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'I Remember Him With That Smile': Beloved Phoenix Doctor Dies Of COVID-19 At 99

Aug 11, 2020
Originally published on August 11, 2020 7:35 am

In June, Marcel Lopez and his cousins set up a Zoom video call to say goodbye to their grandfather. Retired physician, José Gabriel López-Plascencia — Dr. López for short — was near death at his home in Phoenix. He was unable to speak, but he let his grandchildren know he was listening.

"Every time we talked to him, he'd kick his leg and move his arms to let us know he was hearing us," Marcel says. As they sang his favorite song "Por Un Amor," he noticed over the video call that his grandfather started crying. "I would've loved to have been there holding his hand, just to see him one last time."

A few hours later, Dr. López died from complications due to the coronavirus. He had just turned 99. Dr. López is one of the more than 163,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States, a disease that has hit the country's Latino population especially hard.

His work in medicine helped generations.

"I remember him with that smile," says Blanca Fernández. She's in her quiet living room in Phoenix looking at a faded photo of a young Dr. López and his wife from their anniversary party. "They were always having fiestas and we were always there, singing and dancing," she says. "We were compadres."

Her photo is proof that Dr. López was a sharp dresser. He's wearing a black tuxedo with ruffles and a big bow tie. For Fernández, that outfit is actually a reminder of the time he saved her husband's life. On a hot Arizona day in 1974, her husband, Jesús Fernández, came home from his construction job with severe symptoms of heat stroke. Instead of dialing 911, Fernández called Dr. López.

"[Dr. López] was on his way to a doctors' banquet and he came to my house right away," Blanca Fernández says. "He came with his tuxedo on and he took care of my husband because my husband was dying. So we are very grateful to him — because he really saved my husband."

Dr. López arrived in the U.S. in 1947 after a Catholic priest in Arizona invited him to help provide health care for low-income families.
Courtesy of the López family

The older generation remembers Dr. López as one of the few Spanish-speaking doctors in all of South Phoenix. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1921, he arrived in the U.S. in 1947 after a Catholic priest in Phoenix invited him to help care for low-income families in Arizona. Dr. López practiced medicine and surgery for over 60 years — even enlisting in the Arizona Army National Guard as a medical officer. He served neighborhoods in South Phoenix that once faced decades of segregation and poverty.

"People knew where they could go for help, and that was Dr. López," says former patient Abe Arvizu Jr. He can still picture the crowded waiting room inside Dr. López's office. "It was wall-to-wall — no room — and people out in the hallway waiting. And they were mostly undocumented, or farm workers, or just the poor people from the surrounding areas."

"People didn't have to make appointments, they would just walk in and he would see them," says Olivia Rosales-Murrieta, 83, who was Dr. López's receptionist in the early 1960s. "He never asked me, 'How many more patients do I have to see?' I never — never — heard him complain."

Dr. López (left) enlisted in the Arizona Army National Guard as a medical officer. He retired in 1977 as a Lt. Col., and continued to practice medicine until he was 89.
Courtesy of the López family

Rosales-Murrieta was with Dr. López at the start, back when he saw patients out of his house in Tolleson — a small farming community west of Phoenix. "Most of his patients didn't have medical insurance," Rosales-Murrieta says. "They paid in cash." And if his patients didn't have enough money for an appointment, they would find other ways to pay.

"They would exchange," says Arvizu Jr. "For a lot of people in the barrios, that's how you survived. Whether you did lawns, whether you did cement work, brick work, or whether you had a bakery or made food — [The López's] always had food at their house."

In communities left out of the healthcare system, Dr. López was their trusted caregiver. He looked after multiple generations of family members and stayed with patients until his retirement at 89. He had a saying: "It's not how hold you are; it's how long you've been living."

His family is holding onto those words now, as they're confronted by the devastating tragedies of this pandemic. Shortly after Dr. López's death, his daughter Barbara Ann Sordia and her cousin Humberto "Junior" Trujillo also died from COVID-19.

Like many of his loved ones, 88-year-old Blanca Fernández (with her photo of Dr. López in his tuxedo) decided not to attend his funeral Mass due to rising coronavirus cases in Arizona. She's been home thinking about the last phone call she had with her old friend.

"Oh yes," she says. "Two weeks before he died." Dr. López called to check-in on her family, and to remind her that it was almost his 99th birthday. "We talked for the last time; I'm very sorry about his loss," she says with a pause. "And also, I'm glad. Because pretty soon, I'll be over there with him. I'll be there with Dr. López, singing and dancing."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's take a moment to remember Jose Gabriel Lopez-Plascencia - or Dr. Lopez for short. He was a retired physician who died of complications of coronavirus one week after his 99th birthday. His work in medicine helped generations.

JOANN GAMA RODRIGUEZ: Dr. Lopez, you will never be forgotten for your genuine kindness, love of everyone and peaceful demeanor. You were truly one in a million.

INSKEEP: JoAnn Gama Rodriguez (ph) was trained by Dr. Lopez as a surgical tech at Phoenix Memorial Hospital in Arizona. When we called her to talk about him, she felt so strongly that she wrote down these thoughts.

