(CNN) — Rolando and Yolanda Garcia were doing everything they could to protect themselves from the coronavirus. They rarely ventured out of their home in the Rio Grande Valley. One of their children described them as “retired home bodies.”
After the Memorial Day weekend, more businesses started reopening and more people started venturing out in larger numbers. Priscilla Garcia believes her parents were infected with COVID-19 during a trip to their neighborhood grocery store. The Rio Grande Valley has emerged as a coronavirus hotspot that Priscilla describes as living in “the fire pit of hell.”
The symptoms quickly emerged but the couple initially tested negative for the coronavirus. Then Yolanda started having fainting spells. Rolando developed flu-like symptoms. On June 28th, the couple needed emergency help. They were taken to different hospitals.
A week later on July 4th, Rolando’s body “ended up shutting down on its own,” his daughter said.
Four days later, Yolanda suffered a heart attack and Priscilla had one last chance to speak with her mother.
“I just told her that dad was waiting for her and that he was ready to take her with him,” Priscilla told CNN. “He knew that they couldn’t be apart.”
Rolando and Yolanda Garcia were children when they met in San Juan, a South Texas border town. They became high school sweethearts, went to their senior prom together. Rolando joined the Army and came back to Texas to marry Yolanda.
The Garcias were together all the time. They had three children. Rolando worked as a food broker and Yolanda ran a beauty shop next to their home.
Two wooden urns with the names of Rolando and Yolanda Garcia sit on a living room table surrounded by a small bouquet of flowers, angel figurines and two portraits of a couple that spent their entire lives together.
Priscilla built the shrine to her parents in their home as her family waits for the worst of the coronavirus pandemic to pass so they can safely hold a memorial service.
Their children still can’t fathom that the coronavirus pandemic took their parents away in what seemed like an instant. Priscilla hopes people will hear of the tragedy and suffering her parents endured and take the pandemic more seriously.
“It’s very unbelievable and shocking,” said Priscilla. “To the people who haven’t had it, be very careful because it will come for you. You’re fine until you’re not.”
The elder Garcias weren’t the only ones to get sick. Priscilla was infected after spending several days caring for her parents before they went to the hospital. Priscilla’s husband and daughter were also infected but have only felt mild symptoms. She has been quarantined in her parents’ home until the virus passes.
Yolanda’s sister was also stricken with COVID-19 and is on a ventilator. The Garcia family ordeal is a testament to how vicious the coronavirus has been on South Texas families.
The pain inflicted on families is what Dr. Martin Schwarcz, a pulmonary physician, says is one of stunning realities of this pandemic. Dr. Schwarcz treats critically COVID-19 patients in several hospital intensive care units.
More than 600 people have died of the coronavirus in the Rio Grande Valley, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The vast majority of those have died just in the month of July. The sudden spike in deaths is taking its toll on the medical teams treating the patients. Nurses are left emotionally drained as they endlessly deliver bad news to families.
Dr. Schwarcz recalled having to call a woman recently and break the news that her father was quickly deteriorating and would probably not survive through the night. The doctor said the woman started crying, pleading with him to not let her father pass away because the virus had already killed her mother and sister.
“It’s very hard. We’re seeing entire families in our communities ravaged by the virus,” said Dr. Schwartz. “A lot of deaths inside one single family. It’s terrible.”
The saga of Salvador and Imelda Muñoz captures the ruthless path the coronavirus can take. Salvador, 91, and Imelda, 86, never ventured out of their homes. Their children arranged for an in-home nurse to care for them.
In June, the elderly couple celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. What they didn’t know is that their nurse’s son had been infected, then the nurse got sick and within days both Salvador and Imelda were also struck with COVID-19, according to Marie Silva, the couple’s daughter.
The family says the 42-year-old nurse, who was a mother of three children, died within ten days of getting sick.
The Muñoz couple ended up in the hospital, but Silva says her mother was showing signs of improving. The family started making plans for her to return home, but she suffered a heart attack.
Silva says what makes her mother’s death so difficult to accept is that nursing teams were so overwhelmed with patients that they couldn’t respond to her mother in time.
“There was not enough staff to attend to her and she didn’t make it,” Silva told CNN. “It was horrible. I was upset. I was angry. She was already cold. Nobody had caught it.”
In another hospital room, Salvador was getting worse with every passing day. The family arranged one final video call. With a nurse on his end holding a phone, Silva says all of his children gathered around and thanked him for being a good father, that he was loved and that he would never be forgotten.
“He didn’t cry. He never cried. He’s such a strong man,” Silva said. “But I could see the pain in his eyes.”
On July 10th, Silva and her family gathered for her mother’s memorial service. In the middle of the service, the family learned that Salvador had passed away. Three days later the couple was buried together.
“His job here was done,” said Silva. “He was ready to go with his wife. He loved her. I know that they’re together and my dad wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
The families ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic all share the common theme and frustration that so many people around them don’t take the pandemic seriously enough. They see too many people not wearing masks. Too many people filling up restaurants or bowling alleys and far too many people who they believe still view the pandemic as an exaggerated hoax.
These families have experienced the realities of this virus in a profound way. They’ve seen their loved ones left suffering alone in hospital rooms, gasping for air until they take their last breaths.
“That’s what this virus does to you. It debilitates you to the point where you can’t eat, you can’t drink. You can barely breath, you can’t talk. That’s what I want people to know,” said Silva.