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“Everyone is well. We’re all healthy. Obviously, we have changed our life habits, our way of eating, the way we see life, a different view.”
The comments are in an IowaWatch interview with Omar Martinez, who turns 30 in August. He’s an auto body shop worker in Muscatine, Iowa, who lives in the nearby town of West Liberty, population 3,800.
“So, we have been very supportive to each other. At least three times a week we sit down and talk about our emotions – what are we thinking, what are we feeling? We talk about memories. And I think that’s really helped us get though these last two months as a family together.”
Martinez, who serves on West Liberty’s volunteer fire department, credits his father, Jose Gabriel Martinez, for his family’s togetherness when COVID-19 ripped through the family with a vengeance in April 2020.
“Growing up my dad was, he always taught us family was, like, everything: so, having us close and being respectful to each other, help each other out, that was kind of his way of teaching us what family was all about.”
COVID-19 was working its way through the United States, Iowa included, when Aurelia Martinez became ill as April was starting. The mother of Omar, Gabriel, Evelyn and Leslie Martinez, Aurelia was fatigued and lost taste but had no fever. She went into self-isolation and, at the beginning of April, tested positive for COVID-19.
“Just hearing everything on the news, we obviously knew it was a serious situation. But, as the days went by, we figured mainly East Coast, West Coast. You know: we’re in rural Iowa, by the time it gets here maybe it won’t be as bad. That was my train of thought.”
Aurelia and Jose Gabriel and their children lived in the same house in West Liberty. The family’s main goal: stay out of the hospital. The nearest one was about 20 miles away, in Iowa City.
Aurelia never had to leave home. But Evelyn, who was 22, wasn’t as lucky. She had to go to Mercy Iowa City, where she was put on a respirator.
“When my sister got sick, it was totally, totally a different view. It caught me off guard. I was stuck for the first few days, but then, you know, I had to get it together for the family. So, I started doing a lot of research, a lot of reading, and I started reaching out to a lot of people. I have a lot of friends that are nurses, and stuff like that. So I started reaching out to as many people as I could, trying to get a lot of, you know, suggestions, and ‘what can I do?’ and ‘what should I do?’”
GO HERE FOR MORE IOWAWATCH REPORTING ON HOW IOWA IS DEALING WITH COVID-19
One of every four people living in the U.S. dying of COVID-19 is Latinx, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. The rate in Iowa is less, at 7%. But one of every four Iowans testing positive for COVID-19 is Latinx, state data show.
What Evelyn Martinez didn’t know while she lay unconscious, fighting for her life, was that her father, Jose Gabriel, became ill with COVID-19 a week after she did.
“A week later, I had to take my dad. I took my dad just because he wasn’t really bad at home and I didn’t want him to get worse at home and, then, it being too late.”
Omar Martinez kept close track with his father’s nurses.
“Since they knew my sister was already in there, and they knew Dad, and they knew Dad was in there after her, they said, you know: Your dad isn’t as bad as your sister. He has a little bit of complications but it’s nothing for us to worry about. I think we can handle it. You know, the one we’re more worried about is your sister.”
“She had already been in there a week, you know, and she was on a roller-coaster ride. She had good days, she had bad days. Then, she would hit, like, this plateau of just bad days.”
However, Jose Gabriel started to get worse and needed to be put on a ventilator.
“I got to talk to my dad when he was in the hospital, through FaceTime. So, I felt really confident that my dad was going to make it out.”
“When I talked to the doctor he – the night before everything happened, it was, I would say, 4 in the afternoon – and he was really happy with the way my dad was performing with his recovery. And, we even talked about extubating him within the next few days that day.
“And that day, we were just all, like, kind of a happy moment because I told my mom, I told my family, ‘hey, Dad’s doing great. I think he’s going to make it through.’ You know, they were talking about taking him off the ventilator the next few days.
“And then, you know, we had dinner that night. And, right after dinner I got the phone call. The doctor called me back and said he’s having irregular heartbeats. And, what he thinks is that, obviously, the virus doesn’t just attack your lungs. It attacks every organ in your body. And, he thinks that the virus has transferred, somehow, from his (Jose Gabriel) lungs to his heart, and it was attacking his heart.“
The doctor called Martinez about every hour and thought at one point the virus was under control, Martinez said.
“He called me back the next hour and said, ‘hey, he’s starting to act up a little more.’… And, then from there, it just kind of escalated. And, you know, that last phone call they pretty much said, you know, if he makes it through the night it’s going to be a miracle, but we don’t really see him making it through the night tonight.”
At the age of 58, Jose Gabriel Martinez died. It was April 21, 2020.
“I kind of sat down and I thought about it, and I was, like, how’s that even possible? How, if he was just doing fine and everything was going great, everything seemed, like, perfect, like the perfect recovery? And, it was hard for me to process. And I think, even after he passed, it took me almost a month to actually process the whole passing of my dad.”
Evelyn Martinez, mother of a 2-year-old girl, still was unconscious on a respirator. She didn’t even know her father was sick, let alone dead.
“I had talked with the nurses, and the doctors, not to let her know, that I was going to take charge of telling her. So, I had to wait.
“So, after she came off the ventilator, I waited about a week. I waited about a week to prepare myself mentally and emotionally on how to tell her. And, you know, the doctor helped me out. He walked in with me and he backed me up. And, he was the one that explained to her how he (Jose Gabriel) passed and what happened, the way it did. And, I thank him for that because I don’t think I would have been able to do that type of explaining.
“At first, she took it. She was, like, shocked, and she couldn’t believe it because the last thing she remembered was seeing Dad when we dropped her off at the hospital.”
The surviving Martinezes quarantined for a little less than two months, until mid-May. No other family members in the house became sick. Aurelia and Evelyn are back at work.
People who have heard the Martinezes’ story through news coverage when it unfolded have contacted Omar, asking his advice for handling COVID-19 in their families. He says he’s glad to talk with them.
“The thing that really gets to me is when people say it’s a hoax. It’s not a hoax. You know, this is real. And a lot of people wait until it’s too late. A lot of people wait until it hits home to finally realize, like, oh, COVID is real, like, these people weren’t lying, it actually exists. I really hope everybody takes the precautions and I really hope everybody believes that it’s out there.”
“It’s not easy. But, at that point, I guess I think love takes over you and you just gotta do what you gotta do for the people you love.
“And that’s what I did. I really fought for them.”
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This story was published by The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA), KCCI.com, msn.com and OddCrimes.com under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.