Alayna Thach had so much left to do: A perpetually cheerful and optimistic person, 17-year-old Alayna wanted to be a life coach, so she could help other people be their best selves.
She seemed to always have a cause — most recently, safety at her school. She had been trying to start a petition to allow students at Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School to eat lunch outside.
“Don’t you think you’ll be cold?” her aunt, Hien Yem, recalled asking her.
“Yeah. But we’ll be safe,” Alayna replied.
The high school senior died Monday of COVID-19, only days after first noticing symptoms and within weeks of her January appointment to get vaccinated.
Alayna’s sudden and unexpected death has shaken her Olney school community, where friends and teachers remembered her in a memorial service Friday as a “force for good.” Children are generally considered at lower risk for severe COVID-19, and many schools have suspended rules requiring students to quarantine after exposure if they are asymptomatic. But in an interview with The Inquirer, Yem, speaking on behalf of Alayna’s family, urged people to get vaccinated, and get boosters to stay safe.
“I want people to know it’s not a hoax. It is very real,” said Yem, 36, who lives in Delaware. “Get vaccinated. You just don’t know how your body is going to respond to the virus.”
Though Alayna’s parents were both vaccinated, Alayna, her 9-year-old sister, and 5-year-old brother all got sick in early December.
At first, the illness seemed mild, but within days, Alayna’s health had worsened. She was having trouble breathing, her chest was protruding, and the family’s pulse oximeter showed a reading of 70% blood oxygen level. (Below 90% is considered an emergency.)
At 11:30 Sunday night, the family rushed Alayna to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. By 2:30 p.m. the next day, the doctors had done everything they could to help Alayna, Yem said. Her lungs were failing, and so was her heart.
“My sister kept yelling, ‘I don’t understand! She was fine yesterday!’ She couldn’t grasp it. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, either,” Yem said. “How is that possible?”
There are no words to describe the loss of a child, especially so quickly and unexpectedly. Grief and guilt are a powerful storm that, with time, Yem hopes the family will weather.
“My mom, myself, my sister — we’re all thinking we could have done this or that. … We’re all blaming ourselves,” she said. “We’re all working moms and trying to coordinate things around work schedules, school schedules.”
Alayna was scheduled to get her vaccine at the same time as her two younger siblings — an approach that many busy families may consider to reduce the number of trips to the pharmacy and days caring for children feeling under the weather from possible vaccine side effects.
» READ MORE: An Aspira Olney HS student died of COVID-19. Teachers say the school needs better health safeguards.
Yem said she wanted to speak out about the importance of vaccination because it’s what Alayna, who always went out of her way to help others, would have wanted.
“I remember her as a baby just randomly saying ‘Hi’ to people. She doesn’t understand what strangers are, to this day, she never did,” Yem said of the niece who was like a daughter to her.
Chantha Thach, 35, was a high school senior when Alayna was born, and the whole family circled around them to help care for the family’s first grandchild.
“We all raised her,” Yem said.
They’re holding each other up again, as they say goodbye.
Following the family’s Buddhist tradition, Alayna’s parents and Yem’s household have set flowers, candles, and a morning meal near a photograph of Alayna every day since her death.
Buddhist Theravādins believe that the spirit of the dead lingers in a place where they felt safe and happy for several days, before realizing they are no longer living and moving on to the afterlife. The offerings and the incense they burn let the spirit know their family is with them as they transition.
Yem said she and Thach have both felt a warmth in their homes they believe is Alayna. While looking through Alayna’s belongings, Thach noticed a smudge on her daughter’s bedroom mirror that she’s taken as a sign from Alayna. It was a happy face and the letters “ILY,” for “I love you.”