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The Year That Changed Everything

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Kevin Lopez and his father following his battle with COVID-19

By Kevin Lopez

“3! 2! 1! Happy New Year!!”

With that countdown, everything changed, the time, the year, the decade, and we all had no idea how much more was coming. 2020 started off a bit rough, with the prediction of World War III coming three years too early, the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi, and Australia on fire. We were all a bit disappointed with how our Roaring 20’s had started. This was the decade many of us will graduate college, create memories, get that big job, get married, have kids, accomplish that dream we all aspired to achieve. Little did we know it was about to get a whole lot worse.

Have you ever had those moments in your life where everything feels like it’s going fast and slow at the same time? Thoughts racing through your head, heartbeat slowing, breathing fast, and everything around you slowing down. When you feel the world around you collapsing, you get this feeling of being powerless, like a pawn in the game of life that no one wins. What can feel worse is when YOUR world starts to collapse, you don’t just get that feeling of being powerless, you feel lost and hopeless. 

That was how I felt at the beginning of the pandemic when everything shut down, no sports, no school, no going out and feeling safe doing it. Everything felt eerie, like, we were all put on the wrong timeline because a time traveler moved a rock and now we are all suffering. The first case of COVID-19 in Holland, Michigan happened on March 15, 2020, four days after the NBA shutdown. It felt surreal knowing that a disease that was taking away all the things I looked forward to and enjoyed, was possibly somewhere near me. I didn’t know where to go, where I could be, or even where I felt safe. My first thought was “what about me?” and that’s where I made my first mistake.

My parents tried their best to protect us as much as possible, with all the negativity in the world, they were my positive light. My father especially, a man who loved to laugh and be silly just to see us smile. He moved to America from Mexico right after he turned 18. He saw it as an opportunity to do something with his life. In his mind, Mexico felt like a dead end, so he found his way to New York City. I recall a story he told me about how he lived in a small room with five other people he didn’t know. He tried his best to do what he could, but with the limited English skills that he had, it was an uphill battle. All he wanted was an opportunity, a chance to change his life. No matter how much work he had to do, he was willing. Through all the struggle, my father persevered. Through the hardships, the moments of doubt, he went through it all and succeeded. He learned English, met a beautiful woman and then had kids. He did something he wasn’t sure he could do. He bought a house and was able to travel and do whatever he wanted. Finally, he felt like he had conquered the world.

I remember toward the end of April, there was a COVID-19 outbreak at my father’s workplace as a woman had gotten sick, but kept coming to work. She was working in my father’s line at his factory and my father would always check on her, but eventually she had to leave. A couple days later my father started to feel unwell. I heard him coughing a lot at night and noticed he seemed very fatigued and down. Something in that moment felt off, but I would tell myself that he’s just a little sick and that he’ll be fine with medicine, but it wasn’t an ordinary cough, something about it sounded heavy, like there was something that shouldn’t be in his body, a desperate call for help to get it out. 

“I don’t want to go,” my father said.

“You have to, it’s getting worse” my mother said.

“Mi amor, I’m scared. Please don’t make me go,” my father begged.

That was the conversation I heard at 5 a.m. Normally my father would be getting ready to work, but instead he was being helped to the hospital. I remember wanting to go up the stairs and reach out to say see you soon, but I was too shocked and confused to move. As I heard the car drive away and the garage door shut, I wondered if  that was going to be the last thing I would hear my father say. Not a “goodbye” or a “see you later,” not a smile, or even an exhausted feeling of going to work, but a cry for help that none of us could answer.

I told my mom I didn’t want to hear any updates on my father. I couldn’t handle any false hope or bad news. As more and more days passed in May, he kept getting worse. His body was failing him, he was having trouble breathing, and he was losing hope. To help him breathe better, they told him he had to sleep on his stomach with his hips slightly up, it was very difficult for him to do that as he kept not doing it and the nurses had to force him to do it several times to no avail. He was being tortured by this disease in so many ways that it made me wish I could help him end his suffering. Eventually, it was starting to get the best of him and he had to be intubated. I remember my mother came into my room late at night. She was crying and I had feared the worst. She said that this was the best option for him as it was getting worse for him. I could tell how heartbreaking it was for her. I could see the pain in her eyes, but I could also tell that there was something she wasn’t telling me. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but what she was holding back were the details of what caused him to be intubated.

