Grieving for Indian colony’s ‘Auntie Jen’ complicated by COVID-19 crisis

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Hundreds participate in the Love Sculpture Car Parade to thank health care workers at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno on April 17, 2020. Reno Gazette Journal

Doctors told Velda Lowery she shouldn’t have a baby.

They told her she wouldn’t survive to see her daughter graduate or meet her grandchildren.

Lowery, known as “Auntie Jen” to people in her Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Community, did all those things and more.

But Lowery didn’t survive her last hospital stay, which included a positive test for the COVID-19 virus that’s infected more than 3,500 Nevadans in recent weeks.

“She defied every doctor’s expectation of how long she was going to live,” said Elizabeth Dunn, Lowery’s daughter. “She was very strong, just a strong, independent, brave person.”

Lowery, 58, was no stranger to the medical system. She was diagnosed with kidney failure in her teens and had endured transplants and countless other procedures since.

Lowery’s myriad health struggles contributed to her death, and the virus infection further complicated her final days by making in-person visits impossible. 

“She always bounced back,” Dunn said of her mom. “This time was just too much.”

On April 3, Lowery went to Renown due to a mild stroke, something she had survived several times before.

Within five days, a test for COVID-19 came back positive, Dunn said, and she was transferred to another room.

“She just kind of went downhill from there,” Dunn said. Lowery died on April 14.

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Due to precautions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, Dunn said Lowery and her family had to endure the final weeks unable to spend time together in person.

Family members had also been avoiding close contact with Lowery in weeks prior to her admission to reduce chances of passing along the virus, meaning Dunn went more than a month without seeing her mom.

Dunn said doctors and nurses were caring and helpful when it came to facilitating phone and video calls. But they were also busy working to help the hospital cope with the broader pandemic crisis.

“Normally through all of her hospitalizations and surgeries we are always there with her,” Dunn said. “It was really a helpless feeling waiting for a phone call.”

People throughout the Reno Sparks Indian Colony will share in the grief over Lowery’s death.

She was known in the community as a kind and strong woman always willing to share a hug and a laugh with just about anyone.

Loved by entire community  

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Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Pow Wow Club dances at Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive. Reno Gazette Journal

Since Lowery’s death, Dunn said she has been inundated with support and well-wishes.

“We knew she was special to our family; to know she was so loved by the entire community was really nice,” Dunn said.

Lowery commiserated with people in the course of her job as a manager at the tribe’s smoke shop and, after she quit work due to health reasons, at numerous holiday and community functions.

Dunn described her mom as “the life of the party” at community events which were brighter for her presence.

“She was just so friendly and bubbly and would talk to everyone,” Dunn said. “She was Auntie Jen to everyone, whether you were related to her or not.”

Lowery was born in 1962, one of 14 children to Nober and Viola Zuniga.

Lowery’s father, who was a member of a Utah tribe, worked for mines in eastern Nevada. Her mother, a member of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, taught pre-school.

The family moved into a house on the colony in Reno in the 1960s, Dunn said.

“It was dirt roads; there was nothing around, there was no Grand Sierra, there was no freeway,” she said.

Lowery had one daughter, Dunn, and four grandchildren in addition to her surviving siblings.

Dunn described Lowery as a great mother and grandmother who taught her love, strength and openness. 

She said beyond her work, Lowery enjoyed spending as much time as possible with her grandkids and that in recent years she took greater interest in learning and participating in cultural traditions with her family.

“It really helped her keep that fighting spirit,” Dunn said. “They prayed a lot for her and they sang and danced for her. She would always say that really helped.”

Dunn said one of the difficult aspects of Lowery’s diagnosis and death is that it’s complicating the grieving process because the family was limited to a short viewing for just a few people.

“Native American funerals, they are a big thing,” Dunn said. “The entire community shows up. We want to be able to do that for everyone.”

When the pandemic wanes and the family can travel safely, Dunn said they plan to spread Lowery’s ashes in the ocean near Hawaii, per her mother’s instruction.

“Throw me off the boat and go have fun,” is how Dunn described Lowery’s wishes. “That is what we are going to do.”

Benjamin Spillman covers the outdoors and environment in Northern Nevada, from backcountry skiing in the Sierra to the latest from Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.

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