RAYMONDVILLE — Nearly a year ago, Adan Peña’s death brought home the coronavirus’ wrath to the Rio Grande Valley.
On April 4, 2020, Peña was 62 when he became the first in the Valley to die of complications after contracting COVID-19, eight days after his hospitalization.
“It seems like on April 4 my world just stopped,” Veronica Gomez, his daughter, said last week.
“He was the first one who had to endure this,” she said of her father, who suffered from diabetes. “That was really hard — the thought that he was the first one because (the coronavirus) was so new. Everything was so new.”
Today, the Valley’s COVID-19 death toll has climbed to more than 4,600.
“It was surreal how fast everything just escalated,” Gomez said. “Nobody knew how it was spread — how it was being contracted. I think about all the people who have passed and all the people infected.”
Through most of his life, Peña was a single father raising his three children in their Raymondville home.
“My dad was an amazing father,” Gomez said. “He raised three kids on his own. He worked multiple jobs to provide. He did just about everything. The better part of his life, about 25 years, he worked as a certified nurses assistant.”
Peña, who was planning to retire days before his death, also became the first to die as a COVID-19 outbreak swept through two Harlingen nursing homes.
“We know he picked it up at work,” Gomez, a licensed vocational nurse, said of her father’s infection. “We know someone was positive at work. We know this person had traveled. But at the end of the day, it’s not something to point fingers at. The other family is still trying to deal with it.”
At the time, Veranda Rehabilitation and Healthcare, where her father worked as a nursing assistant, wasn’t testing its employees for COVID-19, Gomez said, adding nursing homes weren’t testing for the new virus when her father contracted it.
“The nursing home wasn’t doing anything wrong. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. We don’t blame anyone any which way. It just took one person to bring it in. It was so new and nobody knew how to contain it,” she said, referring to the virus.
On Friday, Jason Hess, Veranda’s administrator, stated, “We have followed all testing guidelines given by CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) and HHSC (Texas Health & Human Services Commission) since the beginning of the pandemic and continue to do so,” in response to an email from the Valley Morning Star asking whether the nursing home was testing its employees for COVID-19 last March.
‘WE HAD NO CLUE’
In late March 2020, Gomez remembers her father began feeling what he described as flu-like symptoms.
On March 22, he stayed home because “he wasn’t feeling well,” she said, adding her father was complaining about a nagging cough.
“We were thinking he came down with the regular flu,” she said. “We had no clue.”
Still, Peña was trying to get tested for COVID-19 as the number of cases slowly climbed across the Valley.
“Everything was new,” Gomez said. “You assumed it could be just about anything.”
But a doctor didn’t test him.
“The doctor he had gone to said he didn’t meet the criteria to be tested because he hadn’t traveled,” she said, noting some new cases stemmed from travel to places where the numbers of COVID-19 cases were higher.
“We had very few doctors who were testing,” she said. “We had very few test sites.”
On March 23, another doctor tested Peña for COVID-19 after he continued to complain about his cough.
“He felt achy — symptoms of a regular flu,” Gomez said.
After testing, her father quarantined himself in his home, she said.
Then on March 27, he was admitted into Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen after his symptoms suddenly turned severe.
“He had shortness of breath and he was disoriented,” Gomez said.
The next day, Peña’s test results came back positive.
In Willacy County, Peña became one of the first residents to test positive for COVID-19.
On March 26, officials said a 4-year-old Pittman Elementary School student had become the county’s first confirmed case of the virus.
CAMERON COUNTY INVESTIGATION
Later in April, a Cameron County investigation found a healthcare worker carried the coronavirus into Veranda before taking it into Windsor Atrium.
At Veranda, 63 residents and 35 employees had tested positive for the virus while 11 people had died as of June 23, according to Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr.’s office.
Meanwhile, at Windsor Atrium 61 residents and 39 employees had tested positive while 16 people had died as of the same date, Treviño’s office stated at the time.
About a week after her father’s hospitalization, Gomez tested positive for COVID-19.
During her 23-day quarantine, Gomez was isolated in her bedroom as her brother and her best friend buried her father amid new federal safety guidelines and state and local orders limiting mass gatherings.
“I couldn’t be there with my dress. I was praying,” she said. “It was one of the most horrible feelings not being able to be there physically. It was heartbreaking — I needed to be there. The emotional pain was horrible.”
Now, she and her family gather at Raymondville Memorial Cemetery to decorate her father’s resting place.
“We spend a lot of time going to the cemetery,” she said. “It’s peaceful. That’s the next closest thing we have.”
On Easter Sunday, Gomez and her family will mark the first anniversary of her father’s death.
For her family, this Easter brings new hope following their year of mourning, she said.
“Mourning and grieving are processes that are very long,” Gomez said. “We feel like Easter Sunday is going to be a beginning — a new start of a new year.”
Now, she hopes the new COVID-19 vaccine will help her family and others put their lives back together.
“With time, we’ve learned, we’ve grown and things have come to light,” Gomez said.
Meanwhile, the world is counting on the vaccine to bring an end to the pandemic.
“At first, everyone thought it was just like the flu. Now we know otherwise,” Gomez said, referring to the coronavirus.
“We’re headed in the right direction — a decrease in the number of deaths,” she said. “The vaccine is not the cure but it gives us hope of coming back to our norm.”