Allergy worries kept a Kasigluk woman from getting vaccinated. She died of COVID-19.

A woman sits on a bed holding a baby.
Sharon Slim poses with her first grandchild. (Kathleen Tinker photo)

In August, a former community health aide from the Southwest Alaska community of Kasigluk died from COVID-19. Her name was Sharon Slim, and she was 46 years old.

When Slim had tested positive for COVID-19, she didn’t go to the hospital right away. She was living in Anchorage and taking care of her mother. Since she had worked for over a decade as a community health aide, she knew to monitor her oxygen levels. When they plummeted, she checked herself into the Alaska Native Medical Center, said her family.

Her mother was admitted to the hospital several days earlier for COVID-19. Her mother is 73 years old and vaccinated. She recovered just fine, but Slim was struggling. Her oxygen levels would skyrocket to healthy-seeming one day, and drop back down the next, according to her sisters.

Sharon’s hospitalization was tough on her five sisters, who consider themselves very close. They grew up together in Kasigluk in a tight-knit Russian Orthodox family. Her sisters described Slim as a daddy’s girl and a playful, loving child, and said that this attitude continued into her adult life.

“She was just bubbly. She was smiling all the time. She had a really good personality, and she’ll just start talking to you on a personal level like she’s known you for years,” said her sister Alla Tinker.

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Slim cared so deeply about people that she went to medical training to become a community health aide for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. It was a family affair. Her mom, at the time a supervisor for the health aides in Kasigluk, became her boss. Her sister Kathleen Brink, also a community health aide, became her co-worker.

“We had a blast. We helped each other,” Brink said.

Her sisters said that Slim was the main subsistence provider for her family. She always shared her food with her sisters. Brink recalled how deftly Slim cut moose, without letting any of the hairs stick to the meat.

Slim was also a mother.

“She birthed two boys. The second one died nine months later. And then she adopted three more kids. And she loved every one of them just as much as her own,” said Alla Tinker.

Her second childbirth was tough, and her health was never the same afterward. She went into a coma after giving birth. The coma lasted for a month and her sisters thought she was going to die.

“She got out of it, but her lungs were already compromised and scarred up from that one month and with that tubal oxygen,” said Tinker.

A few months after she recovered, the child she gave birth to died.

After the coma, she started getting allergic reactions to latex and sensitivities to cleaning materials. The allergies plagued her later in life. Despite loving her job as a health aide, she left after more than a decade because of her struggles with her sensitivities, which made it too painful to work. Then, her kids grown, she moved to Anchorage to take care of her mom when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

When the COVID-19 vaccines were authorized, Slim made the decision to not get vaccinated. She was concerned about her allergies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people with allergies to still get the vaccine. It says that if you have an allergy to one ingredient in one vaccine, another vaccine should be safe for you. It also says unvaccinated people are 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than vaccinated people.

The CDC advises avoiding the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines only if you have a severe allergy to polyethylene glycol, an ingredient in the mRNA vaccines. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not mRNA based and is safe for patients with polyethylene glycol allergies, says the agency.

Because her lungs were already weakened after her coma, COVID-19 was hard on Slim.

“When she got COVID, it just tore her down,” said Tinker.

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After Slim had been in the hospital for nearly two weeks, and intubated for over a week, she was showing no signs of improvement. While she was unconscious, her family had to make a difficult decision.

“They called and said, ‘She’s not getting better,'” said Tinker. “And so I made the decision to remove that intubation at a time that everybody would be able to video call in and say hello to her, even though she was unconscious. Instead of having her pass on her own, we said our goodbyes before they removed the intubation and it didn’t take her very long for her last breath after.”

After Slim passed, her family brought her body back to Kasigluk for a traditional Russian Orthodox burial and service.

Slim is survived by five sisters, her brother, their mother, four children and one grandchild. Her family says that she was dearly loved by her Kasigluk community, who she served through her work as a community health aide with YKHC.

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