For 16 days, enduring spring snowstorms and sleeping in his car at times, the son kept a vigil in the parking lot outside his father’s Loveland hospital as the father battled COVID-19.
The son knelt. He prayed. He held his Bible and found comforting verses of scripture. He played uplifting music that he wished his father could hear. Day and night, he gazed up at the windows into the hospital rooms, where nurses, respiratory therapists and doctors fought to keep his dad and many others alive.
Rafael Hernandez tried to leave the parking lot outside UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland to rest at his home 42 miles away. He’d get into his car. He’d drive away. And, he’d get no further than the next highway exit before turning around and returning to the hospital lot.
“I just felt empty like there was nobody there to visit him,” Rafael said of his father, Sergio Rodriguez.
Because the new coronavirus is so contagious, family members of sick patients around the world have been unable to support their loved ones at their bedsides.
So Rafael kept up his parking lot vigil.
“I needed to be close to him,” Rafael said.
On Saturday, all of Rafael’s prayers were answered, and Sergio, 58, got to leave the Medical Center of the Rockies.
At about 12:30 p.m. dozens of health care workers gathered in the atrium of the hospital and cheered and applauded as Sergio’s nurses wheeled him outside.
Waiting for him were Sergio’s wife, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and other family members. They greeted him with hugs, tears, balloons, blown kisses and signs that read, “Welcome Home Grandpa” and “We love you Dad.”
“I thank God and the doctors and nurses,” Sergio said after getting into the car with his wife, Yolanda Rodriguez.
“It’s a miracle,” Yolanda said of her husband’s recovery. “It was all that praying.”
A promise: ‘I’ll be with you until you get out’
Sergio had been receiving care at the Medical Center of the Rockies since April 2. He first spiked a fever of 104 and started coughing around March 20.
Sergio has dedicated more than 37 years to his career at the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, near their home in Evans. Sergio was among a dozens of other JBS workers who became sick with COVID-19 and the plant is now shut down.
On March 20, Sergio felt sick before his shift ended and went to see his doctor after work. His doctor said no tests were available and sent him home to quarantine himself. Sergio tried to heal at home, but he wasn’t improving. So, on March 27, Yolanda took him to the ER at UCHealth Greeley Hospital.
Rafael texted his dad that day from outside the Greeley hospital. He wrote: “I’m here with you and I’ll be with you until you get out!! I’m not leaving. I LOVE YOU and need you in my life DAD!…I’m staying here till you get out.”
His dad replied: “It’s going to be a while…You should go home. I will be okay.”
But, Sergio wasn’t OK. In the hospital, he had tested positive for COVID-19 and he continued to decline.
On April 2, he called Yolanda and said he was having a hard time breathing on his own.
“The nurses think I’m going to have to go on a ventilator. I just want to tell you that I love you.”
Then, he asked Yolanda a poignant question.
“Will you wait for me?”
She didn’t hesitate.
“Of course,” she said. “I’ll wait forever. I’ll pray and I’ll wait.”
Constant prayers: ‘You give hope. You restore every heart that is broken’
Sergio’s doctors then transferred him to the Loveland hospital, where he had to be intubated and placed on a ventilator.
While his dad slowly improved, Rafael waited outside. Sometimes he knelt and looked up to his dad’s windows. Nurses learned who he was and kindly put pieces of paper on the windows to show Rafael which room was his dad’s.
Praying became his mission.
“This is the only way I feel close to him,” Rafael said, the night before his dad’s release.
Occasionally, Rafael checked into a hotel in the area to get washed up. If he needed food, he would just grab a quick bite nearby, then return to the hospital. He and his mom and siblings traded many phone calls, but often ended up in tears with one another.
At night, Rafael sometimes leaned the driver seat back in his car, wrapped blankets around him and looked up at his dad’s window and the blinking lights in the room until he fell asleep.
He thought back to times when he was little and his dad taught him how to lift weights and work on cars. He remembered the excitement when his dad got him an Atari 2600.
As worries gnawed at him, music provided some comfort. A favorite was Great are you Lord by Casting Crowns.
“You give life. You are love.
You bring light into the darkness
You give hope. You restore
Every heart that is broken.”
As Rafael kept up his vigil, his dad began to improve little by little.
And earlier last week, Sergio’s team was able to take him off the ventilator.
“It takes time to work. The (virus) is a big shock to the body. It’s great when we can get someone extubated. It’s always a big sigh of relief,” said Connor Murphy, one of the nurses who cared for Sergio in the COVID-19 ICU at the Medical Center of the Rockies.
For Rafael, a great turning point came on Friday morning. At 8:46 a.m., a call popped up from a familiar person. It said, “Dad.”
“I was able to hear his voice. He told me he loves me. I said, ‘I love you so much.’ I started crying and he said, ‘I’ll be OK.’ I told him, ‘I’m right outside. I haven’t left you. I’m right here with you.’”
Sergio thanked his son for his support, and the next morning, he got word that he likely would be discharged later on Saturday. He was able to walk to his window, look out and see his family gathering in the hospital parking lot.
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“His family prayed for him every day,” said nurse, Hannah Rossman, who cared for Sergio both in progressive care unit where he was moved after he got off the ventilator and in the medical unit where he was able to come off oxygen completely and get discharged.
“He looked out and he was so excited. He’s looking so much better than he was. Discharging him is super exciting,” Rossman said.
Krista Liley is an occupational therapist who worked with Sergio on Saturday before his departure.
“He had a huge smile on his face. I told him he was my best rock star because he progressed faster than anyone I have seen,” Liley said.
Finally, the chance to embrace
Then, a short time later, Sergio was able to leave.
Rafael rushed to his dad, and knelt on the ground outside the hospital again. This time, however, he was able to give his dad a big hug.
“This is just the best time of my life. I’m able to look him in the eyes and embrace him,” Hernandez said.
“We love you so much,” Sergio’s daughter, Crystal Rodriguez, said as she rushed to embrace her dad. Both were in tears.
Keeping social distance and wearing masks, other family members cheered for Sergio and shouted, “Thank you so much” to the health care workers who had clapped for Sergio to give him a big sendoff.
Sergio is one of about 550 patients with COVID-19 infections who have recovered well enough to leave UCHealth hospitals throughout Colorado as of April 21. That includes about 185 patients in northern Colorado, nearly 300 in the Denver area and about 65 in southern Colorado.
As soon as Sergio was off the ventilator and able to connect with family members on the phone, he was on a mission to get well quickly and go home.
Yolanda said she was greatly relieved.
“I’m so glad to have him home,” Yolanda said. “He’s been calling me all morning. He’s been so excited.
Sergio was tired as he left the hospital. He will need time to recover fully, but his doctors are hopeful that he and other COVID-19 survivors will not have long-lasting damage to their lungs.
In a hushed voice, Sergio said he’s looking forward to resting and returning someday to his church so he can give thanks to God for his survival.
Shortly after Sergio headed home, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flew over the hospital at about 1:30 p.m. as members of Sergio’s family and nurses gathered outside to watch. The Thunderbirds were honoring essential health workers throughout Colorado, but for Sergio’s family, the timing of the flyover was especially meaningful. As the fighter jets banked around the hospital, then passed in front of the snow-capped Rockies, one man got to head home and family members and medical team got to celebrate.
Finally, Rafael also could go home.
“He’s a man of his word and I’m a man of my word. I told him I was going to be here until he walked out of that door. And, I was,” Rafael said.
He has a simple message for family members of others who are sick with COVID-19: “Never give up hope.”