McALLEN — The call came in shortly before midnight May 12: Erika Calderon Reyes was on the verge of death, come quickly.
It’s the call 15-year-old Emilian Sosa had been dreading since early January, when his mother was first hospitalized with COVID-19 at DHR Health in Edinburg.
His mom, however, was now about 350 miles away in a Houston hospital, connected to the most invasive type of life support.
Just getting her admitted to Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center had proven quite the task, and it took the help of Gov. Greg Abbott, no less, to get her there.
Emilian and his mother made national news in January when the then 14-year-old teen wrote Abbott a heartbreaking letter that went viral. His mother, he told the governor, had been intubated for more than 10 days and ECMO therapy was the only way to buy her body some time to recuperate.
Known for its acronym, ECMO therapy essentially replaces the functions of the heart and lung by taking the blood from the patient, cleaning it outside the body, and then pumping it back in.
It’s a very complicated procedure that is not available in the Rio Grande Valley, and Emilian believed that his mom could survive if she just had the chance.
So he asked Abbott to help him find a place for her at a hospital that offered that type of treatment. At the time, most medical facilities throughout the state were still overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.
The fury with which the letter was shared on social media and the amount of donations that came pouring in still amazes his family to this day. It was enough to get the governor’s attention, and on Jan. 27, a team of doctors flew into McAllen and transported Erika to the Houston hospital.
She spent 106 days on ECMO therapy there before finally succumbing to the complications of the illness May 13.
From the start, doctors were skeptical about Erika’s chance at survival even with ECMO. And moving her to another hospital was risky at best, lethal at worst — not to mention expensive.
And they made it known to the family.
“So we asked the doctor (about ECMO) and he said, ‘You know what, that’s too expensive and you could never afford it,” Lydia Ana Martinez remembered Friday. “I’m a classroom teacher here in McAllen, I’m not (rich), but I have a savings account. And I told the doctor, ‘Whatever I have, if you can get me to a place that has ECMO, I’ll give everything I have.’”
Martinez, Erika’s friend from church, became one of her most ardent advocates. She helped the family with language barriers, became the power of attorney, and provided a stern attitude to go against doctors and nurses that questioned the family’s decision to keep Erika alive despite her poor prognosis.
“Nurses would get there and (say), ‘Ma’am, what are you doing?’ and point at me and tell me, ‘Why ma’am are you doing this? She’s suffering.’ But I asked her… ‘Erika do we continue’ and she told me, ‘no pares de pelear,’” Martinez said. Don’t stop fighting.
And there were signs of life.
“My sister was conscious, she would respond — within her possibilities, but she would speak,” Rosa Gutierrez said Friday. “We would ask her, ‘Erika, do you want to keep fighting?’ And she would tell us yes. She never said no. Never.”
Martinez said she always received the same response from her too, starting from the first text message Erika sent her when she was still at DHR Health, imploring her to help her, to her last breath.
“We didn’t just fight COVID, we fought against doctors, against so many opinions. Because I’ll tell you, along the way, so many times they would tell me she’s not going to make it,” Martinez said. “Just last week I was playing ball with her. I would get the ball and she would push it. And I said, ‘Doctor, how can you tell me she’s brain dead? Look.’”
Each weekend, Emilian and Gutierrez, his aunt, traveled to Houston to spend time with his mom. The 15 year-old would take his violin in tow and serenade her every chance he got.
On weekdays, they would video chat over Zoom and he continued to play for her. It was a ritual that started when his mother was initially intubated and unconscious in Edinburg.
“It’s a way for Emilian (to express himself),” his aunt said Friday. “And I figured that out at the funeral home because when the minister asked for the nephews and everyone to come forward, he started crying and playing the violin, and that’s how he manifests his sentiment toward his mother — through music.”
Emilian and his aunt used the funds they received from generous donors to travel to Houston and pay for medical expenses. But that wasn’t enough, so his aunt also sold food for baby showers and other events, while Emilian sold candies. Even his birthday party in February was a fundraiser for his mom’s medical treatment.
Still, Erika’s health was declining.
