TORONTO — Hannah Kim’s Instagram profile is like that of most young adults — a sporadic record of life as a teenager, then a college student — snapshots of memories and selfies with friends.
Her first post of 2020 was on March 18: “just zoomin’!!!!!!!!!!!!!” she wrote. It was a banal marker of how life had changed under the pandemic – everyone was on Zoom or Google Meet.
Her second Instagram post of the year came two months later, accompanied by a series of old family photos: “A month ago, we were a normal family..happy that this quarantine could all give us a little break. Now, it’s just my brother and I at home and I’m dreading it so much. I’m breaking down every single day.”
She warned her followers to take the virus seriously, to stay home, to wear a mask. And posted: “Hug your family a little tighter tonight. I seriously wish I could.”
Hannah is a graphic designer and California State University Los Angeles student who lived with her parents and teenage brother Joseph in a two-bedroom apartment in Koreatown in LA. In mid-April, her family moved their grandmother out of her nursing home and into their home in hopes of shielding her from COVID-19. The virus had, by then, already left a devastating mark among the elderly in Italy and elsewhere, and was sweeping through long-term care residences in Canada.
“I guess you could say it’s bittersweet. It’s nice to have my family all together in one space, but at the same time I feel sad,” she wrote in a series of essays documenting her family’s quarantine life during the pandemic for a community journalism project on intergenerational storytelling, “K-Town is Your Town.”
Caring for her grandmother, who had dementia, could no longer walk, speak or go to the washroom independently, was challenging for the family she wrote at the time. It was April and the family had made the difficult decision to also close their father’s acupuncture clinic. He was approaching 70 and they thought it would be too risky for him as well as the family to stay open, even though he was the family’s source of income.
“Since the quarantine, we’ve been filling out more and more financial applications as the bills keep coming in. On top of this, our new landlord is planning on demolishing our four-unit apartment,” she wrote in mid-April.
“We have no choice but to accept the cards that are being dealt to us.” According to a Los Angeles Times story in June, the developers were planning to evict residents in August and had refused to change their plans despite the Kim family’s situation.
Over the course of the next three weeks, things took a devastating turn for the worse. Her grandmother had passed away, the entire family had tested positive for COVID-19 and both parents were in the hospital.
Everything changed on her birthday in late April, she documented. Her grandmother had been fighting a fever, so they called 911, worried she would die if they didn’t, worried they would never see her again if they did. She was hospitalized, put on a ventilator and tested positive for the virus the following day.
Meanwhile, her father had also been feeling under the weather. Hannah woke up one morning just after her grandmother was hospitalized, hearing sirens approaching. Her father had called the ambulance for himself, she wrote.
Her mother too began feeling sick and having trouble breathing that same day. She took her mother to the ER and waited hours only to be sent home because no beds were available, she said in her essay. At home, her mother was vomiting and coughing up blood, so they went back to the hospital the next day, where she was eventually admitted.
The worries were piling up – about her parents, the bills, the dreaded hospital calls. Hannah was also wrapping up her final year of school.
“I’m scared of what news the hospital will tell me the next day. I’m terrified, but I still have to listen,” she wrote on May 11, the day after Mother’s Day. That day, her mother’s breathing worsened and she was moved into intensive care. Her grandmother had died a week after she was admitted at the age of 85, according to the Los Angeles Times, and her father, who had a pre-existing condition, was on a ventilator in critical condition.
“Being home has been hell. I can’t do anything. I have no power. All I can do is pray,” she wrote.
Her father died on May 21. He was 68.
A GoFundMe was launched by Hannah’s internship mentor and supervisor in late May to help support the family.
Her mother was moved out of intensive care about a week later. Hannah and Joe prepared for her homecoming. Though both siblings also tested positive, the main symptom they experienced was losing their sense of smell, according to an editor’s note on KQED, a public media member of NPR and PBS that reposted Hannah’s essays.
At the beginning of June, Hannah shared that her mother finally tested negative for the virus and was recovering. She was regaining her strength, eating more, breathing much better. Hannah was able to visit daily and care for her mom, whom she described as strong — 60 going on 40, with no pre-existing health issues. Still, she worried.
“Although she is healing, bringing her home will be another thing of its own. I don’t know how she will grieve and take in the place where we once all spent time together,” she wrote in a GoFundMe update.
A week later, another update: her mother was moved back to the ICU — her blood pressure and oxygen levels had dropped and she was put on a ventilator. Doctors told the family that her mother’s lungs were too scarred and hardened by the virus. She needed a lung transplant.
Hannah and Joe expressed gratitude for the enormous public support that they said helped precipitate their mother’s transfer to USC Keck hospital in mid-June, where she could be evaluated as a potential transplant candidate. But doctors informed the family that their mother would not survive the surgery.
On Hannah’s last Instagram post on July 18th, there is a collage of family photos: of a smiling little girl and her baby brother, of a mother and daughter, a son and his parents celebrating a birthday. Her mother died four days earlier.
“The ventilator was her life support and her body couldn’t keep up.”