Juan Carlos “Charlie” Rangel Gutierrez, 61, died at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Brownsville on July 12. He was one of many critically ill COVID-19 patients in the hospital’s unit for virus patients, alongside his daughter Yezenia, who he pushed into the emergency room in a wheelchair just three weeks before as she struggled to walk and breathe.
Hospital administrators say the story isn’t uncommon as COVID-19 spreads through communities, infecting family members and loved ones. The crisis has remained mostly invisible to the public, making it easier for members of the community uninfected to continue life as usual, and to disregard restrictions.
While adhering to those restrictions is integral, Charlie’s daughters feel the real crux of the problem is a lack of leadership from the top down. They’re critical of Gov. Gregg Abbott’s response not just statewide, but specifically with regard to predominantly Hispanic cities and counties that are being disproportionately affected by the virus’ spread.
Charlie’s daughters spoke about their father’s story and a decision to publish his obituary on Marked By COVID, a grassroots project founded by the children of Mark Anthony Urizqua, an Arizona resident who died of the disease on June 30.
Titled “Honest Obituary #3”, Charlie’s obituary calls on the Hispanic community to unite in the face of limited resources and discrimination on behalf of the governor.
“The family blames his death on the deliberate neglect of the Hispanic community by President Trump and Gov. Abbott. They downplayed the virus, refused to provide adequate testing and contact training, and littered the airways with mixed messages on how to remain safe,” the memorial stated.
“While Trump and Abbott stayed safe and sound, the virus wreaked havoc throughout the Rio Grande Valley. Trump and Abbott lose no sleep while people of color, unable to breathe, are suffocated by the virus each and every day.”
Rose, who requested her last name not be used, researched and found that 60% of all residents in Bexar, Hidalgo, Dallas, Tarrant, Cameron, and El Paso counties were Hispanic. Those counties were also seeing high case numbers, she said.
“A bbott knew the health demographics of people in the Valley. He knew a lot of those cities are border towns. He also knew that a lot of these cities were ports. Knowing all those things, as the Governor of Texas — his lack of action did feel like neglect,” said Rose.
Charlie’s daughters absolutely feel that his death was preventable. Yezenia (a pseudonym) first went to the hospital on June 20 with COVID symptoms. She was given the antibiotic azithromycin and a steroid then returned home. Symptoms persisted and she returned for a steroid injection on June 22.
Two days later, Yezenia, who is a licensed vocational nurse, couldn’t breathe.
“I remember that I started blacking out and I couldn’t breathe, I was suffocating,” she said.
Her family transported her to the emergency room, where she remained until June 30.
All the while, the sisters tried to organize testing for their parents through BTX Cares and UTRGV’s online forums. They didn’t receive responses until June 27, the day before Charlie was admitted to the hospital.
According to the sisters, their mother had to drive Charlie to the hospital after ambulance operators said it would take an hour to get there. They never picked him up after realizing there was no more space.
Charlie was diabetic. His daughters helped monitor his spiking blood sugar and the level of oxygen in his blood. The siblings eventually obtained nasal swab testing for their father. Rose wondered why local officials did not compile lists of private doctors offering testing to increase public awareness and help redirect overflow at free testing sites.
The Valley has some of the highest poverty rates in the country, a number of undocumented residents, and many people without access to health insurance. The pandemic brought job loss across major industry, worsening the problem.
Yezenia said both she and her father received plasma. At first she was skeptical, but 24 hours after her first dose she began to feel better.
“When you have COVID, you try to breathe in and you just suffocate. It gets stuck. You can’t take that full breathe. After the plasma, I felt it improving,” she explained.
The nurses in the unit were overwhelmed. The county’s numbers still appeared low — as the public learned in recent weeks, those in charge of reporting deaths are running about a month behind.
Rose added, “The data isn’t being accurately reported. People have this false sense of security, like nothing is happening, then all of a sudden, more people are being hospitalized.”
As Yezenia described, as soon as she began to recover, she forced herself to walk to the restroom instead of calling nurses to help her. Patients able to speak would assist each other as to lessen the strain on staff, all the while listening over an intercom system every time a fellow patient’s vitals began to crash.
“All we kept hearing was Code Blue, Code Blue. I’m a nurse — I know what Code Blue means,” said Yezenia. “At one point, from all the Code Blues I heard, I called my sisters and I had an anxiety attack. And I don’t have anxiety.”
Charlie’s family members, including Yezenia, were able to communicate with him even after he went on oxygen thanks to the fact that he had his cellphone. The emergency room has an iPad, the siblings said, meaning family members without iPhones can’t use the Facetime capability.
The siblings used Whatsapp. Rose taught Charlie how to say “Yes”, “No”, and “I love you” in sign language.
On July 11, Yezenia got a call in the morning. Her father looked desperate and she could hear him struggling to breathe. She called the nurses. Within five minutes, one called back and told her Charlie was stable. He received his first dose of plasma the day before after a two-week wait.
Within an hour, the nurse called Yezenia back asking for permission to intubate her father. The doctor made his rounds and recommended the procedure. But during intubation Charlie went into critical condition. He coded, they had to bring him back, and he was stabilized with very low blood pressure.
Eventually the family had to make the decision to let him die.
Rose said, “If you were to X-ray the lungs, the X-ray would show black. Those are air pockets. My dad’s were completely white. There was nothing that they could have done to save him. His lungs were gone.”
The hospital did not have room for the body and the family had to locate a place to store it. Local funeral homes were completely booked. Eventually the sisters found one, but upon receiving their father’s belongings they realized the items were mixed with someone else’s. The funeral home wouldn’t let them verify the body because the death was COVID-related.
Rose contacted various local officials to find out that she needed to obtain permission from the Texas Funeral Service Commission, which she did, and the body was identified. Many family members weren’t able to attend the funeral, prompting a vigil that was held in San Antonio on Thursday in memory of Charlie’s life.
“It’s about raising awareness. The ones who live in poverty, who really get affected — they’re not able to pay for funerals. It’s a domino effect from the lack of testing all the way down to finding a funeral home for a loved one, having the funeral and dealing with their assets,” said Rose.