GRAND LEDGE - Karina Vela was tougher than her smiles ever let on, said Alicia Liggons, her sister.
Born with mitochondrial myopathies and later diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, Vela, 24, survived congestive heart and kidney failure, then an emergency tracheotomy and dialysis in 2020.
She came home to Grand Ledge that August after a three-month hospital stay and surpassed expectations doctors had for her recovery.
"They said she wasn't coming home," Liggons, 35, said. "They said she wouldn't talk because she was on a trach and they said she wouldn't walk. She did. She was a fighter. She never gave up, ever."
Vela's family got 16 more months with her, Liggons said, but COVID-19 proved to be too much.
Vela was diagnosed on Dec. 18 and hospitalized the same day. She died on Jan. 1 at Sparrow Hospital.
Liggons said Vela, who was immunocompromised and couldn't get the COVID-19 vaccine, contracted the virus despite her family's best efforts to keep it from her. They were vaccinated, she said.
"We were careful with our bubble," Liggons said. "Unfortunately we just weren't careful enough and she got it and she never fully recovered."
Her family is asking for financial help with Vela's funeral and burial expenses.
In need of help
Parents Pam and Frank Vela, Grand Ledge residents, cared for their daughter her entire life, Liggons said.
Pam was Vela's full-time caregiver and Frank can't work, she said. The couple's only income is Frank's disability payments.
Paying for Vela's funeral will be a struggle, Liggons said.
"We've called FEMA because she died from COVID but that's reimbursement for funeral expenses, which isn't really the best when you're low income and on disability because you have to pay for a funeral to get reimbursed," she said. "That's not even an option right now."
The family started an online fundraiser through GoFundMe on Sunday entitled "Funeral expenses for Karina Lynn Vela" to help pay for the cost of a funeral and burial service for Vela. So far its raised more than $1,000.
Her sister deserves a proper goodbye, Liggons said.
"You should be able to die with dignity even when you're poor," she said.
'A breath of fresh air'
Vela loved Christmas, said Ty Liggons. In 2020 she picked out gifts for everyone in the family at Dollar Tree, taking them home and wrapping each one herself.
His sister-in-law was a joy to be around always, he said. Whenever he and Alicia traveled from their home in Lansing to Grand Ledge with their two daughters, Sophia, 9, and Cecelia, 8, Vela spent time with all of them, putting puzzles together, talking and watching Disney films.
"She was a breath of fresh air," Ty Liggons said. "She really was someone that was great to be around, to be quite honest. She's always happy, always wanting to watch a movie or play a game."
"She was just so special," said her sister Chelsea Vela, 29.
Vela spent a week at Sparrow Hospital alone before her family could see her.
A week before her death, family members got the opportunity to spend time with her. Vela was on a ventilator, but awake, and she knew they were there, Alicia Liggons said.
"I visited her on Friday, Christmas Eve. And on Christmas Day, I brought her stuffed animals," she said.
"We had planned that as soon as she got out of the hospital we were going to have a Christmas for her," Ty Liggons said.
"She lived a really happy, fulfilled life," Alicia Liggons said. "And she was so, so loved."
Vela's entire family made the decision to ask for the community's help with the financial expense of laying her to rest, Ty Liggons said. He's hopeful they'll raise what they need.
"So far, we've gotten a lot of help so we're getting there," he said.
Find the fundraiser here
Contact Rachel Greco at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Family of Grand Ledge's Karina Vela, who died of COVID-19, seeks help