RODRIGUEZ: For me and all those assistants you trained and sent in the medical world, thank you, Dr. Lopez, from the bottom of our hearts. I'm sure that somehow, some way, you'll hear my message. And I'm sending you a million hugs to heaven.

INSKEEP: Dr. Lopez is one of well over 160,000 people who've died from COVID-19 in the United States. His grandkids had to say goodbye over a Zoom call. Marcel Lopez says his grandfather was unable to speak but let them know he was listening.

MARCEL LOPEZ: You could just hear that he was struggling to breathe. And, you know, he was tearing up. And my aunt just kept wiping his eyes. And every time we talked to him, he'd kick his leg and move his arms I guess just to let us know that he was hearing us.

INSKEEP: They sang Dr. Lopez his favorite song. And he started to cry.

LOPEZ: You know, I would have loved to have been there, you know, holding his hand and just to see him, you know, one last time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POR UN AMOR")

VINCENTE FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

INSKEEP: How many lives can you touch in 99 years on this earth? NPR's Danny Hajek called people who remember Dr. Lopez.

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: Blanca Fernandez is speaking to us from her living room in Phoenix, looking at a faded photo of Dr. Lopez, one of her oldest friends.

BLANCA FERNANDEZ: It's his wife and him. At his side is me.

HAJEK: It's from an anniversary party. And Dr. Lopez is a sharp dresser in a black tuxedo with ruffles and a big bow tie.

B FERNANDEZ: They always having fiestas. And we always were there, you know, singing and dancing. So we were compadres (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POR UN AMOR")

HAJEK: He was also her family's doctor. And that photo of him in his tuxedo reminds her of the time he saved her husband's life. Years ago, her husband worked construction. And he came home with severe symptoms of heatstroke. Instead of dialing 911, she called Dr. Lopez, who was on his way to a fancy doctors' banquet.

B FERNANDEZ: And he come to my home right away. He came with his tuxedo on and took care of my husband because my husband was dying. We are very grateful to him, yes, because he really saved my husband.

HAJEK: The older generation remembers Dr. Lopez as one of the few Spanish-speaking doctors in all of south Phoenix. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1921, he arrived in the U.S. after a Catholic priest in Arizona invited him to help care for low-income families there. And he spent over 60 years working in neighborhoods that once faced decades of segregation and poverty.

ABE ARVIZU JR: The people knew where they could go for help, and that was Dr. Lopez.

HAJEK: Abe Arvizu Jr. was one of his patients growing up. And he can still picture the crowded waiting room inside Dr. Lopez's office.

ARVIZU: I mean, it was wall-to-wall, no room and people out in the hallway waiting. And they were mostly undocumented, farm workers or just poor people from the surrounding areas.

HAJEK: Dr. Lopez provided affordable health care to families without insurance. And if those patients didn't have the money for an appointment, they'd find other ways to pay him.

ARVIZU: And so they would exchange. A lot of people in the barrios, that's the only way you survived whether you did lawns, whether you had a bakery or made food. I mean, they always had food at their house.

HAJEK: In communities left out of the health care system, Dr. Lopez was their trusted caregiver.

ELVIRA ORTEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

HILDA ORTEGA ROSALES: He is the doctor that served the poor.

HAJEK: This is Elvira Ortega (ph). Her daughter, Hilda Ortega Rosales (ph), is our interpreter. Elvira says her family saw Dr. Lopez for 35 years. He looked after three generations of family members including her husband, who lived with Alzheimer's for over a decade.

ORTEGA: (Non-English language spoken).

ORTEGA ROSALES: She says that she's very emotional because he was always so good to her.

ORTEGA: (Non-English language spoken).

ORTEGA ROSALES: She still is connected to him because there are still two medications that she takes today that were prescribed by him that is helping her to have a better quality of life.

HAJEK: Dr. Lopez retired when he was 89. He used to say, it's not how old you are, it's how long you've been living. And his family has been holding onto those words as they've been confronted by the devastating tragedies of this pandemic. Shortly after Dr. Lopez's death, his daughter, Barbara Ann Sordia, and her cousin, Humberto "Junior" Trujillo, also died from COVID-19.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

HAJEK: On the livestream of Dr. Lopez's funeral mass, there's an American flag draped over his casket.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: Let us begin in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

HAJEK: Everyone inside the church is wearing a mask. But the pandemic kept some loved ones away. Blanca Fernandez, with the photo from earlier, she's 88 and decided it was safer to stay home. And she's been thinking a lot about the last phone call she had with her old friend.

B FERNANDEZ: Oh, yes, two weeks before he died.

HAJEK: Dr. Lopez called to check in on her family and to remind her that it was almost his 99th birthday.

B FERNANDEZ: Yes. We talked for the last time. I'm very sorry about his loss. Yes. And I'm also glad because, pretty soon, I'll be over there with him (laughter). I'll be there with Dr. Lopez singing and dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABOR SZABO'S "UNTIL IT'S TIME FOR YOU TO GO")

HAJEK: Danny Hajek, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABOR SZABO'S "UNTIL IT'S TIME FOR YOU TO GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.