That was on March 25, the last time Debele’s children would have her in their midst. On Tuesday, after nearly a month of struggle, first at Holy Cross in Silver Spring and then at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, Debele died of covid-19. She was 43.
She left behind not only Naod, Asher, Mihret and her husband, Yilma Asfaw Tadesse, 50, but a newborn son, Levi. Born a month premature the day Debele was admitted to the hospital, the baby was whisked into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), free of the virus, his mother unable to hold him or even see his face.
The family emigrated from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, almost a decade ago and quickly became a warm and familiar presence within the Washington area’s large Ethiopian community and among their Takoma Park neighbors. There, families in million-dollar bungalows live alongside immigrants and others of lesser means who occupy the Essex House apartments, where Debele and Tadesse raised their family. All their children go to school together and play on the same soccer teams.
That is how Anne Snouck-Hurgronje came to know Debele, a stay-at-home mother, and Tadesse, a Montgomery County school bus driver who sometimes worked more than one job. Snouck-Hurgronje’s son, Gabriel, and Naod are both in fifth grade at Piney Branch Elementary and have played soccer together for years in a local rec league and then a travel league.
Snouck-Hurgronje said she mostly ran into Tadesse on carpool runs and was impressed by Debele’s warm graciousness when she invited Snouck-Hurgronje’s family to dinner one evening. Debele made a spicy Ethiopian stew and performed the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony afterward, roasting and grinding the beans before her guests. On another visit, when Snouck-Hurgronje stopped by for the Ethiopian Epiphany after Asher’s birth four years ago, “I was really struck by how many people came and went and could see they were part of a strong and loving community,” she said.
Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart has publicly expressed sorrow over Debele’s death, beginning Wednesday’s virtual city council meeting with a moment of silence in her memory, and thousands have contributed to a GoFundMe fundraiser set up for the family.
“This is a small town next to a big city, and that’s just the culture here,” Snouck-Hurgronje said of the outpouring. In a community known for its liberal politics, she said she and her privileged, social justice-minded neighbors find themselves uncomfortably mulling the role economic inequality may have played. Debele was black, a relatively recent immigrant and lived in a poorer, densely populated area, demographic factors they understand can elevate risk for the virus.
Debele’s death “now is my personal experience and my neighbors’ personal experience, and it’s not lost on us here,” she said.
Debele struck Snouck-Hurgronje as quiet compared with her husband. But in their family’s social circles, Debele, who favored dresses and skirts and liked to dye her hair deep burgundy, was extremely outgoing and “kind to everyone she met,” said Mihret, a junior at Montgomery Blair High School. Her mother put others’ needs before her own and always helped her fellow immigrants.
Wogene, in fact, means “my people, my community,” in the family’s native Amharic, the family said. Debele relished watching shows that connected her with life in Ethiopia, such as the family drama “Zemen” and “Senselet,” about the lives of Ethiopian immigrants in the United States, Tadesse said.
Debele’s generosity was fueled by her Christian faith, her family said. She was a member of the International Ethiopian Evangelical Church in the District, where she received training in ministry from the church’s Bible College.
But her concern for others was also an indelible trait, said Tadesse, who met his wife at his brother’s medical laboratory in Ethiopia, where Tadesse was a supervisor and Debele worked as a lab technician. Debele would bring lunch from home and share it with him during their budding romance. If someone came for a medical test they could not afford, Tadesse watched as Debele would hide the cost and offer it free, Tadesse recalled.
“She was very pure of heart,” he said.
A friend was alone with a newborn as her husband traveled back to Ethiopia for the funeral of his father. Even eight months pregnant, Debele would take the bus to shop for her friend’s family, care for the baby and cook dinner for them.
“Even when she was super tired, she always put other people first,” Mihret said.
Last month, just before the shutdown, Debele withdrew money from the bank to get her hair done, her daughter said. When she came home, Mihret told her she also craved a trip to the salon to look her best before running for vice president of the countywide student government association — just the kind of service position her mother always encouraged her to take on. So Debele gave her daughter the money instead.
About a week later, Debele began to complain that she did not feel well. She lost her appetite and began coughing. She called her primary care doctor and confided that she could not feel the baby move in her belly. The doctor told her she thought she just had a cold. Later, her obstetrician told her to go to the hospital to get tested for the novel coronavirus.
She went to the hospital on March 19, her family said, and was told she did not appear sick enough to be tested, that she was likely feeling poorly because of her pregnancy and should go home and take ibuprofen. As the week progressed, however, Debele lost her sense of smell and her fever rose, but doctors cautioned she should remain at home, the family said, because of the risk of contracting the coronavirus in the hospital.
On March 25, she decided she had to go back to Holy Cross, telling her sons she would see them again soon. Then she called her family to say her breathing was troubled and the hospital was going to keep her overnight. That was the last time any of them heard her voice. The coronavirus test came back positive. Debele’s blood oxygen levels plummeted, her blood pressure spiked, and the hospital called the family to tell them they needed to induce labor. She had no one with her besides medical personnel. “I wasn’t able to share her pain or her joy,” Tadesse said.
Levi was born a month premature that evening and immediately separated from his mother.
Two days later, the hospital called her family to say Debele was having heart problems and that she would need to be transported to the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and put on a ventilator. On March 28, she appeared to be improving. But after her lungs stabilized, her heart declined again, and then her kidney function, and so it went for weeks. Debele would appear to improve slightly only to weather another assault from the virus. The hospital used Zoom so Debele’s family could see her, but by that point, she was unable to respond to them.
Baby Levi stayed in the NICU at Holy Cross for 21 days while his family quarantined before bringing him home, which they did on April 19. Two days later, Debele died.
“My heart is broken,” Tadesse said. “I don’t know what to do without her.”
Now, he is caring for Naod and Asher. Meanwhile, his daughter tends to Levi, comforting him when he cries and feeding him with a bottle.
Sometimes, Mihret said, it is painful to look at her baby brother because she knows her mother never had the chance. Other times, she takes in Levi’s tiny face and thinks only of her love for Debele. In those moments, she feels like she is also taking care of her mother.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
Quorum data contributed to this report. Quorum is a legislative and public affairs software company based in Washington.