One Student’s Story: Overcoming the Challenges of COVID-19

Many students have struggled over the last year. The pandemic forced instruction and scholarly interactions to move to a virtual format. It led to the cancelation of club meetings, study groups, awards ceremonies, and commencements. And it strained many people’s mental and emotional health as they distanced from family and friends. But some students have faced an even more challenging path by being personally affected by COVID-19, from losing jobs to losing family members.

Cassandra with her family

One recent College of Engineering & Computer Science graduate came very close to experiencing the latter. The frightening and heart-wrenching experience threatened her progress toward a long-anticipated degree. With the help of her faith, her family, and some very supportive faculty, she’s been able to overcome the challenges of the last year and move forward with clarity and gratitude.

‘The Worst Time of My Life’

It was mid-March 2020, about a week before California’s governor issued a stay-at-home order as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take off in the United States. Cassandra Kobayashi and her family were trying to decide if attending a large family gathering was the right move.

“Though we were hesitant, it was too early in the pandemic to know how serious the situation was,” says Kobayashi, a fall 2020 computer science graduate. “These are very important events in our family, so we decided to go but do our best to keep our distance – keep to ourselves. It ended up being a gathering of more than 200 people, and my father, my mother, and I contracted COVID that day.”

Kobayashi lost her senses of taste and smell for about a month. Her mother developed a cough. And her father, already considered high-risk due to Parkinson’s disease and other conditions, became seriously ill.

Cassandra’s brother had forced her father to go to urgent care, where he was diagnosed with full-blown pneumonia and immediately sent to the emergency room. Because testing was so new and scarce, the family didn’t find out he had COVID-19 until nine days after he was admitted.

“He just kept calling and saying, ‘Please get me out of here. I’m so lonely.’ Then the next thing we knew, we got a call that he had gone into cardiac arrest and was in the ICU,” Kobayashi says. “We couldn’t visit him. We only saw him through FaceTime because the nurses and doctors were nice enough to have tablets for patients, but even then, it was only when things were dire. It was the worst time of my life. Here I was trying to finish school, and my family was going through this devastating experience.”

Her dad was in a coma for two months and almost died three times during his three-month ICU hospital stay.

Kobayashi and her husband, who live with her parents, were also trying to help her mother at home and care for their three-year-old daughter.

“I thought, I can’t do this anymore. I emailed all my professors and said I was going to withdraw. There was no way I could focus on school when my dad was in a coma; we kept getting calls that he was getting worse.”

Motivation and Miracles

 One of Kobayashi’s professors suggested she contact Dean Susan Barua.

“To anyone in a similar situation, I’d say to have faith and stay as positive as you can.”

– Cassandra Kobayashi

“I sent her a message, and she was wonderful. She said to talk to my professors and organize anything I could and that the school would be here to support me,” Kobayashi says. “Some professors extended deadlines on remaining projects, just telling me to get them turned in whenever I could. Other professors said if I couldn’t finish the semester, they’d give me an incomplete, so I’d have the option of finishing over the summer.”

Kobayashi didn’t know if her father was going to recover. She worked on assignments when he had better days.

“He woke up May 10, and because he’d been in a coma so long, he was bedridden and had multiple complications,” she says. “He had developed acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), meaning his lungs were shutting down from being overrun with fluid. He needed dialysis because his kidneys were shutting down. There were so many times they told us he wouldn’t make it, and that even if he did, it would be an extremely difficult recovery.”

Kobayashi’s dad – whether through faith, prayer, family support, personal determination, a miracle, or some combination of all those things – began to recover. When he moved to a rehabilitation hospital in June, Kobayashi and her mother took classes to learn how to prepare to care for him as he dealt with dialysis, a tracheostomy tube, and a feeding tube. He couldn’t speak because the ventilator had torn his voice box. He had lost 60 pounds, mostly muscle mass, so he was frail and wheelchair-bound.

“Today, he’s a completely different person,” Kobayashi says. “Shortly after he was transferred to rehab, he no longer needed dialysis. Then, they removed his trach tube. He still had a feeding tube when he came home in September, but it came out in October. Most of what happened to him in the hospital, he’s recovered from.”

Her dad’s pulmonologist says of all his COVID-19 patients, he was in the top 1 percent of the worst and the only one from that category who survived. Today, he still coughs a lot, has permanent scarring in his lungs, and runs between a 90 and 95 percent oxygen level, while most healthy people are between 95 and 100. He gets winded more easily, but he no longer needs a wheelchair and walks around the block every day.

Saved by Science and Support

Ultimately, Kobayashi’s family pulled together to support each other and her young daughter, surround her dad with love and prayers, and overcome the most significant challenges they’d ever experienced.

“To anyone in a similar situation, I’d say to have faith and stay as positive as you can. There were many times the doctors told us it would be better to let him go, but though he wasn’t responding to medications, he often wasn’t getting worse,” says Kobayashi. “We decided as a family that if his body gave out, we would let him go, but if he continued to fight, we would let him keep fighting.”

The extraordinary strides in science and medicine she’s witnessed over the last year amaze her, she says.

What helped her dad was when they started putting him in the prone position – face-down – on a unique rotating bed for 22 hours each day. That technique allowed his lungs to expand more.

Now that he’s home, her parents have also benefitted from another fantastic discovery, the COVID-19 vaccine.

Hope for Brighter Days

Kobayashi is thankful for her Cal State Fullerton support system – especially Doina Bein, associate professor of computer science, and Paul Inventado, assistant professor of computer science – who were very caring and understanding, regularly checked in to see how her family was doing, and helped her to graduate.

Like all virtual students, she missed seeing her classmates and professors, and being on campus. She still feels lonely at times, separated from family and friends until everyone can get vaccinated. But she’s thankful for the “miracle” her family experienced and hopeful for the future.

“I understand why all students, why everyone, has struggled this past year. Virtual learning and isolation have been very difficult,” she says. “I’m hoping for mass vaccinations and for people to take this seriously so we can all finally be together again and recover from the anxiety we’ve all experienced.”

Cassandra visiting her father in the hospital
Cassandra Kobayashi visiting her father for the first time in the hospital since being admitted. As Cassandra described, "the hospital created a clear plastic box where he was able to see us from inside."
Cassandra on her wedding day
Cassandra Kobayashi on her wedding day with parents Ysmael and Rosalba Zendejas.
Cassandra Kobayashi with her husband, Koji, and daughter, Umi.
Cassandra Kobayashi with her husband, Koji, and daughter, Umi.
Cassandra celebrating Christmas in 2020
Cassandra Kobayashi with her family celebrating Christmas in 2020 with her siblings, Jose and Valerie Zendejas and nephew Joe Zendejas.

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