LAS CRUCES – Ofelia Estrada always helped.
“She was a typical Hispanic grandmother,” said Julie Estrada, Ofelia’s daughter-in-law. “If there was someone in the family who needed a place to stay, she would always offer her her home. She was a very family woman. She took in her whole family at any time. “
Ofelia, who lived in Carlsbad, was particularly fond of helping her grandchildren, including Joe Estrada, who lives in Las Cruces with mother Julie and father Steve.
Grandmother Estrada, known as “Chela”, helped Joe buy his first car and always insisted on buying football boots and sports equipment for the 17-year-old junior from Organ Mountain High School. Whenever Steve visited Chela, she would send him back to Las Cruces with a dozen homemade tortillas with strict instructions not to eat them. They were for Joe.
As a child, Joe and his two older brothers spent the summers with Chela and grandfather Leopoldo Estrada in Karlsbad. Joe loved every second of it.
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Leopoldo and Chela were great supporters of all of the brothers, including Joe’s athletic endeavors. They eagerly attended all of his sporting events, from t-ball to freshman soccer.
Joe will be wearing the newest pair of shoes his grandma bought late this month when Organ Mountain visits Carlsbad on October 22nd. But Chela won’t be in the stands. Neither did Leopoldo.
Chela, 81, died of COVID-19 two days before Christmas 2020. Leopoldo, 82, died a week later.
“Every game, just to know that she won’t be there, that she can’t see my college games, makes me a little sad,” said Joe, who plays for the Knights running back.
Although the Estradas rarely share their story, they hope she’ll encourage others to get vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“If COVID takes me, COVID takes me”
When the coronavirus pandemic began in early March 2020, Steve warned his parents not to beware of the virus. Chela battled lung cancer earlier in her life and Leopoldo showed the first signs of dementia.
“When the pandemic started, I said to her, ‘Mom, be careful not to get this (virus). It’s not something you want to get, ”Steve said.
For the most part, Chela and Leopoldo were cautious. They rarely left their home and a granddaughter delivered groceries to their doorsteps. But other family members still came.
Chela did not want family members to wear masks when they visited the house. She told Steve in March, “If COVID takes me, COVID takes me.”
“She said she lived her life,” said Steve. “She didn’t mean to make us wear masks and what did you get, but we were all still careful.”
Steve and Julie kept their fingers crossed as COVID-19 cases increased in Carlsbad. Eddy County reported 73 positive tests on a Tuesday in November alone, and Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway called New Mexico’s 2,112 new positive cases that day “extremely worrying” in a November 18, 2020 press release.
Ofelia tested positive less than a week after Thanksgiving. Leopoldo tested positive days later.
“She wouldn’t come off (the ventilator)”
Chela and Leopoldo’s condition worsened over the next two weeks.
Chela was first admitted to the Carlsbad Medical Center. Steve’s sister tried to care for Leopoldo at home, but it turned out that he needed more medical help as his condition progressively worsened. She called an ambulance to have Leopoldo taken to the same hospital days after checking in from Chela.
They were separate rooms and shared the same hallway. But they couldn’t see each other.
Chela was placed on a ventilator on December 20. Her condition improved briefly, but not enough to be visited. The family could only phone the hospital.
“They did scans, they did (tests) to see if she had blood, they did some different tests. (The family) realized that they (the ventilator) would not come off, ”said Julie.
“So the family made the decision to take her off the ventilator.”
After the family made the decision to take Ofelia off the ventilator, the hospital allowed her immediate family to only visit two at a time. Joe and Julie were not allowed to visit her.
“It wasn’t a typical year you knew your grandparents were sick and you could pay that last visit,” said Julie.
Ofelia died on December 23.
“Chela was definitely his life”
Joe tried his best to continue with normal Christmas activities and encouraged his family to open presents, but it didn’t feel the same. He knew that he would not receive his Christmas call from Ofelia and that there would be no card in the mail to open.
The family also had Leopoldo on their minds, who had recovered enough to be transferred to a rehabilitation facility in El Paso. Steve and his brother went in for a window visit on Christmas Day, but he could see the impact dementia was having on him.
“He recognized us, but you could see him come and go,” said Steve. “That was finally the day when I said to my brother, ‘We have to prepare because Dad won’t hold out.'”
The family never told Leopoldo that Chela had died.
But Leopoldo began to lose weight within days of Ofelia’s death. He lost interest in running and sports. Nothing seemed to upset him.
“Chela was definitely his life,” said Julie. “Without her to somehow lead him to where he was, he was a little lost. … I think deep down he knew she had died, but he was never really healthy enough to understand that she had it. “
He died on December 30th. He was buried next to Chela on January 5th in the Santa Catarina Cemetery in Carlsbad.
“For Joe’s football donation”
Football quickly became a way to help the family move forward. Watching Joe play in the shortened five-game Las Cruces high school football season radiates light and happiness in an otherwise dark moment, Julie said. It gave the family something to look forward to at the end of a week. Julie said that Joe, who plays soccer, helped her and Steve keep going as much as it helped Joe keep going.
“The thought was always there, ‘Yes, they would have come to watch it (if not COVID-19) but you have to keep going,” Steve said.
However, more than six months after her death, Chela still found a way to help her grandson as the football season began.
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Steve’s sister stumbled upon an envelope that said “To Joe’s Football Donation” with $ 70 in it a few weeks ago. Steve didn’t hesitate to tell Joe to buy a new pair of studs. He knew Ofelia would have told him to.
Joe bought his new boots two weeks ago and wore them in Organ Mountain’s 52-14 loss to Centennial on October 1. He’s sure they’ll give him an extra boost, knowing that they are the last piece of football gear Chela bought for him. But he’s also reminded that she can’t watch any of his college games, even though he knows she’d be proud of him.
“How real is it actually”
Joe, Julie and Steve are all fully vaccinated. They wear masks around the house and the family washes their hands regularly. Steve, a Walgreens store manager who administered COVID-19 vaccines, told the story to customers in the store.
“I had a guy who was macho-san, ‘my wife lets me get this,'” said Steve. I appreciate you coming over and doing this because I hate to share this, but I lost both of my parents. ‘ Six weeks later he came back to get his booster vaccination and said, ‘I’m still thinking about you.’ “
More than 700,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and 24% of the country is still unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The New Mexico Department of Health reports that 24.7% of residents of Doña Ana County have not received the vaccine and more than 40% of Eddy County residents have not received the vaccine.
Joe said it was a long way to go to change the minds of some of his friends to get vaccinated, but he hasn’t given up yet. When he brings unvaccinated friends home, Steve smiles as he reminds them that he can give them the vaccine whenever they want. The family realizes that the pandemic is far from over and hope that their story will show others how devastating the virus can be.
“Hopefully people can just see how COVID has affected some people,” said Joe.
“And how real it actually is.”
Stephen Wagner is a sports reporter for Las Cruces Sun-News. He can be found on Twitter at @ stephenwag22 and can be reached at [email protected]