First Person: Serena Suydam Comes Home Amid COVID-19

After fleeing a domestic violence situation, Serena Suydam and her two boys returned to Alaska — only to find themselves in the midst of a pandemic.

First Person is a series that highlights the voices and experiences of Our People. This as-told-to feature is based on an interview with an individual who has achieved success with the support of CITC programs and services.

Serena and her sons fled a domestic violence situation, only to encounter the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 25 of this year, I made the decision to leave a toxic and unhealthy domestic violence situation. It had taken me a very long time to build up the courage to do so. I set out from the Lower Forty-Eight with my two sons, in the middle of the night, with two bags and a car seat. We left everything else that we had accumulated over eleven years. We came to Alaska with nothing, to start over.

I was born and raised in Kodiak, Alaska, and I come from a very strong, hard-working family. I had not been home in almost a decade; I hadn’t seen any of my family or friends during that time. So when I made my decision to leave the Lower Forty-Eight, it was easy. I was going home, and I was bringing my sons home. I wanted to introduce them to their true home and their native culture that they had missed out on for so long. I wanted them to finally meet their family — my family. Our people and our culture.

But traveling at the height of COVID, I was terrified. There was so much anxiety around traveling during that time, but we absolutely could not stay where we were. So I took every precaution to make sure my boys and I were safe. When we arrived at the airport, I took them into a family restroom and sanitized every inch of that room. We actually ended up sleeping in there, with the door locked for safety. We put blankets on the floor and kept our gloves and masks on. I tried to keep my boys away from everyone — you just don’t know who might be infected.

When our plane landed in Anchorage, I felt freedom. We finally made it! However, that was short-lived, due to the fact that we were quarantined for 14 days after our arrival. It was during that time that I reached out to CITC. From the moment we arrived, CITC made sure we had everything we needed to feel somewhat normal after leaving everything behind.

Serena and her children, enjoying the Alaskan outdoors.

After our quarantine was over, I wanted to get my boys outside to enjoy Alaska. We hiked Flattop. We went to parks and outdoor areas only, all the while making sure we could distance ourselves from people.

One day, I took them to Jewel Lake to go swimming. They got out of the water and by the time we got home, they were crying and they had rashes all over their bodies. They were itching uncontrollably — but my family and friends in the community said that it was probably just swimmers’ itch.

The next day, when I woke up and did my usual routine, I realized I couldn’t taste my vitamins or smell my coffee. My senses were completely gone. I spent the day sanitizing our entire home — every single door knob, light switch, and surface. I couldn’t even smell the bleach I was cleaning with. By the end of the day, I was suffering from hot and cold sweats and was having respiratory issues. I couldn’t catch my breath.

So, of course I did what everyone of us is guilty of — I Googled COVID symptoms. At that point I was certain I had contracted the virus.

A day later, my oldest son broke out with red bumps all over his body, mostly on his extremities. I immediately brought him to the emergency room. My youngest son had a low grade fever that morning of 99.4 and broke out with the same rash. They both had sore throats, and so did I; we were all fatigued.

All three of us were tested for COVID that day.

On July 12, I got the calls that let us know:  We had all tested positive. Once we were diagnosed, it was worse, in some ways, because I didn’t know if my senses would come back or if there were long lasting effects that could hurt my children. My anxiety went through the roof. Everything was still so undetermined — once we got better, could we get it again? Would we suffer long-term side effects? Would my children be okay?

Being diagnosed, all of a sudden I felt completely alone. When you get a positive result, everyone seems to detach themselves from you, except for the occasional phone call to ask questions about what having COVID is really like. I was very hesitant to share that we had been diagnosed — but I also felt that as a mother, it was my responsibility to let my friends and family know that there are symptoms their children could display that they had not heard of yet, and that those symptoms were completely different than the symptoms displayed in adults.

From the moment we arrived, CITC made sure we had everything we needed to feel somewhat normal after leaving everything behind.

So, there we were, back in quarantine. And CITC reached out to us and made sure we had everything we needed. They had groceries and toiletries delivered to our house since we were unable to leave. CITC was the biggest resource we had, and while we were on lock-down, they were a huge blessing to us. They made sure we knew we weren’t alone and that they were right there with us, all the way through it.

Now we have all recovered. The boys’ rashes have cleared up, the respiratory issues stopped, and we are all feeling a lot better. It took between seven and ten days for us to get over everything. Now my boys are back to running amuck. We are looking forward to getting out of the house and getting our lives back.

Coming up here, I was already starting over. COVID delayed that. But now I can continue taking action and build a new life for my boys and myself. CITC is still right here with us every step of the way. Thankful doesn’t seem like a big enough word to describe the support and care CITC provided for the boys and me. We are just simply blessed.

To find out how CITC can support your family, visit our Employment Training & Services and Child & Family Services webpages. For information on youth programming, check out our Youth Empowerment Services page.