Douglas, right, who died on March 26 of renal failure after also testing positive , had underlying health issues.

BLUFF — Holly DeJolie was getting worried. 

She hadn’t heard from her mother and brother for a week, despite calling them several times a day. The two lived together in a three-bedroom house on Cradleboard Mesa in Navajo Mountain, Utah—about a mile from the Arizona border. They had called her the week of March 8 to tell her they were both having chest pains, DeJolie said. 

A week later, her brother finally answered the phone.

“He said they were getting sick,” DeJolie said. “And I said, ‘You need to call the ambulance. You gotta call.’ But he said, ‘We were told not to leave.’”

Unable to visit their mother and brother for fear of catching COVID-19, DeJolie said she and her four sisters felt helpless. She said they asked multiple agencies to check on the two. But by the time an ambulance finally made it to their home, it was too late. 

Douglas DeJolie, 58, and Jean DeJolie, 81, both died from COVID-19 within days of each other in late March. 

The two deaths, which occurred in Arizona, have not yet been reported by state or local health officials in Utah, revealing issues with data-sharing between the two states and the Navajo Nation. The deaths also raise concerns that rural residents of the Navajo Nation may not know where to turn if they contract COVID-19, and highlights the public health challenge on the reservation.

“They really need to make it known, especially on the reservation,” DeJolie said, referring to information about what to do if you get COVID-19. “A lot of us Navajos live in remote areas, and it just wasn’t getting out there.”

Self-Quarantine Led To Suffering, Death

Douglas DeJolie knew something was wrong. He was having trouble breathing after going to church in early March, where he encountered people who had been exposed to COVID-19 at a revival in Chilchinbeto, the Navajo Times reported. 

He and his mother drove about 20 miles to the Indian Health Service clinic in Inscription House, Ariz. and told the nurses there about his respiratory issues, Holly DeJolie said. 

Instead of being tested for the virus, he and his mother were sent home to self-quarantine. 

“Nobody told them to call a certain number or nothing,” DeJolie said. “The only thing they were told was to quarantine themselves.”

DeJolie, who lives in Chandler, Ariz., said she and her sisters asked the Utah Navajo Health Service, which operates a clinic at Navajo Mountain, and the Navajo Police to check on their brother and mother in the weeks leading up to their deaths. But, she said, they never did. 

“We told them, ‘They’re sick, somebody needs to go over there,’” DeJolie said. “We tried to help and we failed.” 

Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco said he was not aware the DeJolie family had called his department, adding that his officers are not able to do medical welfare checks right now. Michael Jensen, CEO of the Utah Navajo Health System, said their clinic at Navajo Mountain only has one staff member, and is not set up to do welfare checks either. 

Holly DeJolie said her niece went to check on Douglas and Jean on March 26 and found Douglas unconscious. She called one of Holly’s sisters, who called 911 and asked the dispatcher to send an ambulance to Jean DeJolie’s house.

“That’s when they finally responded,” DeJolie said. “By then, my brother was unresponsive.”

The ambulance took the mother and son to Tuba City Regional Health Care, a hospital on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, where DeJolie said her brother was pronounced dead the evening of March 26. And her mother, who had diabetes, was transported to Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, Ariz., where she died five days later, on March 31. 

DeJolie said her brother’s death was caused by renal failure. He only had one kidney, and was on dialysis. But both Douglas and Jean DeJolie tested positive for COVID-19 at the hospital, according to DeJolie. Staff at the hospital in Tuba City called DeJolie’s older sister, Geraldine Tsiniginie, on March 30—the day before their mother died—to inform the family of the test results. 

“The doctors and nurses did their best to try to save them,” DeJolie said. “But it was just impossible for anyone to fix it.”

Navajo Area Indian Health Services, which operates the Inscription House Clinic, declined to comment for this story. 

Health Department Learns From DeJolies' Deaths

As of April 4, official numbers from the State of Utah do not show any deaths in San Juan County, Utah. 

The San Juan Health Department has not reported any deaths related to COVID-19 either. But the department’s director, Kirk Benge, said he is aware of the DeJolies’ deaths, and was working with the Utah Department of Health to obtain their test results. 

Benge said, under law, hospitals must report positive COVID-19 cases to the state where the patient lives. But that has not happened with the DeJolies’ tests, and so their deaths have not been added to the state’s official COVID-19 death toll. 

Because most people who live in Navajo Mountain—and on the rest of the Navajo Nation—don’t have standard street addresses, Benge said, the hospital likely assumed the DeJolies lived in Coconino County and reported the tests to the Arizona Department of Health. 

“Now that we’ve got a state epidemiologist involved, it shouldn’t be a big deal to figure this out,” he said. 

But Benge added that the zip code issue could come up again in Monument Valley, which straddles the Arizona-Utah stateline. Just like in Navajo Mountain, some people who live in Monument Valley are Utah residents but have P.O. boxes associated with Arizona. 

“The state was assuming people have a physical address,” he said. “So we’ll have to work that out moving forward.” 

Benge said the DeJolies’ story also shows that accurate information on COVID-19 is not reaching remote areas of the Navajo Nation. 

“It’s tough with Navajo because a lot of the older generation can’t read it,” he said. “It needs to be spoken in order for it to be understood.” 

Benge said his department has relied on the Utah Navajo Health System, which operates a network of clinics in San Juan County, and the Navajo Nation Health Department to get information about COVID-19 to people on the reservation. 

“There was a sense that people weren’t sure of what they were supposed to be doing,” he said. “That’s obviously a failure on our part.”

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.