Doctors initially told the family she needed a lung transplant. Then they told them she was no longer a candidate because of the infections in her body. Her circulation, despite being on ECMO therapy, was poor, and it started taking a toll on her body. The lack of blood supply eventually caused gangrene.
“When she saw her foot, I think she got scared, because she would say, ‘I’m going to die and I don’t want to die,’” Gutierrez said. “And we would tell her, ‘No Erika, everything has a solution’ because she probably would have lost her foot because it was already turning black. The doctors would say that it was because her circulation wasn’t good.”
Two weeks before her death, Erika, who was immobilized for months, surprised her family.
“She (sat) up, gave me a kiss and said, ‘Thank you. Don’t stop fighting,’” Martinez said in between sobs. “I feel that was her goodbye to me.”
Gutierrez and Emilian rushed to Houston in the early hours of May 13. They arrived at the hospital shortly after 5 a.m.
After checking in and going through COVID-19 protocols, they rushed to her room, where they saw Erika alive for the last time.
“We got to say goodbye,” Gutierrez said. “And I’m sure she heard us because she was crying. I was wiping her tears and I know two times she said thank you to us. I could see her lips.”
Emilian once again played his heart out on the violin. His mother silently cried.
“It was really painful and devastating,” Emilian said Friday. “It was a great honor.”
Gutierrez tried to ease her sister’s death.
“I’m sorry sister if one day I failed you, but believe me I will always look after your son,” she told her. “He’s never going to be alone. I’m always going to be with him. Don’t worry.”
Medical staff eventually came in and asked the family to return at 9 a.m. They had to change her sheets, give her medication and continue her routine.
“We said goodbye. I told her, ‘Sleep sister, we’ll be back right now. They’re going to change you,’ and she stayed calm,” Gutierrez said. “She died with a smile.”
Erika’s family and friends gathered Tuesday for a private ceremony to honor her life.
Emilian brought his violin and a string quartet. They gathered in front of Erika’s casket and played several songs together. At the end, Emilian played two songs solo: “Victory in Christ” and “Santo, Santo, Santo.”
The following day, they buried his mother and marked the occasion with a balloon release. The 15-year-old remained composed for the most part, until they began lowering the casket into the ground. Martinez held him as he cried quietly.
“We’re broken,” she said Friday. “But he’s a very strong kid. His faith is in God. I always tell everybody Erika did a heck of a job (raising him).”
Now it’ll be up to her and Gutierrez to continue the task.
“She would tell me, ‘Cuida a Emilian,’ promise me you’ll take care of Emilian,” Martinez said.
Erika gave her sister the same responsibility.
“Like I told him, I’m not here to occupy your mom’s place. Your mom will always be your mom, but I want you to be confident that I will be there for whatever you need,” Gutierrez said.
For now, Emilian continues to sleep in the apartment he shared with his mom, which is above his aunt’s apartment, because there’s not much space in Gutierrez’s home.
She’s not exactly sure how long she’ll be able to manage two homes, but she hopes she can find a small home to call their own soon.
“God will put something in front of me so that I can get it,” she said.
And even though bills are mounting, she doesn’t regret the effort they made to keep her sister alive.
“No. I think I would do it again,” Gutierrez said. “It’s difficult to accept, but like they said, God gave us the opportunity to say goodbye to her. Because, despite the illness, we saw her smile so many times. Maybe she didn’t want to worry us that she was in pain. Right? But she was very brave and strong until the last moment. She died with a smile. She did cry — she cried a lot, just like we did — but for me, it was worth it, even though it’s very painful.”
Emilian feels the same way.
“So that’s something that we’re very thankful for, seeing her for (four) more months,” he said. “It was something that was really important for us. It meant a lot.”
All three of them thanked the countless people who helped them along the way.
“And also for providing my mom that hope that she could come through this trial that she went through, first with COVID and then the after(math) of it,” Emilian said.
Meanwhile, Martinez has her sights on the future.
“It’s all of our responsibility to make sure that he goes to a good school, that he does good, and we’re going to do that in the memory of his mom — and I’m never going to stop if that’s the last thing I do,” she said.
To help the family, go to: https://gofund.me/e44e1174.