Ricardo Téllez was always dancing.
Dr. Michelle Barron remembers bringing a friend home from college to Laredo, Texas. Across the backyard fence from her parents’ house, they spotted the man next door cleaning his pool.
It was Barron’s uncle, Ricardo, a Navy veteran who served 28 years with the Laredo Police Department.
“He was blasting music. He’d scoop up some leaves, then do some dance moves,” Barron said with a giggle. “He was a very colorful individual.”
Ricardo’s wife, Marisela, glided her way through life with her husband: dancing, holding legendary parties for any and all occasions, working as a teaching assistant for special education children after her first career and enjoying road trips in the family’s RV. Sometimes Marisela rolled her eyes when Ricardo dragged her on crazy adventures, like detouring hundreds of miles to a “must-see” corn palace in South Dakota. But mostly, she smiled and enjoyed the ride.
“They were each other’s opposites, but also complemented one other. They were like salt and pepper. He was the pepper. She was the salt of the earth,” said Barron.
One of the top infectious disease experts in Colorado, Barron has been working around the clock for over a year to keep UCHealth hospital workers and Coloradans safe from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet, even Barron’s family couldn’t escape the devastation that the coronavirus has wrought.
Barron’s voice cracks with emotion when she talks about Rick and Mari, as friends and family knew them. They were like second parents to her. And, they are among nearly 575,000 people in the U.S. and more than 3 million worldwide who so far have died from COVID-19. Rick was 73, Mari just 65.
The total number of lives lost during the pandemic is almost incomprehensible — in the U.S., nearly double the number of service members who died during World War II.
But, zoom in close and you’ll see how the loss of vibrant, beloved people like Mari and Rick have left heartbreaking holes in families and communities. Married for 38 years, they were parents to five children, 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
What strikes Barron is how many others are suffering, just like her family.
“We are not unique. That’s what makes me so sad. You look at the hundreds of thousands of people who are gone,” Barron said.
The pandemic has been especially hard on people of color. Black people and Latinos, like Rick and Mari, have suffered some of the highest rates of illness and death in the U.S., but so far, have received vaccines at lower rates.
Barron is begging everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
“Encourage your family members to get vaccinated now,” said Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth and a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
“The vaccine is safe. Several million of us have received vaccines. We have not had any issues. It works. And as vaccine rates go up, we can see COVID-19 case numbers go down,” Barron said.
“All of my family members are vaccinated or are in the process of getting vaccinated. We all know that if my aunt and uncle had had the option to get vaccinated, they would still be here.”
Each coronavirus death has been tragic. Getting a high percentage of people vaccinated — from all communities — can help prevent additional casualties.
“Death from COVID-19 can happen to anyone. It’s so devastating. I knew everything there was to know. I’m an infectious disease expert, and still, it happened to my family,” Barron said. “We don’t want anyone else to have this same suffering.”
Always up for a party, always eager to help
Road trips with Rick and Mari were sometimes zany, sometimes practical and always fun.
Barron is the only medical doctor in her extended family. She left her tight-knit family and community on the border with Texas and Mexico after high school and headed to one of the most revered institutions in the country for college – Yale University. After Yale, Barron returned to Texas for medical school, then traveled around the country for residency and fellowships.
Every step of the way, Rick and Mari volunteered to help Barron move. They called her “Dr. Shelley,” or Shell for short.
“They were a big part of my life. They moved me to Dallas, to Omaha, to Denver,” Barron recalls.
“When I moved from Omaha to Denver, we got a 15-foot U-Haul and a car trailer. My uncle and aunt were driving the RV. My cousin, Marisa, and I were driving the U-Haul. We had walkie-talkies,” Barron recalled.
“I got pretty comfortable driving the U-Haul and I passed an 18-wheeler. My cousin and I were laughing,” Barron said.
Then, a message crackled over the walkie-talkie.
“You’re driving crazy. This is a U-Haul, not a Corvette,” Rick said.
Barron and her cousin didn’t respond.
“I know you can hear me,” Rick bellowed.
“My cousin and I were laughing so hard,” Barron said.
Now, Barron would give anything to laugh in person with her aunt and uncle again.
After moving Barron from place to place, Rick and Mari would spend hours getting her settled in.
“They would organize everything, telling me, ‘You need to do this and that.’ The whole truck would be unpacked. They wouldn’t leave until all the pictures were hung and we had made 50 million trips to Target,” Barron said, tears welling in her eyes as she thinks of her aunt and uncle’s unwavering support and kindness.
A final road trip
Last summer, after patiently and carefully making it through the first wave of the pandemic, Rick was itching to take a road trip.
His health was already compromised.
“He had been in the Navy and worked in shipyards, where he got asbestos exposure. And, he was a smoker,” Barron said. “He had terrible lung disease and was on oxygen.”
Mari’s lungs weren’t in perfect shape either. In recent years, she had been sick with pneumonia and bronchitis and had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. Like a disproportionate number of people in the Latino community, Mari also had diabetes.
Despite their vulnerabilities to faring poorly if they got COVID-19, Rick and Mari announced to the family that they were going to hit the road at the end of June.
“He was determined. He said, ‘I don’t know that I’m going to live another summer. We’re going to do one last trip,’” Barron recalled.
Several family members — including Barron — encouraged the couple to stay home.
“We said, ‘This is a bad idea. Please don’t do this,’” Barron recalled.
But, Rick insisted and Mari supported her husband.
“I’m going to live life. We’ll be careful,” he said.
They set out and took all the precautions. They wore masks and gloves everywhere. They used sanitizer and religiously kept their distance from other people.
