A 67-year-old woman who couldn’t afford air conditioning was among those who died alone during the recent Oregon heat wave, according to a county report.
Jollene “Jolly” Brown’s son, identified only as Shane in the report, said he last saw his mother alive in her tiny studio apartment on June 27.
Brown’s story was included in a preliminary analysis by the Multnomah County’s Public Health Division on deaths related to the historic “heat dome” that gripped the Pacific Northwest last month.
That day, Shane took his mother a swamp cooler after her air conditioning broke. Brown asked Shane to take away the air conditioning unit and try to fix it.
Shane told her: “Maybe we need to get you a real air conditioner.”
The report said she “shrugged off” the remark. She suggested they could talk about it when the heat wave had passed, and discussed how air conditioners were expensive and heavy for an older person to carry, according to the report.
Brown reportedly told her son “I’ll be fine… I’ll get through it.”
Shane said his mother, who had health problems, kept to herself and lived on a small income, but “had this optimism that things would work out” and “didn’t want to put people out, didn’t want to be an inconvenience.”
He said he believed she may have survived if she had a working air-con unit.
The next day on the morning of June 28, Brown didn’t answer when Shane called her. He found her dead in her recliner in 99.5 degree Fahrenheit heat, with her feet on the floor as if she was going to stand up.
A friend had offered Brown a place to stay to offer her some respite from the heat, but Shane said she didn’t want to impose.
Shane said: “She was just genuinely one of the best people I have ever known. She had that capacity of love, and when I needed her, she was always there.”
54 Hyperthermia Deaths
According to the report, as of July 9, Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Office found at least people 54 died of hyperthermia—where the body becomes too hot—between June 25 to 28 when temperatures rose as high as 116 degrees Fahrenheit.
The high evening temperatures meant people had little opportunity to cool down. There were a further 17 suspected cases of hyperthermia during this period.
The average age of victims was 70 years old, and of those who died in their homes 78 percent lived alone. None of those who died had central air conditioning.
Another case highlighted in the report was that of 62-year-old Lyle Crawford, who died alone in his Oregon home where he had lived all his life. At the time, he had only a box fan to protect him from the heat.
Donna Crawford, his sister who lives in Richmond, Virginia, said in the report: “I’m sure it didn’t occur to him that he was going to die.”
Lyle Crawford, who loved hiking trails, was friendly but did not have many close friends and was further isolated by the COVID pandemic.
Donna Crawford called him on Saturday, June 26, when temperatures hit 108 degrees Fahrenheit in Gresham where he lived. She left a message on his answering machine, telling him she’d be away the next day and would contact him again on Monday.
When he didn’t call back and she didn’t hear from him on Monday she said she “started to get a not-great feeling.”
Lyle Crawford used to ask his father to get an air conditioner, and wasn’t able to afford one himself in his later years. His sister said he would have been too proud to seek help.
Deborah Kafoury, chair of Multnomah County, said in a statement: “I want to extend my deepest sympathies to the families and friends of everyone who died. And I want them to know, we are resolved.
“In this report, and in the even-deeper reviews you will see in the coming months, we will find the lessons of this heat event.”
She said: “Because the climate disruption we all feared would happen someday, is happening now. And we will need to work together—as a County, as a resilient community, as neighbors—to prepare.”