Personal toll of COVID-19: Young West Valley father — everyone’s friend — lost to virus

Polynesian culture can help exacerbate problems in pandemic

The Deseret News is compiling a list of Utahns lost to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, we hope to chronicle some of the stories of those who’ve died to better understand how our lives have changed because of COVID-19. If you have lost a friend or family member to COVID-19, please email us at covid@deseretnews.com.

WEST VALLEY CITY — It seems a cruel irony that Juliet and Ray Tuineau were not gifted a final conversation. After all, as a teenager Ray won the heart of his future wife with his ability to sustain a late-night conversation in a city park over a bag of burgers.

Her husband’s final days — 16 of them — were spent alone in an intensive care unit designated for COVID-19 patients with no visitors allowed. The last thing he said to her, after requesting that their family fast for him one more time, was, “Love you guys.”

Sione Ray Tuineau was a great light and love in the lives of anyone lucky enough to know him. In his obituary, his family wrote, “If you knew Ray, you were a friend.”

“He was the person in a party that everyone just wanted to be around,” Juliet Tuineau said, giggling a little. “As soon as you walked into the room, you knew exactly where Ray was because he was laughing, cracking jokes; he just knew exactly what to say to get everyone laughing. And he made everyone feel super included.

“He could tell if someone was far off in the crowd and he’d be like, ‘Hey, hold on real quick.’ And he would leave everybody just so he can make sure that that one person felt included.”

Ray Tuineau’s coffin is moved out of the hearse by his family members and siblings during a burial service at Valley View Memorial Park in West Valley City on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. Tuineau was one of the more than 380 Utahns who died because of COVID-19. | Yukai Peng, Deseret News

No one benefited from his love more than his family.

“He knew that he wanted the very best for his boys,” Tuineau said of their sons — Lotu, 10, Muli, 8, and Saia, 6. “That’s why he did everything he possibly could to teach them in the right way, the right things. But the main thing I would want them to know about their dad is how much he loved and adored them, so much so that he left such a legacy of loyalty, integrity and love for them to aspire to. And that’s how much he loved them.”

On Aug. 8, the world lost that bright light. At just 35 years old, Ray Tuineau became one of the nearly 400 Utahns to lose their lives to COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

Ray Tuineau is one of the nearly two dozen Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders to die in Utah. They make up just 1.6 percent of the population, but they account for 4.3 percent of the cases and 8.7 percent of the hospitalizations. In Salt Lake County, Pacific Islanders make up nearly 9 percent of the cases and more than 25 percent of hospitalizations.

Cultural realities

While Hispanics and Latinos are the most disproportionately diagnosed, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders are the two groups with the highest mortality rate per 100,000 people.

Juliet Tuineau said it’s some of the most beautiful aspects of her Tongan culture that also put them at greater risk for getting sick — and for having serious complications or dying.

“We’re a loving people. We love to get together. We love to have family gatherings, barbecues, parties, everything,” she said.

Kevin Irungu, left, hugs and consoles Juliet Tuineau, widow of Ray Tuineau, during a burial service at Valley View Memorial Park in West Valley City on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. Ray Tuineau was one of the more than 380 Utahns who died because of COVID-19. | Yukai Peng, Deseret News

“That is what was hard for me and Ray. We would go to the grocery store and we would see an auntie or uncle or someone in the ward or stake, and it was automatic to do, in the Tongan word it’s feiloaki, and that’s when you go and you hug and kiss their face and they kiss your face, and we know we’re in the middle of a pandemic, but it’s super disrespectful if we don’t.”

She continued, “And I think that that’s why it’s so hard to control it in the Polynesian community, because so much of what we do in our culture has to do with respect and love for one another. And when we don’t do those things, or we don’t have those opportunities to do those things, we feel like we are not being true to ourselves and who we are as a people.”

Many Polynesians don’t have consistent health care throughout their lives, and that’s led to a myriad of health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, gout and obesity.

“No one is immune to COVID, but I think just the fact that there are underlying health issues, means we’re more susceptible because we’re Polynesian,” Tuineau said. “And a lot of times, people aren’t even aware, like for instance Ray, he could feel when he was about 16 that something was different about him. He wasn’t performing as well in football, and he had an idea that he might have been diabetic back then. But he didn’t know until he turned in his mission papers.”

