KUWAIT: Gemma Lynn’s body is kept in a coffin prior to the funeral.

By Ben Garcia

KUWAIT: Two sisters in Kuwait. Both in their 40s. Both asthmatic. Both hard working, fun-loving, decent and family-oriented. But their lives will diverge dramatically. Only one got the vaccine, the other didn’t have the opportunity. Now one is dead from the virus and one lives to tell the story. Ria, 47 years old and Gemma Lynn, 40 years old were known to all as the Talaro sisters. Ria came to Kuwait in 1995, working first as a domestic helper and later as a sales clerk in a shop. In 2009, she helped her younger sister also come to Kuwait to find work. Both women supported families back in the Philippines.

“I love my sister very much. She is the extended version of my life,” said Ria. “We see each other daily, but we never missed saying ‘I love you’ each day. When she is out somewhere I talked to her through video-call until she comes back, making sure that she will come home safe.” In early June, the sisters who also shared a single room in a flat in Salmiya, both got sick from the coronavirus. Ria had received her first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine on May 12 through her employer but sister Gemma Lynn hadn’t received hers yet.

Gemma Lynn

“We both experienced the flu and fever at the same time,” said Ria. “We suspected it might be just a simple seasonal flu, so we both took the steaming rituals (locally known in the Philippines as tuob, inhaling steam). But the steam did little to help and the next day, both felt worse so they took a taxi and went to the local government clinic. There they saw a doctor and received only Panadol and were told to go home and rest. But the sisters felt scared so they went to a private clinic to get a swab test and then went back home.

On June 10, they found out they were COVID positive and so they decided to go to Mubarak Hospital. Again they took a taxi, this time from Salmiya to Jabriya.
“I told my sister we better stay in the hospital since both of us are asthmatic,” Ria explained. “I was scared although I got my vaccine because the company arranged it for us.

But I also wanted to get the vaccine ASAP because I have more underlying illnesses like high blood pressure and enlargement of heart. I am taking medicine for that regularly. So I told Gemma Lynn, since we know that we are COVID positive, we better stay in the hospital. So we went as normal patients and we told the doctor about the positive result of the test. The doctor who checked on us that time was relaxed and just told us to go home and isolate from the rest of people in our flat, which we did,” she said.

The next day, however, Ria’s fever rose and they decided to go again to Mubarak Hospital. But on the second visit, the two sisters were again sent home despite Ria’s high fever. Back at home, Ria’s fever subsided but Gemma Lynn started feeling worse. She had a high fever and was having difficulty breathing. So the sisters, for a third time, took a taxi to Mubarak Hospital. This time, they were not turned away and due to the severity of Gemma Lynn’s symptoms, she was admitted.

Ria left her sister in the hospital and returned to her apartment. “I went home at nearly 1am. My sister called on her mobile phone and informed me she will be admitted in the emergency room. The last word I heard was that she will not get the access to the phone and in case of any questions she had given my number to her doctor. That night she told me to take a rest. I was thinking she would be discharged the following day, but she was not discharged,” Ria told the Kuwait Times, crying.

“The following day, my sister called. She said she is in the COVID ward of the hospital and she felt a bit better. I was elated at this news,” Ria said. But she could only speak with her sister via phone since visitors are not allowed in the COVID wards. Ria felt certain her sister was on the mend but then on June 19, Gemma Lynn started to deteriorate.

“She said she felt very tired and sick and she could hardly breathe and they were moving her to the ICU,” Ria explained. “I could hear her gasping for breaths. I was worried about her and wanted to visit her, but they don’t allow visitors on ICU, so I only got updates about her from the doctor through the phone. The doctor said she is a fighter and the doctor expected she would recover,” she said.

Sadly, Gemma Lynn did not make it. “On June 27 I got a call from the hospital that my sister was ready to go home, so I was happy going back to the hospital but the happiness turned into sadness when I heard the real news about my sister,” Ria said. “When I arrived in Mubarak, they gave me a discharge report from the doctor saying my sister expired early morning (that same day) due to COVID-19. I was stunned and could not believe it. I was thinking maybe it was just a nightmare. I said my sister is alive and she spoke with me only a day ago. But she was pronounced dead. I just cried and cried,” she said.

“I was allowed to see her for five minutes only for the last time. They had given me a PPE to just see her, in the afternoon, her body was brought to the cemetery for burial,” Ria explained. “Just that fast, she died and until now I cannot believe she’s gone. It was the longest day of my life. Very devastating. I should die first because I have more diseases than my sister,” she told Kuwait Times.

Gemma Lynn leaves behind three children, all of them in the Philippines and studying. “I feel that I owe her everything, especially in raising my only son. I left him with her when he was only few months old because I accepted the job offer as domestic helper to Kuwait in 1995,” Ria recalled. “Now she is gone, and I promised her on her grave that I will take care of her children.

Her eldest is 20 years old, the second is 18 years old and the youngest is 16 years old. They can live without me because they have a supportive father anyways, but I felt I owe her a lot, so I promised I will look after her children until I am alive also,” she concluded.