CORONAVIRUS

Iowan describes the toll coronavirus took on his family

Omar Martinez of West Liberty lost his father and nearly lost his sister to COVID-19

Omar Martinez, of West Liberty, is seen June 29 at Kimberly Park in West Liberty. (Lyle Muller/IowaWatch)
Omar Martinez, of West Liberty, is seen June 29 at Kimberly Park in West Liberty. (Lyle Muller/IowaWatch)
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Here’s how this story ends.

“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 came in an IowaWatch interview with Omar Martinez, who turns 30 in August. He’s an auto body shop worker in Muscatine 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 clan with a vengeance in April.

“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, in early April, tested positive for COVID-19.

“Just hearing everything on the news, we obviously knew it was a serious situation,” Omar Martinez said. “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.”

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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,” Omar Martinez said. “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?’ ”

One of every four people living in the United States dying of COVID-19 is Latino, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate in Iowa is less, at 7 percent. But one of every four Iowans testing positive for COVID-19 is Latino, state data shows.

What Evelyn Martinez didn’t know while she lay unconscious, fighting for her life, was that her father, Jose Gabriel, had become ill with COVID-19 a week after she did.

“A week later, I had to take my dad.” Omar Martinez said. “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.”

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,” Omar Martinez said. “So, I felt really confident that my dad was going to make it out.

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“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.’ ...

“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 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.

“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?” Martinez said. “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,” Omar Martinez said.

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“ ... 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 now 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.”

The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch is a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Read more at www.IowaWatch.org. This story was made possible by support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.