Noleta "Lady" Populars loved a good family gathering, and that weekend was no exception.

The day before Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards imposed an order limiting crowd sizes to 10 people or fewer, she and her relatives spent the afternoon mixing drinks, playing cards and sharing a meal under the carport of their St. Gabriel home. At the time, the vast majority of the state's confirmed coronavirus cases were in the New Orleans area, and Iberville Parish had only two. 

Like thousands of other Louisiana families that have since been devastated by the virus, which has now claimed almost 2,000 lives statewide, they had no idea what was to come. 

Populars, 43, was hospitalized with symptoms before the end of the week. She died almost a month later, leaving behind two children: a daughter in college and a son who's just a toddler.

Their life was totally normal, until suddenly it wasn't. No one knows where she contracted the virus.

"It all happened so fast," her sister Natasha Populars said. "We were supposed to grow old together."

Instead, she's doing her best to support her niece and nephew. Noleta's daughter, a student at Southern with plans to become a nurse, is now raising her little brother with help from other relatives.

Noleta had underlying health conditions that likely exacerbated the effects of coronavirus, including a recent diagnosis of kidney disease and other issues, but nothing that stopped her from living a happy and normal life, her sister said. She's one of the youngest people to die from coronavirus in the Baton Rouge area.

The virus has had an outsized impact on communities of color, which experts have attributed to the prevalence of underlying health conditions in addition to challenges accessing health care and higher numbers of essential workers within that population.

Noleta had big plans to watch her son grow up, celebrate her daughter's college graduation and enjoy many more neighborhood crawfish boils, her sister said. But the novel coronavirus swept through their close knit community and caught them off guard.

"We took it serious but didn't suspect it would come here," Natasha Populars said, noting that her sister's illness was among the first confirmed cases in the rural St. Gabriel area, which of late has seen a significant increase. A large part of that increase appears to have resulted from mass testing within the state prison located there, which now has about 200 cases.

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Iberville Parish, which includes St. Gabriel, is also experiencing one of the highest death rates in the state, more than double the statewide average for coronavirus deaths per capita.

Once Noleta was hospitalized, her kidneys started failing and she was soon transferred to Our Lady of the Lake hospital in Baton Rouge and placed on a ventilator. Her sister said the worst part was not being able to visit her and monitor her condition since the hospital has prohibited most visits to coronavirus patients with the hope of limiting the spread.

That meant sitting at home and waiting for calls from nurses and doctors with updates on her condition and treatment. Sometimes they seemed to give conflicting accounts; a missed call would also add to the family's anxiety, Natasha Popular said.

"My sister was there on a ventilator for almost a month. She couldn't do anything for herself, couldn't even ask for help," she said. "That was the hardest thing. We couldn't be there to help her, hold her hand, make sure she was comfortable."

Finally she was taken off the ventilator and her condition appeared to be improving. But then came the news that she likely wouldn't survive, her sister said.

The family was able to get Noleta transferred to a hospice facility where she could receive visitors. Relatives bathed her and combed her hair. She told one after the other — speaking quietly, her voice almost a whisper now — that she loved them.

"I look back at that time and smile," her sister said. "Spending those final hours with her."

The family held a visitation and small funeral service the following weekend in accordance with existing regulations banning large crowds.

Limiting the crowd size was a challenge since Noleta "pretty much knew everyone in St. Gabriel" after spending her life there, her sister said. She graduated from East Iberville High School and kept in close touch with her classmates, then spent decades raising her family and working in various jobs, including as a substitute teacher and in the health insurance sector.

Her sister said the outpouring of support has been overwhelming. Amid growing demands that people keep their nose and mouth covered in public, one friend gave her a special face mask made from a piece of cloth printed with a recent photo of the two sisters.

"That one actually made me cry," Natasha Populars said. "My sister was so well-loved. The whole community is basically hurting behind this."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.

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