Lost on the front lines: Health care workers in Southwest who died fighting COVID-19

| Updated:

Many frontline health care workers have lost their lives in the fight to control the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Marcelo Leal/Unsplash)

Health care workers across the country have risked their lives to care for COVID-19 patients, and Cronkite News reporters teamed up with the Guardian and Kaiser Health News to tell some of the stories of those who died because of exposure to the novel coronavirus that causes the deadly disease.

The overall project was awarded the Batten Medal for Coverage of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Monday. Here are Cronkite News’ contributions to the extensive database that gathered more than 3,600 obituaries of health care workers.

Shawna Snyder: Nurse’s husband ‘begged her to leave her job’

Age: 41
Location: Tucson, Arizona
Workplace: Banner-University Medical Center South
Occupation: Nurse

As a Navajo woman, mother of four and Navy veteran turned nurse, Shawna Snyder was dedicated to helping people.

In March, as COVID-19 spread, her husband, Ernesto Burbank, said he “begged her to leave her job.” She refused. Recently promoted to a leadership position, Snyder worried that if she left, “other nurses might get scared or the team might not be as strong,” he said.

Registered Nurse Shawna Snyder and her husband, Ernesto Burbank, who sang Native American songs before she died of COVID-19 in July. (Photo courtesy of Ernesto Burbank)

Burbank, a tattoo artist, said he supplied Snyder and her hospital team with disinfectant wipes from his shop, and she bought extra N95 masks for her shifts at Banner-University Medical Center South. (Banner Health declined to comment on Snyder’s death or access to masks and other personal protective equipment.)

Snyder tested positive after working on the same floor as COVID-19 patients, Burbank said, and was hospitalized, battling the virus through May and June. Burbank said he held his wife and sang Native American songs to her “before she took her journey.”

Burbank and her two youngest children have moved to be near her grave in Tsaile, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation Reservation. In Tucson, he said, their 2-year-old son insisted on sleeping outside the room where his mother had first self-isolated, hoping she would come out.

On the reservation, Burbank is building Shawna Rae’s Farm, a multipurpose home and cultural center, dedicated to helping Navajo youth and preserving culture. It’s something he and Snyder dreamed of.

“She’s still here with us,” he said.

Anthony Wallace

Katherine Hughart: Nurse had served three tours in Iraq

Age: 61
Location: Bullhead City, Arizona
Workplace: Western Arizona Regional Medical Center
Occupation: Nurse

When Katherine Hughart was about 5, her brother remembers her holding a bird with a broken wing, attempting to mend it with a stick.

“That’s when I named her Florence Nightingale,” John Gibbons said in an interview weeks ago. Within months, both brother and sister had died of COVID-19.

Since childhood, Katherine, the first girl born into the Gibbons family in 97 years, cared for others. With three older brothers, she grew up tough. After graduating from nursing school, Hughart joined the air force reserves in 2001 and completed three tours as a flight nurse in Iraq.

She had retired when COVID-19 spread in 2020. On March 10 – her birthday – she began working in the emergency room at Western Arizona Regional medical center.

John and another brother, Tom Gibbons, tried to talk her out of working but she told them, “that’s what I took the oath for, that’s what I do.” She said she wasn’t concerned about safety at work.

A hospital spokesperson, Jena Morga, said medical personnel were consistently supplied with PPE, including N95 masks. Due to the spread of COVID-19 in the community, the hospital couldn’t determine how Hughart was infected, Morga said.

With early symptoms, Hughart isolated at Tom’s home. Once hospitalized, she was placed in a medically induced coma and later suffered a stroke. The family decided to remove life support.

A few weeks before Hughart fell ill, she and Tom went fishing. Tom, in an interview, remembered her joy as she topped his catch, outfishing him from his boat.

Months after Hughart’s death, John, 14 years her senior, struggled with COVID-19, at the same hospital where his sister received care. His son, Mike Gibbons, said he died on Jan. 12.