The fact that medical conditions go untreated because people either lack health care or don’t trust doctors and hospitals exacerbates any health issue, but in a pandemic it’s become deadly. Whether it’s cultural traditions that contribute to the spread or a lack of medical understanding about what mitigates spread, that’s all part of what public and community health advocates like Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou attempt to address through training and education programs.

Taylynn Akoteu, Ray Tuineau’s nephew, covers his face to swipe off the tears during the burial of his uncle at Valley View Memorial Park in West Valley City on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. | Yukai Peng, Deseret News

“If the parents are from the islands, they may not go to the hospital because they couldn’t afford it,” said Malohifo’ou, founder and CEO of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources and a community activist who works as a section leader in community health.

“And people just go to the hospital to die. The hospital is the last place you want to go. When you’re not accustomed to that, you don’t trust it.”

She said she met with nine public health case managers on Thursday night and one of them had 11 cases of COVID-19 as part of the same outbreak.

“They all came from a baby blessing,” she said, offering a story of her own family attending a funeral and getting sick two days later.

“How do you reach people and help them understand the importance of the (precautions)? You go deeper, one more layer. Community health workers’ jobs are to mobilize people. You have to know what motivates people, and shift the message so they’re empowered to keep themselves safe.”

Ineffective solutions

Malohifo’ou said mass media messages don’t work because they’re conceived too far from the communities they hope to reach.

“For example, we were given masks to give out to the community, but they’re the kind you tie, so you need another person to help you,” she said. “We were given masks that said, ‘Wash before you can wear it.’ People are not going to bother. This happens because the people making the decisions are not the ones most affected.”

She said they received disposable masks from the county, which also did little to help families in need of masks.

“OK, for one family of 10 ... they need 70 for one week,” she said. “That’s crazy. I don’t want those. ... Let’s make this as easy as possible. A lot of people are doing things with good intentions, but they are missing the mark on the ground.”

People put flowers onto Ray Tuineau’s coffin during a burial service at Valley View Memorial Park in West Valley City on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. Tuineau was one of the more than 380 Utahns who died because of COVID-19. | Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Instead of groups trying to come into communities and help or rescue them, Malohifo’ou suggests supporting the groups that are already working with the communities.

“Stop jumping into the same and just support those who are already doing this,” she said, noting that poverty and systemic disadvantages exacerbate every other issue.

“Two weeks ago we had three state-run health clinics that served poor people close their doors,” she said. “With all of this COVID money, does that make sense? Three clinics that were serving our communities? Does that tell me you really care about us? Does that make sense?”

Juliet Tuineau hopes by sharing her story, she can encourage the community she loves to embrace the recommendations of health officials and do a better job of keeping each other safe. The couple have been working throughout the pandemic, and it was through work that she was exposed to COVID-19.

“He never wanted to leave my side,” she said of her late husband. “I told him not to stay because he was high risk.”

A love story

When Juliet Tuineau agreed to go to a rival school’s senior ball, she had no idea she’d meet the man she was going to marry. She arrived with another boy and he with another girl.

“When the dance was over, no one had any money for us to go somewhere, so we just went to McDonald’s and bought a bunch of burgers and went to the nearest park and just ate and talked,” she recalled, smiling. “It ended up it was only me and him striking the conversation and getting everyone to laugh, answer riddles or jokes, so that’s how I was really willing to talk.”

Despite his ability to carry that late-night conversation, he was too shy to ask Juliet out for about six months. His fear felt like reluctance to her, and she decided she’d put an end to things before they really started.

Their first “official date” was Dec. 30, 2003, and then the next day, he decided to surprise her by showing up at her Latter-day Saint ward’s New Year’s Eve dance.

“He came with his friends, and I was just so bitter,” she said. “I pulled him aside into the hallway and said, ‘I’m sorry. I think I have feelings for someone else.’ And as soon as the words left my mouth, I was like, ‘Regret. What did I just do?’”

She tried to rectify her mistake with friendliness and flirting, but he just seemed confused. They orbited each other in the same community of friends as they both graduated from separate high schools in 2003, but they never quite connected in the same way. She ended up serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in December of 2005 until June of 2007.

But Ray Tuineau, who was an Eagle Scout and devout member of the church, was told he was too sick to serve a mission. He had diabetes, which he likely developed as a teen, but didn’t realize, so it went untreated for several years and it had become difficult to manage.

