McALLEN — It took a team of physicians and support staff about 12 hours to evaluate and prepare Erika Calderon for her transfer to a Houston hospital, and all the while her family waited on pins and needles.
Calderon made headlines Wednesday after her son’s letter to Gov. Greg Abbott went viral. The single mother of one had been on a ventilator for 10 days after contracting COVID-19 in late December, and she desperately needed a special type of life support that none of the hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley offer, Emilian Sosa’s letter to Abbott explained.
The McAllen teen’s plea garnered so much attention on social media, that on Wednesday, the governor himself called Sosa to tell him the treatment he had requested for his mother had been secured. A team of doctors would fly in to McAllen and escort her to Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center, where she would receive the life-saving care Sosa had requested from the governor.
That team arrived at DHR Health shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday and did not leave with Calderon until after 3 a.m. Thursday.
“We were there, worried, was it going to go? Was it not? And then finally (it left),” Rosa Gutierrez, Calderon’s sister, said in Spanish about the flight.
Gutierrez, who has been caring for Sosa in his mother’s absence, said the hospital allowed them to witness the patient transfer from a safe distance. They were asked to wait outside the medical facility where Calderon was being treated and told to be there at about 8 p.m.
By the time they arrived at the parking lot Wednesday night, Gutierrez and Sosa had already been put through the wringer. Gutierrez had managed to work a little, while Sosa had managed to attend virtual classes, all while they fielded numerous calls from family, friends, medical staff and the media.
At about noon that day, Sosa had made himself a quick salad in between classes and interviews. Gutierrez, however, only had a small breakfast. So by the time the plane took off the following morning, they were famished.
“We’re hungry and cold, but we’re not moving from here,” Gutierrez told The Monitor at about 2 a.m. Thursday.
All they had for fuel was a bag of chips and some coffee, she said.
Still, they were filled with the hope of seeing their loved one in person again, even if it was just for a fleeting moment.
“We saw her just as they were wheeling her into the ambulance,” Gutierrez said. “They don’t let you get close.”
But it was enough time for Sosa to see his mother, wish her well, and see her off — even though she remained unconscious.
“He got to see her and tell her that he loved her and to have faith in God because God is with her,” his aunt said.
Calderon was taken via ambulance to McAllen Miller International Airport, where she and the medical team boarded a jet and flew to Houston.
Once her family knew she was on her way, they breathed a sigh of relief and went home.
“I was going to take Emilian to go eat something, but he said, ‘Tia, I’m really sleepy. I already want to go,’” Gutierrez said Thursday. “So he got home and made some oatmeal. He kind of just tasted it, showered, and then went to sleep.”
But it wasn’t for long. Both had to make a quick turnaround, and by the time Gutierrez spoke to The Monitor shortly before 3 p.m. Thursday, her exhaustion could be heard over the phone.
“I’m so sleepy right now,” Gutierrez said apologetically. “We didn’t get much sleep cause it was almost 3:40 (a.m.) when the jet left.”
Work, however, had been piling up for the 54-year-old woman.
“I have to work cause the bills don’t wait,” she said. “I got to get a little head start on my work (today), and then tomorrow I’m going to have a lot of work, but I’ll be more relaxed.”
And that’s because her sister already looks so much better, she said.
“I’m so happy to see, seriously, how (well) she’s responded to that treatment,” Gutierrez said Thursday about the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) therapy.
Doctors in Houston had yet to give the family an update when Gutierrez spoke to The Monitor, but they had been able to see Calderon via Zoom.
“Last night we didn’t even recognize my sister. It made us very sentimental to see her so skinny in the face,” Gutierrez said. “Oh, but her hair was very well-combed.”
Gutierrez said she still has to iron out some of the costs for the medical care her sister has received, including the cost of the flight.
“They are going to charge us,” she said. “It’s a big chunk, but on Sunday, that’s what I’m going to straighten out.”
She plans to use the more than $48,000 the family received via GoFundMe to cover the costs.
And as far as her nephew, well, he’s just over the moon.
“He feels like his mom is going to make it through this,” Gutierrez said. “And I told him, ‘Of course, mijo. She’s gonna come back to us. It’s gonna take a while, but she’ll be back.’”