“Whoever missed the opportunity to know him, well, they missed something special,” Elmer Evangelista said of Ernesto Santos.
Santos was one of many brave nurses on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19. Unfortunately, he was also one of 1.92 million who have lost their lives during this pandemic. He was 47 years old.
Intelligent, kind, family oriented and hardworking are just a few words family members and friends would use to describe Santos.
“He was a nice guy who was dedicated to his kids, making sure that they never missed out on anything, and so giving, and everybody loves him,” said Evangelista, Santos’ best friend.
Santos was from the Philippines, coming from a family of doctors. Although he was a doctor in the Philippines, in the United States, he instead became a nurse.
He raised three kids, his son Ernest and two daughters named Lizzie and Andrea Santos.
Santos enjoyed watching Miss Universe pageants, even taking his family to Las Vegas to see it one year. He was a fan of UFO podcasts. But most importantly, Santos was a family man, always looking out for others in his family.
“That was his purpose, taking care of not just his kids, but also our elderly extended family. He always had them over and always hosted little get-togethers to make sure that they were not lonely,” Lizzie said.
As a registered nurse, Santos spent his life taking care of others at the San Dimas Community Hospital. In March 2020, Santos was hired to work at a government facility treating COVID-19 patients, taking the job to support his family financially.
Initially, Santos worked in the emergency room at San Dimas Community Hospital but then took a job at a Pomona COVID-19 facility, believing it was safer. The facility did not have many COVID-19 patients until one of the surges began. Evangelista advised Santos to reconsider working at the facility, but Santos did not.
“[Santos] had underlying conditions like diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, but he still took the job. It paid him a lot more than what he was usually being paid, and he wanted to do it for us,” Andrea said.
In late May 2020, Santos began feeling ill, eventually driving himself to Kaiser Baldwin Park, where he underwent a rapid coronavirus test, which yielded a positive result.
Before being diagnosed with COVID-19, Santos believed he was sick with a UTI and needed antibiotics.
Carol Caspe, a former co-worker of Santos at San Dimas Community Hospital, checked on Santos to see if he needed antibiotics. Once Santos mentioned he had a fever and trouble breathing, she immediately believed he had contracted the coronavirus.
“I told him, ‘I have no problem giving you a more potent antibiotic. But before I do that, I would like to check your urine,’” Caspe said. “So the night before, I made food for him and the kids because I knew he was sick. He told me that day he was still working. And I asked him, are you still working at San Dimas Community Hospital? And he said, ‘I’m no longer working there. I’m working in Pomona Fairplex, taking care of coronavirus patients.’ And that’s when I got scared.”
Caspe checked his oxygen level, which was fluctuating from 89 to 93, so she then told him to go to the ER.
“The last conversation we had when we parted, I was telling him, ‘You owe me something. When you get better, we’re going to eat outside. We’re going to have lunch,’” Caspe said. “He kept saying, ‘It is going to be on me.’ I said, ‘If the bill is on you, I will choose the most expensive restaurant.’ I wasn’t thinking that was going to be the last time I’m seeing him.”
On his way to Kaiser Baldwin Park, Santos called his best friend, Evangelista.
“I didn’t want to show him that I was alarmed because I didn’t want to scare him,” Evangelista said.
Evangelista kept ensuring Santos that everything would be OK. Still, Evangelista understood the positive diagnosis was not a good thing due to Santos’ medical history.
“He called me again, a few hours later, he was already in the bed. I would be telling him, ‘No, calm down, you’ll be OK.’ But I was concerned,” Evangelista said. “One thing about him: he doesn’t want to show he’s worried. He tried to maintain a straight face with something serious. But I can tell in his voice that he was a little bit worried.”
Evangelista continued to message Santos through text. Although Santos was not responding, Evangelista believed that he was reading his text messages.
“My girlfriend and I were sending him messages telling him it would be OK and saying ‘once you’re out of there, we are going to be doing this and that.’ Just trying to motivate him,” Evangelista said.
During the first days of being diagnosed, Santos seemed to be doing fine, but it became difficult for him to breathe as the days passed.
