Sundays were always family days for Daniel Lopez.
He encouraged everyone in his large, close-knit family to stop by their parents’ Grand Rapids, Michigan, home.
And what a gathering they had: Daniel and Jovita Lopez had 13 children, 35 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren, and many of their offspring lived in the area.
“Our neighbors think we have a party every Sunday,” said his daughter, Angelica Lopez. “But it’s basically just a tradition he instilled in us that we all get together as a family.
“He was very happy and lively. He would have music playing.”
The family still gathers, but grief overshadows their get-togethers.
Daniel Lopez, a strong, hard-working man devoted to his family, died May 2, after battling the COVID-19 virus for several weeks.
“He was 78 years old,” Angelica said. “But my dad looked a lot younger than his age. He was a very active man.”
Long past the age when most people retire, Daniel continued to work full-time in a commercial bakery.
He and his wife took an hourlong walk every morning before he headed off to work.
“He always led a very happy life,” Angelica said. “He was immersed in home improvement projects and gardening.”
Angelica shared the story of her family’s experience with coronavirus, with interpretation help from community health specialist Juan Daniel Castro, of Spectrum Health Healthier Communities.
She hopes to raise awareness about the virus in the Latino community, which has been hit hard by COVID-19 in West Michigan.
“I really think as Latinos and Latinas it’s hard for us to share that we have become infected because there is a stigma to it,” she said.
But Angelica believes it’s important to speak openly about it.
“Another life could be saved,” she said. “People can prevent being infected.”
Latino or Hispanic residents account for 32% of all cases in Kent County, although they make up only 11% of the population, according to the Kent County Health Department.
Several factors contribute to the higher rate, said Joanna Rodriguez, RN, a care manager with Healthier Communities.
Because many Latino residents are essential workers, they face greater risks of exposure on the job. This was especially true in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when fewer safety measures were in place. Also, many live in multigenerational homes, with limited space for self-isolating if they become ill, she said.
In addition, language barriers can hamper efforts to seek medical care or testing.
Rodriguez praised Angelica for her courage in sharing her personal experience with the virus. She hopes her story will encourage others to take precautions against COVID-19 and to seek medical care or testing if they become ill.
A life of hard work
Daniel Lopez grew up in Mexico and, at the age of 23, began coming to the U.S. each year through the national guest worker program.
He and Jovita raised their children in Mexico. But 20 years ago, they moved to Grand Rapids. Eight of their 13 children also live in the U.S.
His children always appreciated his straightforward guidance, Angelica said.
“My dad was sweet but candid with all of us,” she said. “He was always there to support each one of his children in any way they needed.”
Daniel first noticed signs of a coronavirus infection in early April.
At work one day, Daniel noticed a co-worker coughing profusely during his work shift. And within a week, Daniel developed the symptoms of a cold.
As his cough grew worse and he lost all appetite for food, Angelica consulted his primary care doctor. On the doctor’s advice, she took her father to the emergency department at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
Daniel returned from the hospital that evening. The next day, Jovita received a call that was meant to inform her that Daniel tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. Unfortunately, she was not given the information in her preferred language and therefore did not understand that her husband had COVID-19.
That misunderstanding is dismaying to Mercedes Barragan, a senior talent programs specialist with Spectrum Health’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.
“We know language barriers are one of many health care disparities and we are committed to working on eliminating them,” she said. “Anybody who comes through our doors has the right to an interpreter for all their medical questions, and as health care providers we need to continue to build on our cultural competencies so that we can best serve all people in our community.”
Soon after her husband’s return from the emergency department, Jovita also showed signs of illness. She tested positive for the virus and was admitted to Butterworth Hospital.
Angelica moved into her parents’ home to care for her father.
As she helped out, she noticed a little radio her dad had bought at a flea market. He played music on the radio all day long.
“I took a picture of it,” she said. “Little did I know he was going to leave us.”
The caregiver becomes ill
To protect her own family, Angelica took measures to stay apart from them.
“I quarantined and didn’t touch any of our home items,” she said. “I even had my own bathroom, and no one else could use it.”
She wore protective gear when she took care of her dad. But eventually, she contracted the virus.
She experienced milder symptoms than her parents—a headache, stomachache and skin rash—and recovered in a couple of weeks.
However, Daniel’s health continued to decline. He experienced fatigue, dizziness, nausea and headaches.
“He became very ill, so we called an ambulance and he was taken to the hospital,” Angelica said.
With both parents in separate rooms at Butterworth Hospital, Angelica kept in communication with their medical teams.
“After the third day of my dad’s hospitalization, the doctor said he needed to be put on a ventilator,” Angelica said. “They asked for my mom to sign the authorization form. But she couldn’t sign because she was hospitalized herself.”
Angelica consented to the treatment for her dad.
After five days in the hospital, Angelica’s mom recovered enough to return home.
When Daniel’s medical team asked for permission to treat him with convalescent plasma therapy, Angelica’s mom gave her consent.
“Although he became stable with plasma therapy, it didn’t yield the desired outcome,” Angelica said.
On May 2, Daniel suffered a heart attack and died.
The loss of the family patriarch has left a hole in the Lopez family.
“When we gather on Sundays, his music is missing,” Angelica said. “Sundays are now quiet.”
Angelica encourages others to work to prevent the spread of the virus in their families and community.
“If you have elder ones in your family, I strongly recommend observing strict social distancing guidelines,” she said. “If a vaccine is not available, that is what we need to do to care for our loved ones.”