She returned home from her mission and found herself dreading dating. She confided in a friend that if there was one thing she’d like to do, it would be see what might happen if she’d just allowed herself to date Ray all those years ago. He set them up on a blind date, and the two resumed their conversations like they’d never stopped.

“He told me, he knew from the start,” she said. “He always told me, ‘From the moment I saw you on our first date, I knew you were going to be my wife.’ It took me a while.”

It took her parents longer to come around, but once they did, Ray and Juliet Tuineau created the kind of loving family her parents always hoped their youngest daughter would have.

“It was the most beautiful thing ... kneeling across from him and looking at him,” she said. “We actually made it. We did this.”

When Ray Tuineau found out his wife was pregnant with their oldest son, he cried.

“I just always wanted this,” she said he told her. “We were just so happy.”

Cruelty of COVID-19

The last time Juliet Tuineau saw her husband was when she dropped him off at the emergency room. At first they told her if she had a negative coronavirus test, she could visit him. But when she returned with a negative test a couple of days later, they told her he’d been moved to a unit exclusively for COVID-19 patients that didn’t allow visitors.

“I drove home, so disheartened because I couldn’t see him,” she said. “And it was hard because I kept trying to call, but his breathing was so bad that he couldn’t really talk to me on the phone.”

In fact, Ray Tuineau felt so weak, he told his wife he often couldn’t muster the strength to hold his phone in his hand for a text exchange.

“I hardly talked to him in the two weeks that he was in the hospital,” she said. “Actually, 16 days, he was in the hospital. ... And then I found out he’d passed away.”

She’d been at the store buying food they planned to eat after their fast for her husband when her mother-in-law called and told her to stay strong. She was filled with panic, but she couldn’t believe no one would call her directly.

“I’m his wife,” she said. “I’m just like, ‘No, no, no.’ ... And I started driving to the hospital. And I’m just trying to figure out why they didn’t call me.”

She called the hospital and asked to speak with Ray, but a doctor came on and said he’d just come on shift and hadn’t seen him yet.

“I immediately got hope,” she said. “And then, he said, ‘It looks like here from the note from the doctor before me, your husband is gone.’ And I was driving, and I just remember feeling completely numb, like, ‘What are you saying right now?’”

She turned around and drove home, begging that it not be true.

“I came inside the house, and I gathered all three of my boys around me,” she said, telling them, “I’m sorry ... Dad’s not coming home.”

Tuineau said she’d felt something was wrong when she woke up around 3 a.m. She felt so panicked, she got on her knees to pray.

“I miss him,” she said she prayed. “I miss him so much, and I wish he could be home. And I never really say this in my prayers, but I ended it with, ‘But you know what, Heavenly Father, whatever your will is, I will accept it. I promise.’ And I remembered that, at that moment, when I’m holding my kids, that’s what I said. And that’s when everything changed.”

She believes Ray Tuineau is serving that mission he so badly wanted to serve, and that he will never leave them alone.

“What I want (my boys) to know about their dad, no matter what, he always tried to put God first,” Juliet Tuineau said. “And that’s how everything that we would have been able to do in our life in our small 10 years. I feel like we’ve lived a lifetime in those 10 years together. But it was because he was a God-fearing man. And because of that, his love for his voice was beyond this world.”

She said that because Ray made service a centerpiece in his life, those who loved him are now helping and supporting his family. From a GoFundme account set up by a friend, to help with everything that needed to be done to host his funeral Saturday, she said she doesn’t walk this painful path alone.

“I feel like our whole time together and our marriage prepared me for this moment of him just transitioning into a missionary on the other side,” Juliet Tuineau said.

And if she could have that final conversation, she said she’d say “what I have been saying to him since the day he passed onto the next life. I would just say, ‘Ray, I love you, and I know you have work to do. Don’t worry about me. I’ll take care of the kids, and your mom and your dad are my Naomi, and I am their Ruth. Wherever they go, I will go,” she said.

“And I will keep the covenants I made with you across that altar because Heavenly Father will keep his end of the deal. I just need to make sure I keep my end. I love you. Now go out and serve.”

If you have information about someone who has died from COVID-19 complications, please email us at covid@deseretnews.com. We hope to create a complete list of those lost, as well as share some of their stories.