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Riverton Family Seeks Community's Financial Help After Losing A Loved One To COVID-19

Courtesy of the Brown-Howell family


Update: Mr. Brown's body has been transported from Salt Lake City to Riverton, and the Brown-Howell family has received a loan from the Northern Arapaho Tribe that will cover transportation costs. The family is still accepting donations through its GoFundMe page to cover other funeral expenses.

The extended Brown-Howell family of Riverton lost a loved one to COVID-19 this month. 73-year-old John Nelson Brown II was hospitalized with the illness in Fremont County in June. Due to his age and an underlying health condition, he was life-flighted to the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City for specialized treatment. He died there on July 10, after spending nearly three weeks on a ventilator.

In addition to mourning their father and grandfather, five of Brown's family members have also tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks. Some have been hospitalized or quarantined and are unable to work. The family is struggling to afford funeral expenses, and they are asking for the community's help.

John Brown was was born and raised in South Dakota, and a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. He came to Wyoming as a young man, and eventually met his wife Carlita Brown, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, at the Ethete Celebration Powwow on the Wind River Reservation. They made their home and raised a family in Riverton.

"My dad was funny. He was stern. He taught us all about the realities of life, learning lessons in life," said Brown's daughter Ann Howell. "He was a good dad. He was a great dad. I am the person I am today because of him."

Over the years, Brown worked as an officer with the Wind River Police Department, an auto mechanic and a heavy equipment operator. He loved listening to the radio and visiting with family.

"He loved his grandkids. It was something he looked forward to, spending time with them everyday. He'd always make it part of his routine to go see his grandkids," Howell said. "It's just so unfortunate that he's not here with us today."

On June 21, Brown told one of his daughters he was feeling sick and needed to see a doctor.

"That's when we found out, and that was right on Father's Day. My sister took him to the hospital, and he was diagnosed with COVID. He was so sick, just critically," Howell said.

Brown's doctors recommended that he be transferred to a larger hospital in Salt Lake City for specialized care. Howell and her siblings didn't think twice about it.

"When you hear those words, you don't know what to think or say. You know you want to get that person help, your loved one," she said. "My dad, our dad. You want them to get the best care they can. So obviously you're going to say 'Yeah, do it.'"

But once he got to Utah, it was hard to get a handle on how her dad was really doing.

"It just seemed like I was talking to different people every time [I called the hospital]. You don't ever think about how many doctors a person has when they're in the hospital. All you want to know is numbers, because that's how the doctors tell if a person is going to live or die," Howell said.

And after spending nearly three weeks on a ventilator, Brown took a bad turn.

"The day that they called, they were giving him 24 hours to live. They asked if family could be there, because they were making that exception for family to get up there within the 24 hours to see him," Howell said.

But Riverton to Salt Lake City is a five-hour drive. Howell started calling around to her siblings, and contacted the Northern Arapaho Tribe to see if her family could get some help paying for the trip. But then, her dad's prognosis got worse.

"It went from 24 hours to, 'Your dad is getting worse and we're doing everything we can.' They kept asking us if we would just let him go peacefully because of how sick he was, but I told them every time, no. I said, "He's still here, he's still alive. We can't give up hope.'"

Brown died on July 10, before any family was able to make it to see him.

A week and a half later, Howell and her siblings are struggling to come up with enough money to bury their father. 

"Us being hit with COVID has made it impossible to go to work and have a steady income coming in, and to pay our bills. Especially when you're in quarantine, you can't go nowhere. You're stuck at home. And to get your bills paid, it's pretty hard. It makes it impossible, it seems, especially if you're a family that lives from paycheck to paycheck," Howell said.

So the family is asking for the community's help via a GoFundme page, and they're hoping to cover funeral costs with donations.

"Because this is where he made his home again with my mother. This is where he made his family, was here in Riverton, Wyoming. And that's why it's important to get him buried here next to my mother," Howell said. "We thank anyone that's wanting to reach out and help us with my dad's funeral bill. We want to thank them, and hopefully we can get him home."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.

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