“I need help,” my father texted me from the hospital. Papá was not someone who liked asking for help. Victor Alejandro Zapana, Sr., was a war veteran and worked as a night-shift supervisor for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In mid-March, he started having flu-like symptoms—and then his fever spiked. He began to have trouble breathing. He was tested for COVID-19 at the Brooklyn Veterans Hospital, and, three days later, the results came back positive.
On March 19th, an ambulance brought him to Elmhurst Hospital Center, in Queens. (Less than a week later, thirteen patients there died in a single day; a refrigerated truck was parked outside to handle the bodies.) My father texted me. He was sixty-one. Until he caught the virus, he was healthy.
In the nineteen-eighties, Dad immigrated to the United States from Peru. To hasten the citizenship process, he enlisted in the Army Reserves. He eventually served in South Korea, Bosnia, Kuwait, and, for four tours, Iraq. At a club in Seoul, he met my mother, an aspiring accountant, and they moved to New York. I am their only child. Dad started at the M.T.A. as a token clerk, doing back-to-back shifts at the West Fourth Street station so that Mom could stay home and raise me. Later, he worked overtime as a supervisor cleaning subway stations.
After getting my father’s text, I took a car to Elmhurst to bring him a charger for his phone. Families were shut out of the hospital, to prevent further infection; we could communicate only via his cell phone. I persuaded a medical worker to bring the charger to him in the E.R. My father responded: I want some mango juice.
Dad refused to talk on the phone or try videoconferencing calls. It was too hard for him to speak. My mother, quarantined at home in Astoria, was recovering from relatively mild symptoms and living on the groceries that she and Dad had bought before either of them fell ill. Texting was our lifeline.
On March 20th, the medical team admitted Dad to a regular floor of the hospital. “I’m staying overnight looking for a room,” he texted.
“No room service?” I replied. “Lame.”
He LOL’ed. Later, he wrote, “I need some ceviche diablo.” Ceviche is his favorite dish; he always made it for my birthday.
The texts from Elmhurst were frequent, but increasingly strained and, sometimes, garbled:
“I just wanna get better and spend whatever I ha left with u guys not here.”
“I cann’t sleep.”
“I will wall out here.” (I will walk out of here.)
“Scared working as hard as a I can to get rid of this nightmare.”
On March 24th, he texted to say that he’d been given a diagnosis of pneumonia. Except for short calls asking for my father’s cell-phone number, the hospital staff had not communicated with us. The next day, Dad texted that he’d elected to participate in a randomized experimental trial for the drug sarilumab. “Anything goes wrong you and mom are in charge,” he wrote.
I finally reached a doctor. She told me that several attempts to help his breathing—with antibiotics, hydroxychloroquine, and water pills—had not worked. His oxygen levels were dropping, and it was getting to the point where he might need to be intubated and put on a ventilator. The doctors were moving him to a specialized floor for the more serious COVID-19 cases.
A text wasn’t the right way to give Dad this news. I called him. At first, all I could hear was him coughing and wheezing. I told him about his declining oxygen levels and the possibility of a ventilator. All I could say at the end was “I love you, we love you, I love you.” All he could muster was “I love you” back.
For the next thirty-two hours, Dad was silent. His lungs were a battlefield. He was too busy fighting to respond to my texts. I called the hospital repeatedly, but I got no updates. Once, I was put on hold for twenty-five minutes, and then was disconnected.
At 10:16 P.M. on March 26th, Dad wrote, “I’m to put to sleep. I love you and mom.” He continued, “I’m sorry I wasn’t the father. Will always love u remember that.”
Then the texts stopped. I called the hospital, asking for information. I called several times the next day. A nurse or a clerk working in Dad’s unit sounded testy: “They have thirty-five critical patients, and they just can’t talk to everyone. They will call if there is a change in your dad’s care. It is a significant change to put someone on ventilation. They would need to call the family.” I asked whether he was confirming that, since no doctor had called, Dad was not on a ventilator. He said, “I can’t confirm that.”
I called several more times. I got nothing until 3:26 A.M. on Sunday, March 29th. A doctor called and told me that Dad had passed away at 3:18. In a restrained yet exhausted voice, he explained that the doctors had “tried everything they possibly could.” He said that Dad had been put on a ventilator a few days before, and that we had been briefed on the risks of putting him on it. When I told him that no doctor had called, he said it was a “very difficult time” at the hospital. The doctors were doing their “absolute best.” By then, my heartbeat seemed louder than the doctor’s voice.
I scroll through the photos of my father on my phone. I need to arrange for a veteran’s funeral for him, but that may not happen for weeks, even months. I am hoping that, in Heaven, Dad has read my last text: “You were always there for me.” In this life, he never had the chance to open it. ♦
A Guide to the Coronavirus