Tout Tou is one of FIRM’s Lead Community Health Workers (CHWs) with the COVID-19 Equity Project (CEP). While Tout Tou’s position as a CHW may be new, her connections with FIRM and the Fresno community go back decades.
“I used to volunteer with FIRM during my teenage years and I’ve known FIRM since it was founded by Rev. Dr. Sharon Stanley-Rea. Back then I would help with different church activities and talk about my experiences as a refugee from Laos.”
Tout Tou was born in Laos. She escaped a Laotian workforce labor camp in 1987 and then migrated to various refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before settling in Fresno in 1989. Since then, Tout Tou has held a variety of jobs from working at McLane High School to serving as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant, to being a nurse and a care provider for over 10 years. When the opportunity to work as a Lead CHW presented itself to Tout Tou, she knew it was time to bring her expertise and experiences working with the Fresno community back again to FIRM. Also, Tout Tou knew how important it was to educate the community about the severity of COVID-19 because she contracted the virus herself. Fortunately, she recovered after 20 days, but during that time she personally observed how important it was to receive accurate information from credible sources about COVID-19.
“The doctors followed up with me and gave me advice about how to manage COVID-19. It’s not a joke! COVID-19 is real and I want to help the Laotian community, and the Fresno community in general, understand that and empower them to do their part in preventing the spread of COVID-19.”
As a Lead CHW, Tout Tou sees her role as providing culturally appropriate health education about COVID-19. She spends a lot of her time providing information and answering questions about COVID-19 testing in places like Asian markets where there is a large population of Laotian people and Southeast Asian communities. In addition, she performs contact tracing in the Laotian language, coaches them on getting the resources they need during isolation or quarantine, and provides culturally responsive social support services. However, one of the difficult parts of her job is combatting misconceptions about COVID-19.
“They don’t think that COVID-19 is real and they don’t think that it is dangerous. They also think that they don’t have to wear masks because they don’t take it seriously. I talk to lots of people who say that they don’t believe they’ll get COVID-19 so they still get together for baby showers, funerals, and other family gatherings while not social distancing and wearing masks.”
But Tout Tou enjoys talking with people and loves listening to their stories, to the issues they have, and the misconceptions they have because she’s able to address them head-on. She’s also an expert on building authentic relationships. And she’s had decades of experience connecting with people and plugging them into the resources they need, like getting free COVID-19 testing at FIRM.
“Sometimes I do feel overwhelmed and a deep sadness when I hear about how many people have lost their loved ones to COVID-19, or that they weren’t able to access critical resources because English wasn’t their first language. Being a CHW is not easy, but that’s what makes this work so necessary. I love advocating for people. Life is about helping build each other up by using culturally responsive and appropriate language and practices. This is especially important now as we’re trying to survive a pandemic.”
One person Tout Tou helped out was Daohouang. Daohouang had a positive COVID-19 test when she came to FIRM’s free COVID-19 testing site. During a follow-up call to notify Daohouang about her positive COVID-19 test, Tout Tou shared important COVID-19 information, including receiving financial assistance. Surprisingly, Tout Tou came to realize that she had helped Daohouang years ago when Daohouang applied to become an American citizen at FIRM.
Daohouang said, “Tout Tou, thank you very much for all the information that you provided to me and for helping me and many people to understand more about COVID-19. You encouraged me and made me happy when I heard your voice. Your words educated me to know the importance of isolation and quarantine during the time I had COVID-19 and after I got well from COVID-19. I also told other Lao people that you encouraged me when you talked about life during sick time and after sick time. Thank you so much. May you be rich der Nang Tou.”
All in all, Tout Tou remains hopeful and humble in her role as Lead CHW. Sharing her personal experiences with COVID-19 and as a Laotian refugee with others in similar situations in Fresno has provided a larger number of underrepresented Southeast Asian people to get access to free COVID-19 testing. It will also hopefully shed some light for the healthcare field (i.e. medical professionals, policies, and practices) on a population that is often overlooked because of the aggregate Asian label. Southeast Asian Americans are struggling with COVID-19, and FIRM is here to help provide the critical care they need with people like Tout Tou leading the way.
FIRM provides free COVID-19 testing every Monday from 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM or until testing supplies last on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you have questions, please contact FIRM at (559) 487-1500 or visit www.fresno.ucsf.edu/cep/
Written by CEP Staff Jeremiah Sataraka