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News conference sign language interpreter dies of COVID

                                Patty Sakal


    Patty Sakal

Patty Sakal was a familiar face at Hawaii’s coronavirus news conferences for most of last year, interpreting the latest virus news from state officials for deaf residents across the islands.

The 62-year-old Honolulu resident, who worked as an American Sign Language interpreter for nearly 40 years and was a champion for the deaf, died Friday after contracting the virus while on a trip to California.

She leaves behind two grandsons and three grown daughters, the youngest of whom was living in San Diego and about to be deployed by the U.S. Navy, said Sakal’s older sister, Lorna Mouton Riff, 68, who lives in Los Angeles.

Sakal wanted to see her daughter before she was deployed for nine months, even though she was “extremely nervous about making this trip,” Riff said. Ironically, Sakal’s oldest daughter is a respiratory nurse who works daily with COVID-19 patients in Austin, Texas. “To say that this was front and center for this family is an understatement.”

While traveling, Sakal took every COVID-19 precaution, including wearing both a mask and face shield and buying a first-class ticket so that she would be more separated from other passengers, according to her sister, who she visited on Dec. 30.

“She did not have a nonchalant attitude about this virus, she took it very seriously. This is the most frightening part of this because she did exactly what they tell you to do.”

Sakal arrived in California on Dec. 23 and tested positive for the virus on Jan. 1 ahead of her return flight back to Hawaii. About two days later, she and her daughter, Andrea, developed severe gastrointestinal illness, though her 6-year-old grandson did not get sick, Riff said.

The following week on Jan. 8, Sakal had become delirious and was “clearly suffering from hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and not able to care for herself at all.” Sakal was rushed to a private 300-bed hospital, where all the ICU beds were full so she never left the emergency room. By Sunday, she was on a ventilator.

“Patty apparently had some underlying health issues that … she was not even aware that she had and the virus just took hold of those and ravaged her,” Riff said, adding that her condition was like a roller coaster until her death. The virus had attacked her kidneys and she also had high blood pressure, her sister said.

“For six hours she was stable, for the next six hours she wasn’t. It was just this constant seesaw of good news, bad news. On Thursday it was clear … it was very unlikely Patty would make it.”

The nurses arranged for the family to have a Zoom viewing of Sakal who was still hooked up to machines. The family then made the decision to take her off the medical equipment and “let her go more peacefully and with more dignity.”

Family members said their last goodbyes on Zoom as Sakal’s favorite jazz music played in the background.

“We were with her when she passed in the only way we could be right now,” Riff said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to this virus. It was so fast. We’re still like in disbelief of how quick it happened. Right now it is just crushing. She should be here, but for this virus. This should have never happened. This is heartbreaking.”

Sakal was introduced to ASL at a young age because her parents were both deaf — her mother was born deaf after her grandmother contracted German measles in the first three months of her pregnancy and her father became deaf when he contracted spinal meningitis at age 7 during a school outbreak.

Her father was the first deaf teacher at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind and her mother, the late Georgia E. Morikawa, was a life-long advocate for the deaf community. Sakal was on the board of directors of the GEM Center, a nonprofit named after her mother, whose goal was to raise funds to build a community center for the deaf and blind in Honolulu.

Hawaii reported one new coronavirus-related death Wednesday — a Maui woman in her 70s with underlying medical conditions — and 75 new infections, bringing the state’s totals since the start of the pandemic to 325 fatalities and 24,620 cases.

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