Katherine Sypher

Felipe Llorente: He cleaned patients’ rooms without optimal PPE

Age: 59
Location: Lake Havasu City, Arizona
Workplace: Havasu Regional Medical Center
Occupation: Janitor

When COVID-19 hit Havasu Regional Medical Center in March 2020, two Llorente siblings employed in nursing roles were issued N95 masks by the private hospital. Felipe Llorente, their father, who worked in janitorial services, was given a surgical mask to wear while removing trash from COVID-19 patient rooms, among other tasks, they said.

Jaffe Orias Llorente and Joannah Orias Llorente said there was a shortage of N95 masks at the hospital, which they think contributed to how he contracted the virus that causes COVID-19.

“If I had the power to get him an N95, I would have,” said Joannah, a registered nurse.

Felipe Llorente’s children believe their father, who worked in janitorial services, wasn’t given adequate PPE to wear while removing trash from COVID-19 patient rooms, among other tasks. (Photo courtesy of Jaffe Orias Llorente)

Felipe Llorente emigrated from the Philippines to the U.S. in 2007 and worked at the hospital for 12 years. His family and co-workers say he filled their lives with “love, kindness and smiles.”

“He always had a smile on his face. No matter what problem he was facing, you don’t even see it – he would just smile,” said Jaffe, a certified nursing assistant.

On Llorente’s days off, he tended to his plants and harvested oranges. In 2016, when Jaffe came out as transgender, her dad was right by her side, she said.

“My dad was my supporter,” the 28-year-old said. “Since my transition, he’s been my best supporter.”

Joannah said her father started showing symptoms of COVID-19 in July, and was hospitalized on July 22. Llorente, who was prediabetic and had hypertension, was discharged two days later, his children said, but was readmitted on July 26.

Llorente’s symptoms worsened and he was transferred to Joannah’s unit, the intensive care unit, where he died three weeks later.

Havasu Regional did not respond to requests for comment.

Jonmaesha Beltran

Nick Rizos: A doctor who knew something about everything

Age: 65
Location: Lake Havasu City, Arizona
Workplace: Havasu Regional Medical Center
Occupation: Physician

Nick Rizos had a passion for family, photography, good food, amateur radio, exotic cars – as he was a proud member of Lamborghini Club America – and, most certainly, his patients.

A native of Toronto, Rizos had worked as an OB-GYN physician in Lake Havasu City since 1983. He practiced at the Havasu Regional Medical Center, where he also had been chief of the medical staff and was a founding member of the Havasu Surgery Center.

Dr. Nick Rizos had worked as an OB/GYN in Lake Havasu since 1983 before contracting COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Rizos)

Rizos kept working even as COVID-19 spread. He believed he contracted COVID-19 from one of his patients, said his son, Anthony. Rizos was feverish and had trouble breathing when he was hospitalized. A week later, he was scheduled to be released after what was assumed to be a full recovery. Rizos set up one last family Zoom call to inform everyone he was feeling better and had completed his release paperwork.

But the next morning, Anthony said, an hour after he spoke to his father by phone, Rizos died from a blood clot in his lungs.

When he wasn’t working, Rizos always seemed to have had a camera in his hands, his son said. He always had a joke to tell and was the man who knew something about everything.

“He enjoyed helping other people, not just medically, but he enjoyed teaching people things that he knew and enjoyed. He was someone who was born with a lot of talents and skills and he enjoyed making the world around him better,” Anthony said.

Lauren Serrato

Glenda Felix: Cleaner was known for her resilience

Age: 44
Location: Chandler, Arizona
Workplace: Dignity Health Chandler Regional Medical Center
Occupation: Cleaner

Glenda Felix had to pay her bills. She worked as a cleaner at a hospital and feared COVID-19, but she kept working, even as virus cases rose, to provide for her 11-year-old daughter, said a sister-in-law, Roxanna Donan.

Donan said Felix had diabetes and other health issues that she knew made her vulnerable. Felix told Donan she had to reuse masks at work and worried about becoming infected.