They went to some favorite places including South Dakota and Las Vegas, then returned home, seemingly healthy and happy.
“See. We’re fine,” Rick said.
A week later, both Rick and Mari got sick. Within days of each other, they had to be hospitalized and ended up dying 33 days apart, Rick first and Mari a little over a month later.
Altogether, seven family members got COVID-19.
It’s not clear where Rick and Mari picked up the virus. Maybe the road trip was perfectly safe as they hoped it would be. It’s possible that they got exposed to the coronavirus when they returned home and picked up groceries.
Like many communities in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, Laredo has suffered with high COVID-19 case counts throughout the pandemic.
Barron knows that the close family ties in the Hispanic community sadly have cost people their lives.
“Multiple generations live together. That was true for my aunt and uncle. Their grandson lived with them some of the time. My cousin had an apartment upstairs. We all gathered all the time. We had a tradition where everybody would come over on Sundays for breakfast or lunch,” Barron said.
Barron’s own mother was devastated when she couldn’t do anything to comfort her little sister. The two had lived right next door to one another for decades. But Barron had to advise her mom to stay away or she would get sick too.
“My mom is 13 years older,” Barron said.
Barron had to give firm orders to her mom:
“You can’t go over and see her. You can see her from the window. You can’t go in. You can leave them soup on the doorstep,” Barron said.
Barron felt that same powerlessness from afar. She considered flying from Colorado to Texas, but knew that her counterparts at the Laredo hospital — the infection control specialists — rightly wouldn’t allow her to visit. Instead, she consulted frequently by phone with her aunt and uncle’s nurses and doctors.
“I put my faith in the people who were caring for her,” Barron said. “They did all the right things. They gave them all the medications they needed. They gave them steroids. They just didn’t work.”
A last wave: ‘Good night. I love you.’
Mónica Téllez-Arsté is Barron’s cousin and Rick and Mari’s middle child.
She and the rest of the family had to endure a roller coaster of emotions after Rick and Mari got COVID-19.
“Mom was admitted before dad,” Mónica said. “She knew he was sick. My brother took him to get tested, then that night, my dad arrived at the hospital. My mom was there and the nurses allowed them to see each other. Their rooms were across the hall from one another.
“They waved to each other, said, ‘good night’ and ‘I love you,’” Mónica said.
That would be the last time they ever saw each other.
Rick declined very quickly and passed away on Aug. 7.
By that time, Mari was fighting for her life on a ventilator.
Family members chose not to tell her that Rick had died.
“She was never lucid enough to know. We thought, ‘When she gets through this, we’re going to have to tell her,’” Mónica said.
As with many critically ill COVID-19 patients, Mari went through ups and downs.
“She fought for 33 days. We were praying for her to fight and she did. We would say, ‘Dad, don’t take her.’ We knew dad was calling to her to come with him,” Mónica said.
In the end, Mari got weaker and weaker and died on September 10.
As devastated as family, friends and community members were to lose Mari, they had a profound sense that she couldn’t bear to go on without her husband.
“They were joined at the hip. They just couldn’t be away from each other,” Mónica said. “It was the ultimate, sad love story.”
Mónica now is part of an ever-growing Facebook group for people who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. The stories of loss are heartbreaking and seemingly endless.
Mónica, like Barron, is begging people to get vaccines as soon as possible.
“It’s about being a good neighbor and taking care of people who are close to you. You don’t know how this disease affects others. Some perfectly healthy people have gotten sick and died. You don’t know. You might be OK. You might not,” she said.
A perfect team until the end
The challenge for the family now is carrying on without the couple who loved bringing everyone together.
“My parents were an amazing force. They were always about a party and celebrating and traveling. They did everything big. If there was a birthday, graduation, any occasion, it was going to be a big to-do,” Mónica said.
Ricardo loved giving everyone nicknames. He dubbed Barron’s husband, “Greyhound” because he’s skinny and loves to run.
Mari loved remembering everyone’s birthdays and even mailed cards to co-workers from her high school who had summer birthdays.
She and her sister also created beautiful decorations for Barron’s wedding.
“She and my mom did my entire wedding, everybody’s weddings,” Barron said. “They said, ‘You’re getting married in October. We’re going to do a fall theme with cornucopia and apples and Mexican candy.’ It was beautiful and insane how much they did.”
They also helped find a mariachi band to play during dinner. Then came the dancing.
Rick and Mari were probably among the first on the dance floor.
“They glided everywhere. They were so in sync,” Mónica said. “My mom loved The Beatles, Dad, Roy Orbison, and they loved Tejano music.”
Both also loved Los Lobos’ Maricela about a woman who loves to dance. They joked that it was written just for Marisela.
“Even though they were taken too soon, in the time they were here, they lived life fully. They were adventurous go-getters. They weren’t scared. They reached their goals. They were a good team,” she said.
And, they were close to being able to relax full time.
“My mom was going to retire in December. My dad had been retired for about 14 years,” said Mónica, a teacher in Austin.
When the pandemic finally ends and it’s safe for the family to gather once again, Barron, Mónica and others can’t wait to have a giant party to celebrate Rick and Mari.
“We’ll rent out the police hall, get a band and have great music,” Barron said.
Of course, there will be dancing.
“That’s what they would have wanted,” Barron said.
When she thinks of her beloved aunt and uncle, sometimes she cries. Other times, she’s angry. And sometimes, she smiles and laughs.
She’s sure that they’re throwing a big party in heaven at this very moment.
They’re probably getting everyone out on the dance floor, encouraging everyone to dance a cumbia, with plenty of hip movement.
Or, maybe Uncle Rick is cleaning the pools.