The story goes that the doctors and nurses who took care of my father found him to be rather difficult, with very little chance that he was going to survive. One night, my father’s blood pressure dropped dramatically and he started to swell up like a balloon. It was so dramatic that they had to poke him in the stomach like a balloon to get the air out. It was such an awful scenario that the doctors decided to intubate my father and call my mother to let her know of what had happened and to prepare for what was coming.

“He’s going to die,” the doctor told my mother.

They felt that the situation was too dire for him and that there was no way for him to survive the night. Though the doctor was just doing his job to inform my mother of what was going on, he had stabbed her in the heart with the news about my father. I heard my mother crying when she made her way over to me to tell me about his intubation. I promised her I wouldn’t tell my sisters what was going on, which made it harder when they asked questions.

Next, we were told they needed to move my father to a different hospital. Initially the plan was for him to go to a Grand Rapids hospital, but it was bad timing. Around the same time they were ready to move him, the George Floyd protests were happening. The protest was powerful in its display of unity against racism, but the unrest that broke out afterward is what made it difficult. It was decided to be too dangerous for them to transport my father, so they had to wait for approval to move my father to a hospital in Muskegon. That was a gut punch to me, to hear that it was too dangerous for them to transport him was just heartbreaking and disappointing. 

My father then stayed in Muskegon, where the same problems he had before were still prevalent. He had to lay on his stomach to breathe properly, and was still struggling to do so. My mother during this time was somehow able to visit my father. She said she told them she would fight every single person in the hospital just to see my father. She was the driving force to getting my father’s help, my mother who is a nurse, was always asking questions and making recommendations on what they could do. My father was still struggling and had angered my mother when he told her how he felt.

“I wanna die, please let me die,” he said.

My mother refused and kept pushing him to fight and listen, to believe and power through this disease. He was already exceeding expectations on what would happen to him, and my mother felt that it was only a matter of time till he could come home. He just had to fight, and fight he did.

When talking to my mother about his progress, at least 76 days in, she made a declaration to me that would sum up her personality.

“I am going to make him better and he will come home, “ she said. 

And as always, what my mother said came true.

Somehow, someway, through the grace of God, my fathers own willpower, or my mother’s medical knowledge, my father came home. After 106 days, he came home looking skinny, with cuts, bruises, and scars that will stay with my him forever. My mother called me to her room and asked me to go to our porch for a surprise. I walked over to see my father sitting in a chair. I could see all the hardships and pain he went through on his face and eyes, but he was home, different, but home. He was slower when he walked, needed a second to take deep breaths every so often, and you can see how he was traumatized. I could tell he couldn’t believe he came home. So many other people were hospitalized along with him, and he came home when so many others didn’t. COVID has taken the lives of 35,000 other people in Michigan. The woman that possibly gave my father COVID died, too. There were so many obstacles that could’ve prevented my father from surviving, and yet he beat them all. Over time, he got better and better, he still has the scar on his neck where they had to intubate him. Which he always looks at, for him it’s a reminder of where he once was compared to where he is now. 

They say that you don’t realize how much you love something until it’s gone. In this case, the “what if” is what made everyone appreciate each other a little more. My mother showed how much she loves her husband, the devotion and faith in him was so strong. My sisters want to spend more time with their dad. I spent more time talking to my father, seeing how his day is or how he’s feeling. I never realized how much I needed him in my life. For my father, he said he feels that his time on this Earth was cut down a bit, and he reaches out more to his friends and family. Always planning trips to travel with his family and creating more memories. This is my fathers story, I asked him how he would describe his situation in one sentence, he said it would be this:

“COVID had me for a second, but I got up and kicked COVID’S ass.”