'I thought he was going to get better': Wife, 3 children grieve after Nekoosa man dies from COVID-19

Francisco Vega with his children and wife, Maricruz (undated family photos, used with permission)
Francisco Vega with his children and wife, Maricruz (undated family photos, used with permission)(WSAW)
Published: Jun. 1, 2020 at 7:29 PM CDT
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Francisco Vega, 36, had a bad headache when he visited the emergency room on May 16. He was released after being tested for COVID-19; he’d been exposed to another positive case days earlier. Just six days later, Francisco died—leaving a family with both questions and heartbreak.

For his wife Maricruz Vega and their son and two daughters, his death is an unexpected blow from a disease Maricruz couldn’t begin to anticipate.

“I thought he was going to get better,” she says, wiping tears. “I never thought this was going to happen.”

His COVID-19 test results returned positive the following day after he was discharged from the emergency room at Aspirus Riverview Hospital in Wisconsin Rapids on Saturday. He started spiking a fever Sunday, Maricruz recalled, which continued over the next couple days. But it wasn’t until Tuesday that he began coughing—a harsh, dry cough. A registered nurse with the Wood County Health Department checking in daily recommended cough medicine and a call to their regular doctor, which resulted in a prescription, Maricruz said. The CDC allows the use of over-the-counter medications to deal with COVID-19 symptoms, and the health department policies for monitoring positive patients direct nurses to refer patients to their primary care providers for questions about developing symptoms.

“We don’t do home health,” Nancy Eggleston noted, the Wood County Health Department communicable disease supervisor. “Any decisions on medical care needs to be with the provider.”

On Wednesday, Maricruz believed he was getting better when he began coughing phlegm—until that night. When Thursday morning dawned and he was having trouble breathing, Maricruz decided it was time to take him back to the ER. When he arrived, it was far more serious than they anticipated.

“We found out his oxygen level was down to like 33%,” she told NewsChannel 7 later. After a few hours in the ER, health care workers transferred him to the critical care unit. Maricruz, who had also tested positive for COVID-19, had to return home without him.

That was the last time she saw her husband.

He was in the hospital for a total of about sixteen hours, she said. Doctors told her they were doing everything they could, but the virus had spread across his lungs. Medical records from his first ER visit for the headache and test, provided to NewsChannel 7 by his family, document existing conditions including acid reflux, high cholesterol and obesity. Still, Maricruz said he was living a fairly healthy, normal life. His death came as an overwhelming shock—one that Maricruz says she feels she didn’t have the information to understand.

“A little bit before 7 (a.m.), that’s when we lost him,” she says, crying. “I thought we were gonna get out of this. I thought he was going to get better.”

In the aftermath of his death, she says the county’s handling of the case left her hurt and confused, as two conflicting press releases went out with different information about his conditions—the first said he had none, which was the family’s understanding at the time. The second came after the coroner obtained the medical records from the first testing visit, listing conditions he told the family could have contributed to COVID-19’s rapid progression in the case. Maricruz says they weren’t contacted about the death investigation until days later—when her sister-in-law reached out to the coroner.

The Wood County Health Department wasn’t aware of his conditions when monitoring him. They rely on receiving that kind of information from patients, as medical documents and primary health care is the role of a patient’s health care provider—in this case through Aspirus, which declined to discuss the case with NewsChannel 7.

“If anybody has any questions about their health, we automatically send them to their provider,” Nancy Eggleston said of their procedures for daily check-ins on COVID-19 patients. “Our role is strictly with the investigation of this illness and preventing it from spreading to others; it’s not that patient care.”

According to the CDC, most patients hospitalized for COVID-19 have underlying medical conditions—but almost 75% have been over 50 years old. Across the nation, the Hispanic community has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19; they

in Wisconsin despite

of the state’s population. According to the CDC, Hispanic individuals have a hospitalization rate

than non-Hispanic white individuals.

Accessible information from trusted sources about COVID-19 has long been one of the chief concerns that Hispanic community advocates have voiced to NewsChannel 7, including Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces De La Frontera.

“Anytime you have someone who prematurely passes, it’s a tragic loss,” Neumann-Ortiz said. “In the Latino community, we know there’s a higher percentage of vulnerability.”

She says the case highlights the kind of information that needs to be more widespread statewide and in rural communities where individuals may be more isolated. Proper follow-up and vigilance for high-risk cases after testing is one of those needed areas—something that Maricruz, who is fluent in English but whose husband was not, says she felt was not available to them.

“I didn’t know much,” Maricruz said, referring to COVID-19. Video calls may have made a difference, she said, rather than phone calls. “I don’t think it was enough, for me, to determine he was that bad.”

The Wood County Health Department does provide pamphlets and information to patients in the language of their choice, Eggleston told NewsChannel 7. In medical documentation, the initial ER doctor who had checked his headache at the time of his visit for COVID-19 testing wrote that Francisco had understood medical directions. But ultimately, Maricruz says they hadn’t understood the kind of elevated risk that Francisco’s existing conditions had meant for him, and the results have left her devastated as she sorts out her future—and her husband’s memory—alone.

“He was a great father to our three kids,” Maricruz reflected. He loved construction—and his children, a son and two daughters. “He always liked to spend time with them.”

She didn’t get to say goodbye. She’d talked to him over the phone early Friday morning; he’d had a rough night, but she wasn’t anticipating the worst. Less than an hour later, his heart stopped beating—and she wasn’t beside him.

“It’s the worst feeling—ever.”