A native of Sonora, Mexico, Felix was an orphan by age 15. Donan said Felix’s brother died crossing the desert to join her. Felix, who was married, had a second child who died as an infant six years ago.

Felix, Donan said, was known for her resilience. Her signature hello – at the hospital, at home, at family gatherings – was “Hi, honey!” delivered with a smile.

On Fourth of July weekend, Felix came down with a cough and then a fever. She was admitted to the hospital where she worked, receiving treatment for 23 days. “There were times when all she did on the phone was cry,” Donan said.

In an email statement, Dignity Health Chandler said it was “incredibly saddened” by Felix’s death. “Glenda was a kind and caring colleague who worked hard to maintain a clean care environment within the hospital.” It added: “We have gone to great lengths to keep our patients and staff safe during the pandemic, including following all CDC guidance.”

“That woman suffered so much pain,” Donan said. “But even on her worst days, she could be smiling.”

Anthony Wallace

Emelyn Rimot: Family feared worst when nurse missed video chats

Age: 66
Location: Fountain Valley, California
Workplace: Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Orange County Global Medical Center
Occupation: Nurse

Emelyn Rimot was meticulous in her job as a nurse and in tending a patch of fruit trees in her backyard, said her niece, Tanya Rimot-Silva.

Rimot’s compassion for children and elderly people drew her to a career in nursing, Rimot-Silva said. She always put her family’s needs before her own. She was protective and strict but delighted in spoiling her nieces and nephews.

As COVID-19 spread, Rimot’s family told her to stop working – she had a full-time job at Fountain Valley hospital and was picking up hours at another – but she responded, “Who will take care of the sick if I don’t go?” said another niece, Nina Ariel. Rimot had pulmonary fibrosis, which put her at higher risk of COVID-19 complications, Ariel said, but she was given and wore N95 masks at work.

After a shift in early March, Rimot began having chills and a high fever. She stayed home but joined her family’s daily video calls to pray with them, her nieces said. When she didn’t join one day, her family worried. She returned the next day, still at home, laughing about the phone calls they had made to nearby hospitals to ask if she had been admitted.

The next day, she missed the call again. Her family received a call that she had gone to the hospital and was intubated. Rimot was on a ventilator until doctors determined she had brain death. Life support ended three months after she fell ill, Ariel said.

Kyla Pearce

Mark Daughterty: Nursing assistant played music for patients

Age: 60
Location: Casa Grande, Arizona
Workplace: Oasis Pavilion Nursing and Rehabilitation Center
Occupation: Certified nursing assistant

With five children and 15 grandchildren, Mark Daugherty was a “fun-guy prankster” who stayed up late playing Uno at restaurants, volunteered to feed the homeless and held karaoke nights with his family, according to his daughter, Stacy Daugherty.

Daugherty had “such a loving and caring personality,” his daughter said.

“He gave as much as he could for everyone who needed it without asking for anything in return. ”

Daugherty worked as a certified nursing assistant for the Oasis Pavilion Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. He played multiple instruments, including the accordion, banjo, piano and harmonica.

“His patients enjoyed hearing his music he played on the weekends,” according to Amber Moore, the center’s director of nurses. “Mark will be deeply missed.”

On May 19, Daugherty called out of work and was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he was discharged the same day. A few days later, he was back in the hospital and tested positive for COVID-19, Moore confirmed. His daughter said he had access to personal protective equipment and wore an N95 mask.

“As we all know, COVID-19 is widespread throughout the community so it is impossible to say where Mark contracted the virus,” Moore said.

Daugherty, who had recently become an ordained minister, planned to open a ministry with daughter Stacy. She’s now finishing her classes so she “can carry on that legacy.”

Daugherty died June 19.

