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An El Paso hospital worker died of COVID-19. His wife, also a health-care worker, demands improved testing

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Francisco “Paco” Isais, 71, an employee of The Hospitals of Providence Memorial Campus, died on Aug. 5 of COVID-19. His wife Martha, 66, said that if the testing process at University Medical Center had been handled differently, he might still be alive. 

“Why did it take so long? Why weren’t we notified right away? My husband shouldn’t have died, my husband could have survived,” said Martha Isais, wife of Paco. 

Martha, also a health-care worker, believes that a delay in care caused by a lag in both getting tested in the first place, and then another delay in being notified of his test results contributed to Paco’s death. Ten days elapsed between when Paco first went to the emergency room with symptoms of COVID-19, and when he finally received confirmation that he had tested positive. 

Martha Isais spoke about the death of her husband, Paco, at a protest last week. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

Martha thinks it’s possible that Paco got COVID-19 from her, since she sometimes works with COVID-19 patients, and later tested positive for the virus as well. Martha is employed as a certified lab assistant and phlebotomist at a hospital in El Paso, though declined to say which facility for fear of negative repercussions. 

Paco did not work with COVID-19 patients as part of his job, and worked in maintenance at Providence. 

Paco and Martha’s story

Martha and Paco began dating 37 years ago. At the time, they both worked at Providence Memorial Hospital; Martha in the laboratory, and Paco as a painter in the maintenance department. 

Martha was going through a divorce and adjusting to life as a single mother. She had two little boys and was pregnant with a third. Martha needed some help with her house and was looking to hire a house-painter to help with the ceilings. Paco seemed trustworthy, so she asked for his advice, wondering whether the price she had been quoted by a local painter was a fair price. 

Paco Isais as a young man. (Photo courtesy of Martha Isais)

Paco said he would do it himself for a better price. He asked if it’d be OK with her that he came by on Saturdays to paint the house, since he worked during the week, and Sunday he went to church. Martha said that was fine, and they slowly began to get to know each other. Paco would come by on Saturdays to paint the house, letting Martha’s boys help by painting the lower parts of the walls with little brushes.

After several weeks had gone by, Martha recalled, “He said, ‘I’d like to take you out.’ And I said, ‘Out how?’ He said ‘Like a date.’” Martha replied to him, “‘Now let me explain something to you, I am a package deal. It’s not just me,” referring to her children. “He said, ‘I want the package.’ So we started dating.”

Paco raised Martha’s youngest son Miky as his own, and Paco and Martha dated for 11 years before getting married in 1993. Martha was cautious because of her first marriage, so she made him wait. But she said that he wanted to get married “from the get-go.” 

“My husband was a God-loving man, devoted to God. He was an awesome husband, a fantastic partner, and a fantastic grandfather. He was a very good man,” she said.

Paco worked at Providence for over 40 years, and Martha said he was beloved by his coworkers.

Martha and Paco loved traveling, often taking long trips north to Canada through Yellowstone, first with her son Miky, and then later after he son died, with her grandchildren.

Miky died at age 18 of acute lymphatic leukemia after battling the disease for a little over a year. Martha said the loss of her son was especially hard on Paco,  Next Thursday, Paco’s ashes will be scattered over Miky’s grave. 

Paco’s COVID-19 diagnosis

Paco first started showing symptoms of COVID-19 on July 22, feeling very fatigued and running a fever, and Martha soon took him to the emergency room at University Medical Center. 

Martha and Paco Isais, top left, celebrate the holidays with children, grandchildren, friends and extended family. (Photo courtesy of Martha Isais)

“They did a chest X-ray, everything came out OK. They didn’t test him for COVID-19, and sent him home with instructions to see his primary doctor in a week,” she said. Paco also suffered from stage four non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but was in remission, causing doctors to initially attribute his symptoms to side-effects of chemotherapy, Martha said. 

“I made an appointment for the following Monday. I asked for him to be tested for COVID-19. They asked that I take him back to the emergency room. I took him back to the emergency room, they sent him home again,” she said. Although Martha recalls Paco being tested on Monday, UMC records show that he was tested on Tuesday, July 28. 

“Saturday (Aug. 1) is when we got the call from the Department of Health. The first thing that came out of the man’s mouth was, ‘By this time you should have already been notified that (your husband) tested positive for COVID-19,’” Martha said. 

“I told him ‘No we did not, we have not been notified.” He said, ‘What do you mean you haven’t been notified?’” They had some back and forth over why the hospital hadn’t notified her, though Martha ended the conversation feeling confused and frustrated.

