A garbled voice from a Thai refugee camp via FaceTime reached the Colorado hospice bed of the 60-year-old meat plant worker Tin Aye, and she proved she could still cry.
After more than a month on a ventilator and series of strokes, her fight against COVID-19 had left her unable to move or talk. But she had only to hear her mother speak and tears began seeping from her closed eyes.
“She has tears when she hears my grandmother’s voice,” her 28-year-old daughter, San Twin, told The Daily Beast.
The grandmother was also weeping.
“My grandma is crying,” Twin recalled. “She is like, ‘I’m old. Why don’t I go first? Why is this happening to my daughter?’”
The family had all lived in the camp in Thailand for 15 years after fleeing their native Burma. The grandmother had remained there when Aye headed for America with her husband and two children in the summer of 2007. The sponsoring agency settled them in Greeley, and she had taken a job at the local JBS meatpacking plant. Three hours after her 10-minute FaceTime connection at midday Sunday, Aye became the eighth employee there to die from COVID-19.
The end came when Aye’s 21-year-old son was still hurrying from the Marine base in South Carolina where he serves as a lance corporal. Aye’s husband and daughter were at the hospice, with Twin holding her hand. But Aye never got a chance to see the grandson who was born by emergency C-section on March 28, the day before she herself was hospitalized.
Aye had taken the job with JBS shortly after the family arrived in America. The plant was divided into the killing side and the refrigerated “fabrication” side, where she was assigned. She worked shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow with the others on the hindquarters line, the noise so loud some wore earplugs, and you had to lean close and raise your voice to speak to each other. Her task was to bag freshly severed cow tails. The shifts sometimes extended to 12 hours.
“It is pretty hard,” Twin said. “She always came home cold and wet. Because she couldn’t speak English, she didn’t want to change jobs. She just want to stay there, so when she retire, it be easier for that.”
And she had made a kind of second family with her co-workers.
“She loved everyone in the plant,” Twin said. “The young people call her ‘mom,’ the old people call her ‘sister.’ She loved to cook at home, then she would take food with her to her work to share with her friends at the plant.”
In early March, Aye told her daughter that one of her friends at the plant had tested positive for COVID-19. Emotional bonds and physical proximity became a double danger.
“I said, ‘Mom, even though you love everyone as people, you have to keep a distance,’” Twin recalled. “My mom said, ‘I have no choice. We have to work on the line. We have to line up and work.’”
Not long afterward, Aye called Twin to say she was feeling ill.
“She say, ‘Hey, daughter, I have a cough, my body ache, I have difficulty breathing,’” Twin remembered. “I said, ‘Mom, that’s a sign of COVID-19. You already at work right now. Can you get checked right now with the clinic?’”
The daughter knew there is a small clinic at the plant.
Aye followed Twin’s advice and reported back to her.
“She said, ‘Oh, they just told me I have a normal cold and I have to go back to work. I go back to work.’” Twin recalled.
Aye called Twin two days later.
“She said, ‘You know, I’m pretty upset,’” Twin reported.
Aye told her that she was at work when she had an urgent need to use the bathroom. She had repeatedly called for permission to step off the line but had received no reply for more than an hour.
“She said, ‘They don’t give me the permission, so I just pee myself in the plant,’” Twin recalled.
She could not have just slipped away and caused the whole line to back up with carcasses whose tails needed bagging.
“What if they fire me?” Aye asked Twin.
The following week, Aye came to visit Twin. The mom who loved to cook and eat with friends reported that she had lost her appetite.
“She told me she cannot eat anything,” Twin remembered. “She even vomit. I say, ‘Mom, that is COVID sign again.’ I keep repeating it. My mom said, ‘They told me it’s a normal cold. If I drink Tylenol or ibuprofen at home, it will be gone.’”
Twin was coming up on nine months pregnant, and she had been careful to avoid potential COVID-19 threats. She tried to tell herself that she need not worry her mother might infect her.
“I keep thinking, ‘Oh, my mom is fine, it’s a normal cold,’” she remembered.
On March 27, Twin called her mom to report that she had felt a contraction and had noticed a little blood. Aye told her to head for the hospital.
Twin was at the hospital the following day when she herself began to experience body aches and other classic COVID-19 symptoms. The doctor ordered a blood test, and the result came back positive several hours later.
“The only way I can get COVID is from my mom,” Twin later said.
She called her mother, who was now having difficulty breathing.
“I said, ‘Mom, I got COVID-19 positive, you have the same symptoms. Mom, you have to go to the hospital right away,’” Twin recalled.
Aye called her husband, Aung Kwah Toe, at the door company where he works. He picked her up and took her to the hospital.
In the meantime, the doctor had become concerned for Twin’s unborn child.
“My baby doesn’t have enough oxygen anymore,” she said.
Twin underwent an emergency C-section. But Aye was admitted to the hospital before she could see her first grandchild, a boy they named Felix.
“My mom, they said they cannot send her home, she look pretty bad right now,” Twin said.
Aye was on a ventilator for more than a month.
“She cannot make it anymore,” Twin said.
On the afternoon of May 15, Aye was transferred to a hospice. Her husband, Toe, had completed a 14-day quarantine and was able to be at her bedside along with Twin.
Early Sunday afternoon, they arranged a FaceTime call with Aye’s mother back in the refugee camp in Thailand. The connection was bad, but the tears coming from Aye’s closed eyes told Twin that her mother recognized the voice. Aye was spared seeing her mother’s own tears.
After 10 minutes, the call dropped. Aye’s tears continued.
“She have a tear and I wipe her tear,” Twin said.
Mucus was rising from Aye’s mouth.
“I clean out her mucus,” Twin said. “I have a paper cup and clean it up for her, taking care of her. I massage her.”
Twin held Aye’s hand. She and Toe said a prayer.
“She left right after the prayer, the end of the prayer,” Twin said. “I noticed right away she doesn’t breathe anymore.”
Aye’s long fight with COVID-19 had come to an end.
“She leave pretty smoothly,” Twin noted.
The son, Aung Hah, was not able to reach Greeley until after 9 p.m..
“He didn’t talk to anyone when he got home,” Twin said. “He is pretty upset.”
Word of the loss reached the plant where Aye had been known as “mom” and “sister.”
“Everyone is heartbroken because my mom is everyone’s sweetheart,” Twin said. “Everybody love her.”
Seven of her co-workers had also died. At least 280 had tested positive for COVID-19.
As Aye’s family began planning whatever funeral the pandemic may allow, a JBS spokesperson had this to say on Monday:
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of our faithful team member. We have been and will continue offering support to the family during this time. Our sympathies go out to everyone who has been impacted by COVID-19.”
The spokesperson added, “If Ms. Aye was told to work while sick or that she couldn't use the bathroom, that would be a clear violation of both company policy and our culture as an organization. We are currently investigating her situation to make sure we took the right steps.”
The spokesperson described the efforts to improve worker safety and included a link to a video of improvements at the plant. All of it is at least eight deaths too late.
Twin was home with Felix, the now month-old grandson Aye never got to see. Twin reported that the boy is exactly as his grandmother would no doubt want him to be.
“He’s a pretty happy and active baby,” Twin said.