When Tyrone Joseph first visited his sister at Vancouver General Hospital, where she was being treated for COVID-19, he wasn't prepared for the sight.
Anna Joseph, 57, was behind glass in the intensive care unit (ICU), lying unconscious and hooked up to a ventilator. Tyrone could only speak through an intercom, never sure if she heard his words.
“You're trying to express to your loved one—through a wall—that you're here for them," says Tyrone, who agreed to share his deeply personal story with the FNHA in the hopes of encouraging Indigenous people to get vaccinated.
What surprised him was the sight of many other people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds who were also in the ICU being treated for COVID-19. Tyrone met a woman from the Interior whose husband, in his mid-30s, was in a similar condition to his sister. He did not survive.
Anna did not either. Her death was very painful for Tyrone. It also brought about another realization: when speaking with his sister's husband and her son, he learned that they and most of his extended family—including other siblings, nieces and nephews—were unvaccinated.
“You just don't think someone you know and love and grew up with could possibly have that type of position," he says.
Originally from Tl'azt'en Nation in northern BC, with Dakelh and Sekani heritage, Tyrone and his seven siblings were raised in Kamloops. When they grew up and left home, his siblings ended up living in various parts of BC, with Anna residing in Vancouver.
When the pandemic hit and the lockdowns caused social isolation, it was tough on Tyrone, who was used to visiting his family. When the vaccine became available, Tyrone gratefully accepted it and assumed all of his siblings did the same. They hadn't.
“As First Nations people, I kind of get it," says Tyrone, adding that due to systemic racism in the health care system, residential schools, and forced sterilizations, Indigenous people are wary of Western medicine and governments telling them what to do.
But Tyrone says he feels an obligation to honour the sacrifices of his ancestors—many of whom endured pandemics in the past—by carrying on and trying to make things better for his community and future generations. That meant getting the vaccine was essential.
A board member of the Kamloops Aboriginal Friendship Society, Tyrone says personal outreach is needed to understand vaccine hesitancy among Indigenous people, especially urban youth who are susceptible to vaccine misinformation.
In speaking with his own family about their vaccine hesitancy, he learned that their reasons are grounded in mistrust of Western medicine, conspiracy theories and misunderstandings about how the vaccine might be dangerous for them.
“Nowhere was any recognition that there's a greater community that requires us to ensure that we're all contributing to the health and betterment of that community," he says.
Tyrone's family will be holding a service in memory of his sister this Saturday in Kamloops. As a younger brother, it's a day he knew would come eventually, but he never thought it would be this soon.
“I think the bigger tragedy is the fact that this is all entirely preventable," he says, referring to the COVID-19 vaccines.
“We're all responsible now to make sure we go out there, we talk with our family members. And I'm telling you, as uncomfortable as these discussions are, it's nowhere near as uncomfortable as being hooked up to machines in an isolated room and not being able to have the love and comfort of your family and community."
Tyrone says that since speaking to the BC media in September about vaccine hesitancy, a few of his family members have received their first dose.
Get informed: fnha.ca/vaccine
Get vaccinated: gov.bc.ca/getvaccinated