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‘It’s lonely. It’s truly lonely’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Mariaelena Lopez stands in the front yard of her home in Barelas, where she has been quarantined in recent days. Lopez’s mother died of coronavirus on April 1, and her brother was the first person at the Metropolitan Detention Center to test positive for COVID-19. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Maxine Roybal Lopez died at the University of New Mexico Hospital fighting COVID-19 with no family by her side.

The 71-year-old had been hooked up to a ventilator for days when she took a turn for the worse. Because hospitals have limited visitors, her daughter couldn’t be there.

“One of the nurses did hold my mom’s hand to the very end,” Mariaelena Lopez said. “I asked her to please do that for me.”

The hospital had previously called to warn her about her mother’s deteriorating condition and to ask how to proceed if her mother’s heart stopped.

“It was the hardest thing I’d ever heard. … I couldn’t understand the rapid decline,” she said.

Now she is alone as she grieves her mom’s death.

And she is hoping that her brother, who she said has tested positive for the same virus that killed their mother, will not suffer a similar fate.

Lopez’s family has been in the news a lot this past week. Her mom was the seventh person to die in New Mexico of coronavirus. And she believes her brother, Daniel Lopez, was the first person to test positive in the Metropolitan Detention Center.

Maxine Roybal Lopez

“It’s a lonely position to be in,” she said Sunday evening, quarantined in the home she used to share with her mom. “It’s the worst position. I wouldn’t wish this upon anybody.”

Left vulnerable

Maxine Lopez had a heart attack years ago that her daughter believes may have left her more vulnerable to coronavirus. Her seasonal allergies caused a cough around this time each year.

“It was hard to decipher the difference between the cough they’re talking about and the cough she had, because it’s the same cough she normally has,” Mariaelena Lopez said.

On March 24, Maxine Lopez was having trouble breathing before she went to sleep. When she woke up, her skin was gray, and her son took her to the hospital.

Maxine was tested for the virus right away, and her positive test results were in by March 27 – the day after Daniel Lopez was booked into the jail.

Maxine Lopez sent her daughter a text message that same day saying she was going to be placed on a ventilator. Although she was sedated, she was fighting the tubes hooked up to her, and so to conserve her energy, she was given a paralytic.

She remained unconscious until her death on April 1.

Delivering bad news

Days later, Lopez delivered the news to her brother – simultaneously – that their mom had died of coronavirus, and that he had tested positive for it. Lopez said she concluded based on media reports that the MDC inmate who tested positive had to be her brother.

“His first response was, ‘Oh, my god, am I going to die?'” she said.

Although MDC announced in a media release on Monday of last week that an inmate in its care had tested positive, Lopez doesn’t believe her brother has been officially informed of his test results. All of MDC’s descriptions of the inmate who has tested positive fit his situation.

Daniel Lopez was booked into the jail March 26 after reportedly failing to report to probation. He had pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in 2018 and had been released from MDC last April.

Daniel Lopez

Lopez was sick at the time of his arrest and had been to a doctor days before that because he was having trouble breathing, his sister said.

Still, he was placed in general population, where he continuously complained that he did not feel well, but was not given medical attention, Mariaelena Lopez said.

She said her brother has had all the same symptoms her mom did. He was placed in quarantine and tested for the virus only after she called the jail to let them know that their mother had tested positive.

“When I called them, I just knew in my heart that he had a good chance of being COVID-19 positive,” she said.

The jail announced last week – days after the announcement about the positive test – that close to 80 more inmates were scheduled for testing, along with 17 staff members. Larry Gallegos, a spokesman for Bernalillo County, said many of those tests have come back, and all of them have been negative.

Lopez wonders what might have happened if she hadn’t notified the jail, and she worries that the facility’s screening process is insufficient. Gallegos said Monday that the screening procedure implemented in light of the pandemic, which includes taking vitals and temperatures and asking a series of questions about possible coronavirus exposure, has not changed since Feb. 13. Workers are also screened when they enter the facility.

Mariaelena Lopez said she worries about other inmates, as well as for jail staff and their families. She said she plans to keep doing everything she can to try to make sure her brother gets the medical care he needs as he waits out the virus in a negative pressure room at MDC.

“He’s all I have left. I don’t have anybody else,” Mariaelena Lopez said. “I don’t want to bury two people.”

Mourning alone

So many of the things that are normal parts of mourning are impossible right now.

“You don’t have family, you don’t have friends, you don’t have someone to hug you to let you know it’s going to be OK,” Mariaelena Lopez said.

She can’t sit with her friends and reminisce. She can’t console her niece. She can’t go back to her classroom of third graders to try to find a sense of normalcy. She can’t plan a memorial right away.

But she and her loved ones have found some ways to improvise.

Friends have had food delivered to her home, her aunt dropped off groceries, she’s been video calling her niece and watching Netflix and she’s been doing everything she can to advocate for her brother.

Still, she said, there’s so much time to sit and think.

“It’s that idle time alone,” she said. “It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever gone through. It’s lonely. It’s truly lonely.”

To say that Mariaelena Lopez and her mother were close would be an understatement.

Maxine Lopez went to work with her daughter each day. She volunteered in Mariaelena Lopez’ class at Kit Carson Elementary School, helping with grading, and spending time with the kids who needed a bit more attention.

“She was the grandma of the classroom,” Mariaelena Lopez said.

In her younger years, Maxine Lopez worked at a pharmacy and then as a change clerk at Isleta’s casino. She was creative – the go-to woman for wedding and baby shower centerpieces. She was known for her candy bouquets and, at school, she helped make cheerleading costumes for the Christmas parade and mariachi outfits for international day.

Mariaelena Lopez wonders if her mom could have picked up the virus before schools were closed. Students and parents are sick all the time, she said.

Lopez hopes that her loved ones will gather sometime when this is all over to remember her mom, a woman who touched countless lives.

“She deserves that,” Mariaelena Lopez said. “I want the Kit Carson community, the teachers, the staff, and her friends and family. I want them to get around and celebrate the life that she did have.”

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