“Somebody dropped the ball, big time. Why are all the results not taken care of in the same manner?” Martha asked. At the time when Martha and Paco found out his test results, he was already too weak to get up to go to the bathroom. 

By the next day, Paco had become more restless and uncomfortable. Martha knew she wasn’t capable of caring for him by herself, but worried that if she took him to the hospital, she would never see him again. 

“I was crying, I said (to Paco), ‘I don’t want to send you, I want to take care of you but I can’t. I don’t know how.’ (Paco) rubbed my arm gently, softly, and he said ‘That’s OK, do what you have to do.’” Martha gave Paco a bath, dressed him warmly “because hospitals are always cold,” and then called 911. 

Once Emergency Medical Services and the Fire Department arrived, Martha was busy giving them Paco’s information and making sure he got safely into the ambulance. She didn’t get a chance to kiss him goodbye before he left, but as the ambulance doors were about to close, she called to him from outside, “Just keep the faith, everything’s going to be OK.” 

Paco replied to Martha, “I know, everything’s going to be alright. I love you, OK?” Martha said “I love you too.” It was the last time she saw him. 

Paco’s decline

Over the next couple days, Paco rapidly took a turn for the worse. Martha called frequently, but had difficulty getting through to Paco on the phone. He had grown so weak that even when her call was connected to his room, he didn’t have the strength to pick it up. 

Paco and Martha Isais with her granddaughter, Mya, who Martha described as “the apple of Paco’s eye.” (Photo courtesy of Martha Isais)

On Wednesday, Aug. 5, after dialysis had been attempted, Martha was notified that Paco’s kidneys were failing, and asked whether she wanted him to be sent to hospice. Paco had already signed a do not resuscitate order. Martha said yes and signed the hospice paperwork. 

“Around 5 o’clock a nurse called me up and said, ‘Mrs. Isais I’m just calling to let you know that I assessed your husband.’ I said OK, and he said, ‘I’m letting you know because in a short time he’s going to pass away.’” Martha said, “What do you mean in a short time? How short of time? He said, ‘In a matter of minutes.’”

Martha hung up the phone and then moments later it dawned on her what he meant. She called right back, to try to get through to Paco. “I told (the woman who answered the phone) mija, do me a favor. Ask the nurse to go in there and put the phone on his ear, I know he’s sedated but I know he can hear. Ask him to put the phone on his ear so I can tell him I love him. She said ‘OK,’ and then put me on hold.” 

A couple minutes later the woman came back on the phone line. “She said, Mrs. Isais I’m sorry to say that your husband has died. He’s already expired.” 

Martha wants to be Paco’s voice

On Thursday, Martha participated in a demonstration in front of Las Palmas Medical Center and spoke out to share Paco’s story. The demonstration was organized by SEIU Healthcare, the largest healthcare union in North America, to raise awareness about COVID-19 deaths among hospital workers. SEIU highlighted a new tracking tool for health-care worker deaths, which identifies at least 1,000 hospital workers who have died from COVID-19 so far in the United States. 

According to El Paso’s public health cluster reports, five El Paso health-care workers have died of COVID-19 as of Aug. 24. The city doesn’t provide information on deaths at specific workplaces.  In a statement to El Paso Matters, Las Palmas Medical Center — the site of the protest — clarified that it had not had any staff die from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Martha said that she believes hospital staff should be tested more frequently for COVID-19, a concern that some El Paso hospital workers have voiced throughout the pandemic

Speaking to the group that had gathered outside of Las Palmas, Martha said, “Today, I am the voice of my husband. He is no longer here to speak up. It’s very sad that with the COVID testing, it’s not followed to the same degree. … It took a week for us to get results and my husband was tested positive. My sister went to the same clinic yesterday. Less than 24 hours later she got her results, negative. Why? Why did it take so damn long for us to get those results? Why couldn’t we have gotten them the next day?”

UMC spokesperson Ryan Mielke said testing technology has evolved through the pandemic and results are coming more quickly.

“What you’re going to see in the coming weeks are even faster systems of response, not only for people who work in hospitals but also for the general public. So the amount of time that it took for a test one month ago is no longer the same as how long it takes today, it is so much faster today than it was just a month ago. We are also increasing our ability to notify people as quickly as we can,” Mielke said.

Monique Poessiger, spokesperson for The Hospitals of Providence, said their hospitals meet COVID-19 testing criteria established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Martha remains concerned about testing inconsistencies.

“My husband is gone, but I sure would hate for somebody else to go through the same thing I went through. I would hate for another person to lose their life because things were not followed through the way they should have been,” she said.

Cover photo: Paco and Martha Isais

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. She has a new album coming out on Sister Polygon Records in fall 2020, and is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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