Eighty-five days battling the coronavirus
On the last Friday in February, Elizabeth Vega Felix and her grandson, José Omar Rolón Martínez, arrived in Western Massachusetts from Puerto Rico seeking a new life. Less than two months later, Felix was hospitalized with COVID-19.
Speaking only Spanish, she was not able to communicate well with the hospital staff. Martínez would often have to translate for her via a doctor or nurse’s cellphone, for the following 83 days while she was being treated.
She returned to her new home in Springfield on Monday, July 13, where she continues her recovery. On a recent day, she sat on the sofa of her home while she went through a health assessment with a home healthcare provider.
Her grandson dutifully translated questions the healthcare provider asked. Martínez told MassLive that he had also contracted the virus, but at 21 years old was strong enough to fight it off without hospitalization.
Martínez and his grandmother came to the mainland for the opportunities, compared to Puerto Rico, where a series of natural disasters had devastated the U.S. territory.
“One of the reasons that we came here is because in Puerto Rico there is a lack of employment,” said Martínez about the island before the pandemic hit. “It is really hard to find employment.”
The island has weathered a hurricane, a political crisis and earthquakes in recent years and now the coronavirus pandemic has made a bad situation much worse.
Despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that everyone should be washing their hands frequently during the coronavirus pandemic, Puerto Rico’s Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced announced that from July 2, parts of the island would have running water only every other day for the foreseeable future because of a severe drought.
The island has seen 10,379 confirmed and probable cases of the virus, and 171 deaths as of July 14.
Since their arrival, Felix has spent more time in hospital beds than her family home in Springfield. Both are homesick for the island and are looking to return once she is well enough to fly.
On April 21, an ambulance took Felix to Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, not far from their home. Because at 65 she was high-risk, everyone worried and tried to understand what was going on, especially Felix herself.
“She just knows Spanish and sometimes has to call me so I can translate and tell the doctors what she was feeling at that time,” said Martínez. “I am really grateful for Mercy Hospital because they were really helpful. They always called us, you know, they were very human with us.”
Martínez’s grandfather, Augustine Martinez was still in their hometown of Salinas hundreds of miles away and otherwise unable to help. He would travel to Springfield a few weeks after she was admitted.
Due to the seriousness of the pandemic, Trinity Health of New England, which operates the Mercy and Providence hospitals, announced on March 9 that restrictions were put in place to protect patients and staff from exposure to coronavirus.
Restrictions have since been relaxed for non-COVID-19 patients and the hospital will permit one visitor, over the age of 18, at a time.
All visitors will be screened at entry and are required to wear a mask while in the facility. Patients with coronavirus are still not able to visit loved ones.
She told MassLive that she remembers very little of the time at the hospital and that her first memory was when she was transported to the JGS Lifecare center in Longmeadow. Just 24 hours after arriving at Mercy Medical Center her condition worsened.
“She was a little worried to go to the hospital because of the problems that were happening with the COVID-19,” said Martínez. “She never thought that she would have COVID-19 because she stayed in her home for like 52 days.”
“I thought it was just a bad case of asthma,” said Felix through her grandson’s translation. She couldn’t and didn’t believe that it could be coronavirus because she had been so careful.
While at the hospital, in moments of lucidness, she would become anxious about how her family was dealing with her admission for such an infamous virus.
“This pandemic has also highlighted for us the importance of, as well as the technical challenges involved in, maintaining regular ‘face-to-face’ communication among the patient, the care team, and the patient’s family members at a time when actual visitation is not allowed,” said Laurie Anne Loiacono, chief of critical care for Mercy Medical Center. “More and more, we are using videoconference technology to meet that challenge and keep all appropriate people in the loop.”
While at the hospital she was given the highly disputed hydroxychloroquine as part of her treatment. Her condition was improved slightly at the time said Martínez.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a report on hydroxychloroquine on July 1 showing serious heart rhythm problems and other safety issues, including blood and lymph system disorders, kidney injuries, and liver problems and failure.
However, a peer-reviewed study by Henry Ford Health System released on the same day stated that the data showed that it had some clinical benefit and that it could reduce the inflammatory response in COVID-19 patients early in the pandemic.
Felix has asthma, which is an underlying condition and for a woman of her age things were looking bleak. She turned to God for salvation, as did her family.
Three days after her treatment of hydroxychloroquine, her condition worsened, and she was ultimately put on a ventilator.
“Initially, the use of Hydroxychloroquine was recommended for patients suffering from COVID-19 but that medication is now set aside if, after evaluation, we determine that the patient is more likely to have a better outcome after treatment with Remdesivir or Convalescent Plasma,” said Vikram Sondhi, chair of medicine for Mercy Medical Center. “Through our affiliation with Trinity Health Of New England, Mercy Medical Center has had the benefit of participating in an FDA approved clinical trial that tests a therapy for COVID-19 by using plasma from recovering patients. Patients who are eligible to participate in the clinical trial usually receive the Convalescent Plasma within 24 hours.”
After 12 days she was taken off the ventilator and given plasma which helps her condition to the point she was seen as over the worst of the illness. People who have recovered from COVID-19 develop natural antibodies. Antibodies are found in plasma.
Martínez told MassLive that being a Catholic he and his household turned to prayer to ask for his grandmothers’ recovery. Her whole congregation at the Parroquia Nuestra Señora de la Monserrate (Our Lady of la Monserrate Parish) in Salinas were praying for her recovery.
On May 29, she was sent to JGS Lifecare, Inc. in Longmeadow so her condition could be monitored where Felix celebrated her 65th birthday away from her family and far from home in Puerto Rico. Visitors at that time were not able to enter the building due to the highly vulnerable residents.
The staff of the care center told the family that they could stand at her window and see her. It had been two months since anyone from her family had laid eyes on her.
“They approved us to stand at the window with cell phones,” said Martínez. “However, the reception at the rehab center isn’t good and it took us a few times to hear her voice.”
She finally returned home on Monday after being away from the people closest to her since late February.
Her first assessment took place on Wednesday and check-ups will take place twice a week to follow her recovery. While she was being assessed by the healthcare provider she made a point of asking if she could do away with the walker the hospital had provided.
“She asks if she has to use the walker,” said Martínez translating his grandmother’s request. The healthcare visitor, impressed by her resilience, answered that she did for the time being.
Although Martínez and his grandmother had first planned to stay in the U.S. for the healthcare, education and opportunities, they are now looking forward to returning to Puerto Rico.
“The main reason that we want to go back is because when she was in the hospital, we felt alone, you know,” said Martínez. “We felt alone because our family were there. Family is the base of everything.”