Wogene Debele was eight months pregnant when, coughing and weak, she decided to return to Holy Cross Hospital a second time. Before leaving her family’s small high-rise apartment in Takoma Park, Md., she turned to her two sons, Naod, 10, and Asher, 4.

“I’m just going to get a checkup. I’ll be right back,” her 17-year-old daughter, Mihret, later recalled her telling them.

That was on March 25, the last time Debele’s children would have her in their midst. On Tuesday, after nearly a month of struggle, first at Holy Cross in Silver Spring and then at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, Debele died of covid-19. She was 43.

She left behind not only Naod, Asher, Mihret and her husband, Yilma Asfaw Tadesse, 50, but a newborn son, Levi. Born a month premature the day Debele was admitted to the hospital, the baby was whisked into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), free of the virus, his mother unable to hold him or even see his face.

That is how Anne Snouck-Hurgronje came to know Debele, a stay-at-home mother, and Tadesse, a Montgomery County school bus driver who sometimes worked more than one job. Snouck-Hurgronje’s son, Gabriel, and Naod are both in fifth grade at Piney Branch Elementary and have played soccer together for years in a local rec league and then a travel league.

Snouck-Hurgronje said she mostly ran into Tadesse on carpool runs and was impressed by Debele’s warm graciousness when she invited Snouck-Hurgronje’s family to dinner one evening. Debele made a spicy Ethiopian stew and performed the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony afterward, roasting and grinding the beans before her guests. On another visit, when Snouck-Hurgronje stopped by for the Ethiopian epiphany after Asher’s birth four years ago, “I was really struck by how many people came and went and could see they were part of a strong and loving community,” she said.

“This is a small town next to a big city, and that’s just the culture here,” Snouck-Hurgronje said of the outpouring. In a community renowned for its liberal politics, she said she and her privileged, social justice-minded neighbors find themselves uncomfortably mulling the role economic inequality may have played. Debele was black, a relatively recent immigrant and lived in a poorer, densely populated area, demographic factors they understand can elevate risk for the virus.

Debele’s death “now is my personal experience and my neighbors’ personal experience, and it’s not lost on us here,” she said.

Wogene, in fact, means “My people, my community,” in the family’s native Amharic, the family said. Debele relished watching shows that connected her with life in Ethiopia, like the family drama “Zemen,” and “Senselet,” about the lives of Ethiopian immigrants in the United States, Tadesse said.

Debele’s generosity was fueled by her Christian faith, her family said. She was a member of the International Evangelical Ethiopian Church in D.C., where she received training in ministry from the church’s Bible College.

“She was very pure of heart,” he said.

A friend was alone with a newborn as her husband traveled back to Ethiopia for the funeral of his father. Even eight months pregnant, Debele would take the bus to shop for her friend’s family, care for the baby and cook dinner for them.

“Even when she was super tired she always put other people first,” Mihret said.

Last month, just before the shutdown, Debele withdrew money from the bank to get her hair done, her daughter said. When she came home, Mihret told her she also craved a trip to the salon to look her best before running for vice president of the countywide student government association — just the kind of service position her mother always encouraged her to take on. So Debele gave her daughter the money instead.

She went to the hospital on March 19, her family said, and was told she did not appear sick enough to be tested, that she was likely feeling poorly because of her pregnancy and should go home and take ibuprofen. As the week progressed, however, Debele lost her sense of smell and her fever rose, but doctors cautioned she should remain at home, the family said, because of the risk of contracting the coronavirus in the hospital.

On March 25, she decided she had to go back to Holy Cross, telling her sons she would see them again soon. Then she called her family to say her breathing was troubled and the hospital was going to keep her overnight. That was the last time any of them heard her voice. The test for covid-19 came back positive. Debele’s blood oxygen levels plummeted, her blood pressure spiked, and the hospital called the family to tell them they needed to induce labor. She had no one with her besides medical personnel. “I wasn’t able to share her pain or her joy,” Tadesse said

Levi was born a month premature that evening and immediately separated from his mother.

Two days later, the hospital called her family to say Debele was having heart issues and that she would need to be transported to the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and put on a ventilator. On March 28, she appeared to be improving. But after her lungs stabilized, her heart declined again, and then her kidney function, and so it went for weeks. Debele would appear to improve slightly only to weather another assault from the virus. The hospital used Zoom so Debele’s family could see her, but by that point she was unable to respond to them.

Baby Levi stayed in the NICU at Holy Cross for 21 days while his family quarantined before bringing him home, which they did on April 19. Two days later, Debele died.

Now, he is caring primarily for Naod and Asher. Meanwhile, his daughter tends to Levi, comforting him when he cries and feeding him with a bottle.

Sometimes, Mihret said, it is painful to look at her baby brother because she knows her mother never had the chance. Other times, she takes in Levi’s tiny face and thinks only of her love for Debele. In those moments, she feels like she is also taking care of her mother.

የወለደችውን ልጅ ሳታይ ኢትዮጵያዊቷ በኮሮናቫይረስ ሕይወቷ አለፈ
“ አራት ልጆቿን ጥላ ሄደች” – የሟች ወ/ሮ ወገን ደበላ ባለቤት አቶ ይልማ አስፋው
#COVID19 #VOAAmharic
ወ/ሮ ወገን ደበላ በሜሪላንድ ታኮማ ፓርክ በተባለ ቦታ ነዋሪ ነበረች። “ልጆቿን በትና ጥላኝ ሄደች” ያሉን ባለቤቷ አቶ ይልማ አስፋው ደግሞ የትምሕርት ቤት አውቶብስ አሽከርካሪ ናቸው። ቤታችን ውስጥ እጅግ የመረረ ሐዘን ገብቷል ያሉት አቶ ይልማ የተወለደው አራስ በ17 ዓመቷ ልጃቸው እቅፍ ውስጥ እንደሚገኝ ገልፀዋል። (ዝርዝሩን ከተያያዘው የድምፅ ፋይል ያዳምጡ)