Marina Arroyo of Kansas City reflects on her mother’s December 2020 death from COVID-19, sitting on the porch of her mother’s house, which she used to visit daily. Marina is seated on the left side of the chair in which her mother always sat on the right side, and although she realizes her mother is no longer among them, she can still feel her presence.



BY JOE ARCE AND COREY CRABLE
Marina Arroyo never thought she would join the legions of families who had a loved one die of COVID-19. But when she lost her mother, Monica Bustamante Arroyo, to the virus last December, she became one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been affected by the illness. It was a life-changing event that rendered her unable to speak to anyone about her loss for months, until she sat down with KC Hispanic News and to share how life without her mom… her best friend and her lifelong support.

Until a little more than nine months ago, seeing and talking to her mother was a daily occurrence for Arroyo, her siblings and her six children.

“I didn’t realize how much we depended on my mom or how much we talked to her. My kids were here every day,” Arroyo recalls, sitting on the porch of her parents’ house. “Seeing my mom was an everyday thing. There are times when I’m driving home and I reach for my phone to call her, and I can’t.”

Arroyo lost her mother to COVID-19 on Dec. 14, only a short time before COVID vaccines became available to the American public. Arroyo and her children are fully vaccinated, but their family’s story is one she finds difficult to discuss even now. She says she remembers the beginnings of the pandemic early last year, when it was clear that the world was changing and everyone was still trying to figure out the extent of COVID-19’s risks.

“When they were first talking about this (COVID-19) back in January of 2020, I thought, ‘Oh, this is nothing. It’ll go away, just like Ebola,’” Arroyo says. “But then I saw people start to panic. I went to Sam’s Club and they were out of toilet paper and milk and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’”

Over the course of the next several months, Arroyo and their family took all of the necessary precautions to keep themselves and one another safe from the growing threat of the pandemic, including adhering to lockdowns, mask mandates and social distancing. She says her father, Michael, didn’t believe COVID-19 was much to worry about until that fall, when he and Monica returned to Kansas City from a trip to Chicago. Michael quickly fell ill and was taken to Truman Medical Center. Shortly thereafter, Monica got sick but downplayed her illness, blaming it on longtime kidney problems.

“’She said, ‘Oh, it’s just my kidneys,’” Arroyo recalls. “My brother Gabriel had COVID and said he was getting her tested. She got tested Nov. 12 and sure enough, she was sick.”

Soon, both of Arroyo’s parents had been taken to Truman with COVID-19. They stayed there for more than two weeks, when they were transferred to St. Luke’s Medical Center. While Michael began feeling better and was taken out of ICU, Monica was put into ICU at St. Luke’s on Nov. 30 as her symptoms worsened.

Eventually, Arroyo’s father was discharged her mother, however, continued her battle with COVID. Arroyo posted daily updates on Facebook, tracking her mother’s health. Friends and family members started a prayer chain.

“It was a roller coaster,” Arroyo says. “She had really good days, she had bad days.” Soon, the bad days grew in number. Arroyo says she is still impressed with the outpouring of love and support from those prayer warriors on social media.

“I knew she knew a lot of people, but wow,” Arroyo says. “The power of prayer is strong.” Communicating with Monica became more difficult, Arroyo recalls, as the days passed and her mother’s strength slipped away.

“Mom didn’t have the strength to tell us what was going on,” Arroyo notes. “Her last text to me said, ‘Pray really hard because they want to intubate me and I don’t want to be intubated.”

Arroyo and her children made time to regularly communicate with Monica online.

“We had some Facetime calls,” Arroyo says. “We’d talk to my mom, and she could hear us. She didn’t open her eyes, but she blinked. She’d smirk. A couple of times she had tears coming from her eyes.” In mid-December, Arroyo received a call from the hospital – Monica had taken a turn for the worse.

“The hospital called and told us she had hemorrhaging on her brain and that we should come say goodbye,” Arroyo recalls. “God worked his miracles because a priest was able to administer Last Rites and we were able to get there and say goodbye. We were all in there with my mom, holding her hand until the last minute.”

Monica died on Dec. 14, 2020, leaving her family without their matriarch. Even before losing Monica to COVID, the members of the Arroyo family knew people both young and old who had succumbed to the virus. Still, despite the growing death rate across the country, Arroyo says she’s angry that she still has people in her life who refuse to take COVID seriously.

“We have family members and friends who are against the vaccine,” she says in disbelief. “I always post on Facebook encouraging people to get vaccinated and they keep saying, ‘Stop pushing this on us.’ And I’d say, ‘But you don’t know what we went through.’ My dad wasn’t a believer in it, either, until he got sick.”

Arroyo said she even expects to lose a longtime friendship over the virus and how public health officials say it should be handled.

“Just after I made a Facebook post about the military having to take the vaccine, a childhood friend lashed out at me,” Arroyo explains. “I feel like we’re not going to talk because she’s so against it. She had family who went through it like ours. They didn’t have to be hospitalized, so they were fortunate.”

When vaccines did become available last spring, Arroyo and her family members rolled up their sleeves and got in line. Still, Arroyo says she wishes her mother had that same opportunity.

“I wish my mom was here to get that vaccine. My dad got his, we all got ours,” she says, adding that she plans to get a booster shot when she is eligible. “I was excited to get my vaccine. As soon as I sat down to get the shot, I broke down crying. I wanted my mom to be there to get hers, too.”

Maybe those in positions of power at the time of the pandemic’s beginning could have changed the course of the tragedy sooner, Arroyo wonders, citing the Trump administration specifically.

“I’m very frustrated. (That frustration) started from the beginning when President Trump said, ‘It’s nothing.’ So I played it off because (The President of the United States) is supposed to take care of us. But now it’s so up and down, there are so many misconceptions. (People say), ‘I don’t know what’s in the vaccine.’ Well, I don’t know what’s in saline solution or aspirin, but we trust science. Of course we don’t know what’s in the vaccine. It gets really ridiculous.”

Now, the Arroyo family faces life without their beloved wife, mother and grandmother.

“Her home is empty. I feel a lot of emptiness in here,” Arroyo says, glancing at the front door. “I want to see her. I go to the cemetery daily because I miss her. I know she isn’t physically here, but I feel that connection because that’s where she was laid to rest.”

According to Arroyo, that loss has been especially hard on her father.

“My dad, I see that emptiness and loneliness in him because he and my mom were together everywhere,” she says.

The politicization of the pandemic has fractured Americans and created sharp divides for the past year and a half, Arroyo says, and she simply wants the division to end.

“I don’t know how COVID started and I don’t care. I just want it to go away,” she says. “Don’t make it political. … Don’t be so stubborn and hard-headed. Be protected. This isn’t a control thing. It’s about safety.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there’s a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. According to national media sources, the CDC says the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the country are expected to slowly decline over the next six months. Earlier this month, Merck & Co. announced the development of an experimental COVID-19 pill that reduced deaths by half in people recently infected with the coronavirus. For Marina Arroyo, her family and many others who have been impacted by the virus, such news is exactly what they’re hoping for.

As her family tries to move on without Monica at its foundation, Arroyo says she has a message for those still hesitant to become vaccinated.

“Please just get vaccinated. Don’t be stubborn,” Arroyo says. “I know everyone has a choice, but please be smart about it for your kids, your parents, your grandparents, your neighbors.”

This article brought to you by KC Hispanic News and Mattie Rhodes Center.