“We were Facetiming him the second day, and we could tell he was just absolutely exhausted. He would fall asleep every five seconds, and it was really hard to watch. That was the last time we talked to him,” Andrea said.
Santos’ condition gradually became worse, with his oxygen levels beginning to decline because of swelling in his lungs.
The physicians then sedated and intubated him using a method called proning, a technique that lays the patient in a face-down position to allow more oxygen into the lungs.
Although Santos was recovering throughout the first week, his body eventually could not continue to keep it up.
“Talking to the doctor about it, and they told me that he was showing good progress after a week, and they’ve never seen someone who got so sick recovering so well,” Lizzie said. “We had hope. We thought he was going to get out of the hospital after hearing that, but then the next day things suddenly went bad.”
Both Santos’ heart and liver started to decline during the last two days.
“We had just visited him two hours before because they called us in, told us he was in bad condition,” Andrea said. “So we went to visit him, then we went home. And two hours later, we got the call. It was one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever experienced.”
At 3 a.m. on June 8, 2020, Ernesto Santos passed away. Ernest, Lizzie and Andrea lost their only parent due to the coronavirus. Lizzie and Andrea believe their father’s death could have been prevented.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus itself has become more and more political. Some agree that masks and social distancing help lower the virus’s spread while others disagree.
“Wear a mask, that’s nothing. Social distance — how bad do you need to party with your friends? Have self-control. The culture in America is so individualistic. People don’t have concern for others,” Andrea said.
There’s a lack of education and lack of leadership, Lizzie explained.
“We didn’t have the best leadership throughout this pandemic,” Lizzie said. “So I think that’s why a lot of people are just going with what they believe and denying the science and facts.”
Santos’ children barely saw him when he began working in the COVID-19 facility because he was continually trying to distance himself from his children for their safety.
“We feel a little bit sometimes disrespected because my dad was a front-liner. He risked his life for people to not care about proper protocols. They don’t think about loads of the hospitals and how front-liners aren’t being able to go home to see their families,” Lizzie said.
As the oldest daughter, Lizzie now needs to figure out ways to support her siblings throughout these troubling times. She recently graduated from the University of the Pacific in dentistry. She never imagined she would be graduating and trying to find a job during a pandemic to support her family after her father’s death.
“Now it’s like I have to find a good job and support my siblings. It’s just a big change and lots of responsibility. I didn’t see it coming. I feel like I took all that support for granted,” Lizzie said.
Andrea, the youngest, is currently attending Mt. San Antonio College, planning to transfer and major in graphic design due to her natural creativity.
During a San Dimas City Council meeting, Andrea spoke to the council about her COVID-19 experience anonymously. Samar Yassine, a counselor at Lone Hill Middle School, listened to the council meeting when Andrea spoke.
Yassine then searched to find who spoke about their COVID-19 experience. Once she found out it was Andrea, she organized a GoFundMe for the Santos family.
“I have a huge passion for the community and giving back to our community. Not only do I work in San Dimas, I live in San Dimas. My kids also go to school in San Dimas. I’m all about community counseling and giving back to the community,” Yassine said.
Once Yassine heard that one of her students from Lone Hill Middle School lost a loved one, she was heartbroken and felt like she needed to do something.
“We’re all civil servants, whether you’re an educator, a police officer or a health worker. We’re all civil servants. And we make so many sacrifices, and our families do too, for us to have the opportunity to give back to others,” Yassine said. “And I feel like this could have been my family, many of our families, and I was heartbroken for them. And I feel like setting up this GoFundMe was the bare minimum I could do.”
Ernest, Lizzie and Andrea plan to stay in San Dimas for as long as possible because the city is their home. They hope their story can be a reality check on how this virus can affect many families beside your own.
“People need to see outside themselves,” Lizzie said. “When they get sick, the front-line workers in the hospital and their families have to sacrifice themselves to take care of the people who could have prevented getting sick. Just think about everyone else.”
As of Jan. 22, San Dimas has had 2,633 cases and 53 deaths.
To donate to the Santos family, you can visit their GoFundMe page: www.gofundme.com/support-andrea-lizzie-and-ernest.
If you and your family have been significantly impacted by COVID-19 and would like to share your story, please contact us at [email protected]