With bright red hair, Lynette Fajardo was a happy-go-lucky person, generous and always smiling, said Olivia Ortiz, her mother.
Fajardo worked as a secretary in the records division with the Albuquerque Police Department for many years. She wanted to be a police officer but could not because of illness, Ortiz said.
Fajardo died from COVID in January 2022. She was 45, and left behind two young daughters, whom Ortiz is now raising on her own. They were with Ortiz through the entire ordeal when Fajardo was hospitalized and died.
“She was the joy of my life,” Ortiz said of her only child.
Ortiz joined other COVID survivors on a warm day in February at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe to lobby for $2 million to help pay for a permanent COVID memorial to be built outside of Albuquerque.
The outcome of those efforts will be seen soon, said Janeth Nuñez del Prado, the New Mexico Marked by COVID Hub leader, who lost her father to COVID in May 2021.
She shared the progress of the memorial at the third annual vigil for people killed by COVID held on Monday night by Marked By COVID, a national network of survivors.
Sen. Harold Pope (D-Albuquerque) is carrying Senate Joint Memorial 1, which expresses support for the memorial. The bill has another nine co-sponsors in the Legislature, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supports the project, Nuñez del Prado said.
The proposal has yet to be heard in the Senate Rules Committee, its first stop in the legislative process since it was introduced on Jan. 19. Committee chair Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque) did not respond to a request for comment about when the legislation will get a hearing.
The memorial has formal recognition and support from the Village of Corrales, the Sandoval County Commission, the Albuquerque City Council, and the Bernalillo County Commission. Marked by COVID also has an acre of public trust land from State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard.
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Ortiz said most of the lawmakers she spoke with understand the issue, especially those with children.
“It’s been a very vulnerable day,” Ortiz said, standing in the afternoon sun outside the east entrance to the capitol in February. She said she cried several times.
Ortiz shared tears with Genevieve Larrañaga, a preschool teacher from Albuquerque’s North Valley, who lost her husband Edward a year ago.
“It’s still fresh in my head,” Larrañaga said. “I’m still numb, you know, just going through the motions.”
As she spoke with lawmakers, Larrañaga wore a pin on her shirt that read, “I love Edward.” He gave it to her 36 years earlier, when they both went to Valley High School.
Larrañaga and Ortiz met each other in person for the first time during their lobbying day in Santa Fe.
They shared the experience about being kept out of the rooms where their loved ones spent their last moments, and said they each lost important family heirloom rings in the hospitals where they died.
She’s not sure if it would have made a difference, but Larrañaga struggles with the thought that Edward would have fought harder if she and the rest of his family would have been there in the room.
What if he got Paxlovid? What if he wasn’t on immunosuppressant medication? What if the doctor had done this or that? Those are the questions Larrañaga still asks.
Edward left behind two sons. The older one struggles without his father, Larrañaga said, and worries about his younger brother who didn’t have the time to develop a bond with his dad.
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Ortiz said the memorial would be a great place for herself, her children, and other COVID survivors like them to “find some peace in your heart and be able to associate with other people that have lost their loved ones, too.”
“Maybe they could meet somebody,” Ortiz said, “It would just be good for all of us to be together and be able to talk about this in a certain place.”
For every person who has died of COVID, there are, on average, nine bereaved family members left behind. A study published last year found that New Mexico had the third highest rate of caregiver loss to COVID in the entire country, and that Native American children in the state lost caregivers to COVID at a rate 10 times higher than white children.
Fajardo’s older daughter is now doing homeschool, Ortiz said, and the younger daughter is having a very difficult time, “because she was very close to her mother.”
“She is not doing well at school,” Ortiz said. “They’re not comfortable with counseling at this point, so I’m just trying to do the best that I can do with the resources that I have.”
Ortiz said they are “the only thing that gives me hope.” She said she wants to make sure her granddaughters grow up OK, and “have a place to memorialize their mother because they loved her very much.”
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“That’s what’s given me the energy and the stamina to keep continuing to do this to come when I can,” Ortiz said. “The only thing that is taking me through this is the grace of God, because that’s all I have to count on.”
Ortiz said she never imagined she would come to the Roundhouse for anything related to COVID. Larrañaga said she thinks her husband would be proud but shocked that she went there to talk about him.
“I’m trying to support him the way I can, even though he’s gone,” Larrañaga said.
Ortiz said doing the advocacy is helping her process the grief, which she said has affected her memory. She believes Fajardo would be proud of her for it.
“It’s not just about me, it’s about everybody else that has lost someone to COVID,” Ortiz said.