Louisiana Congresswoman Julia Letlow’s husband, Luke, had just been elected to Congress when he got the coronavirus. The two were anxiously awaiting an opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“He and I had prayed for weeks prior about the possibility of the vaccine, and we were so excited that it was coming out and that it was going to be widely available. And he missed it by two weeks,” Julia told CBS News’ David Begnaud.
He isolated upstairs in their home while she stayed downstairs with their young children. Then, despite having no pre-existing conditions, Luke’s health took a turn for the worse.
“By about the eighth day, he called me upstairs, and he just said, ‘Honey, I think it’s time to go to the hospital.’ It was right before Christmas. And I drove him to our hospital here. He cried on the way because he was upset about missing Christmas with his kids,” Julia said.
By that point, she says 50% of his lungs were filled with COVID pneumonia. From his hospital bed, Luke, a former congressional chief of staff, worked the phones, as he was known to do best.
“It got so bad I had to take the phone away because he wasn’t resting like the doctors were telling him to. But he was having conversations, and he was saying goodbye to people. Telling them that he was at peace,” she recalled.
As Luke’s health continued to decline, Julia started to realize that he may not recover.
“And it all happened very quickly. Where he was very aware and cognizant and speaking to people and then kind of crossed over a threshold. Where I started to see the color drain. And that’s when it hit me. That he might not come home,” Julia said.
When it came time to make the decision about whether to place him on a ventilator, Luke Letlow was ready. Julia called his family, and they gathered around his bed praying and performing a special ritual they would do every night in their home.
“Every night before bed, we had this ritual where we say the blessing over our children as they go to bed: May the Lord bless you and keep you. Make his face shine upon you, be gracious unto you. Give you peace. I said that over him. Those were the last words. And that’s when I left him, and I kissed him goodbye,” she said.
Luke died in December just weeks before he could be sworn into his congressional seat. In March, Julia won that seat in a special election to become the first Republican woman from Louisiana to serve in Congress.
Louisiana is facing its worst surge of COVID infections and hospitalizations yet. Congresswoman Letlow looked at the statistics in her own district of north and central Louisiana — which has a low vaccination rate.
“People don’t want to feel forced into anything or be lectured to. We are a very prideful, strong people in Louisiana. I just said, What can I do? Is there anything I can do to help with the misinformation out there? With all of the confusion and fear? And someone asked, “Well, what would you tell somebody who’s on the fence about possibly receiving a vaccine?’ And I said I’d tell them about Luke. I would tell them my story,” she said.
She and her team started talking about what they could do to memorialize the stories of COVID victims. Together, they created the COVID-19 American History Project Act. The stories will be collected and stored in the Library of Congress.
“I would have given anything, I would have given everything for that shot to have been available for us. Looking back now, and for someone to turn it away, it’s heartbreaking to me,” Julia said.
Luke Letlow is buried under a cedar tree next to his grandfather in Louisiana. The congresswoman now splits time between Washington D.C. and Louisiana as she moves forward raising their two young children.
She said the day vaccines become available to younger children, she will take her kids to get vaccinated, and she hopes others do the same and get their entire families vaccinated to prevent the heartbreak she has endured.
“My prayer is that not one more person has to lose their life to this virus. It is a horrific way to leave this world. I don’t wish it on anyone else. We have the answer. Let’s use it,” Julia said.