Hannah Foote

Dorothy ‘Pearl’ Davis: A passionate cook who ‘rarely got sick’

Age: 60
Location: San Antonio
Workplace: Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center
Occupation: Certified nursing assistant

Funny, outspoken and “the life of the party” – that’s how the family describes “Pearl” Davis, a passionate woman who cooked a mean dish of ribs with a side of greens, said her niece, Tanya Renee.

So many favorite foods came out of Davis’ kitchen, she said, “I can’t even choose.”

In early March, Davis fell ill after reporting that a co-worker had sneezed on her. A doctor thought she had the flu.

Davis cared for patients despite her condition and even cooked for a family funeral on March 20. She grew sicker and family members urged her to get a coronavirus test. Hospitalized on March 27, she tested positive.

Her workplace reported a COVID-19 outbreak, with six staff members and six patients testing positive as of April 1. The numbers climbed in the following weeks.

Renee said her aunt, who did not have preexisting medical conditions and “very rarely got sick,” was not provided proper PPE. The nursing center did not respond to requests for comment.

The family said goodbye to Davis over a Zoom call. She died two days later – the first nursing home employee in San Antonio lost to COVID-19.

Davis died May 10.

Caitlynn McDaniel

Arthur Tayengco: Octogenarian OB-GYN was not ready to retire

Age: 81
Location: Las Vegas
Workplace: Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center
Occupation: OB/GYN

No matter how devoted he was to his patients, Dr. Arthur Tayengco always made a point to eat dinner with his children when they lived together, recalled his eldest daughter, Michele Tayengco.

As an obstetrician-gynecologist at his private practice, Dr. Tayengco worked well past retirement age and had close relationships with his patients, who viewed him as “kind, caring, compassionate,” Michele said. “They found him funny. He was charming.”

Tayengco was born in Iloilo City, Philippines, and came to the United States in the 1960s to continue his work in New York, according to the Asian Journal.

When he wasn’t seeing patients, Tayengco worked as a clinical professor with residents at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas School of Medicine. He “had a love of learning” and left an impact on many college students and patients, his daughter said.

Sunrise officials declined to comment.

“I’m confident he was not (infected) at the medical school campus,” said Paul Joncich, a UNLV spokesman.

After experiencing symptoms of fever and loss of taste in late March, Tayengco immediately self-isolated and tested positive for COVID-19. He was then hospitalized April 5 and died weeks later.

Michele suspects a patient could have unknowingly infected her father while he was working.

“You always hope your parents die in their sleep,” she said. “This was so not peaceful.”

Tayengco died April 22.

Hannah Foote

Emmanuel Gomez: He kept the machines – and his soccer players – running

Age: 49
Location: Los Angeles
Workplace: Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center
Occupation: Facility management electrician

Although she had worked with him for only a year, Laura Newman said Emmanuel Gomez was the best electrician she had ever known.

Their work maintaining the machines that keep patients alive is indispensable.

“He was outstanding as a human being who provided for his wife and three sons,” Newman said.

Born in El Salvador, Gomez had worked at the center since 2017, according to his obituary. He was a soccer fan and coach.

Jesse Alvarado, one of his former players, honored “Coach Manny” on his obit page as “such a wonderful, kind and caring man.”

Gomez’s family did not respond to requests for comment.

In April, four members of Teamsters Local 2010 contracted COVID-19, Newman said. Gomez is the only employee at the medical center known to have died from the disease, a UCLA Health spokesperson said.

After Gomez’s death, UCLA’s administrative vice-chancellor offered condolences to Gomez’s family in a statement. Michael Beck said he was “especially grateful” for the essential workers “who continue to report to campus to support hospital … and other critical campus operations.” Beck did not describe safety protocols in place to protect them.

The union has demanded better protection for its workers since Gomez’s death.

Gomez died April 24.

Haley Lorenzen

For more profiles and an interactive that allows you to explore key findings about the deaths of health care workers during COVID-19, visit the Guardian.

UPDATE: This story was updated April 5, 2021, to reflect all profiles penned by Cronkite News reporters and the Batten Medal award.

News Reporter, Phoenix