Isabelle Papadimitriou was one year away from retiring after having worked for nearly 30 years as a respiratory therapist when the coronavirus pandemic started killing people in her home state, Texas.
Her son, who lived with her, tried to get his mother to retire early, but she refused.
She said: “My co-workers need me. My hospital needs me. I’ll be OK,” her daughter, Fiana Tulip, recalled. “She said she was stronger than an ox, and we believed her, because we knew she was strong.”
Papadimitriou died at age 64 alone in a hospital bed on July 4 after having spent a week battling COVID-19.
“I don’t think she knew she was going to die, but I think she wanted to be able to say ‘bye’ just in case,” Tulip said.
Papadimitriou, who was of Mexican descent, was born in Brownsville, Texas, and had moved to Dallas for work. She was one of the many essential workers working during the pandemic.
She is among the more than 13,500 Texans who have been killed by the virus after Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott started reopening the state at the urging of President Donald Trump earlier this summer, when the numbers of new cases were still rising.
Abbott put a mask mandate in place just two days before Papadimitriou died.
“Just having a mask mandate at least a month earlier, I truly believe, could have saved my mom’s life, and it could have saved a lot of Texans’ lives,” Tulip said.
Texas has reported at least 641,791 coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic. About 40 percent of those infected are Latinos.
Latinos account for about 56 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Texas, even though they’re only 39.6 percent of the state’s population.
“With my mom’s death, I’ve got the challenge of her being a Latina. I’ve got the challenge of her being a front-line worker. I’ve got the challenge of her being a Texan,” Tulip said. “I want the leadership in Texas and the federal government to know that my mom’s life mattered and she did not deserve to die alone in a hospital.”
‘My mom’s life mattered’
During her last week, Papadimitriou spent hours on the phone talking to as many people as possible and sending packages to her daughter.
“My husband and I were always getting Amazon packages from my mom, and it would be the most random things,” Tulip said. From white towels and floss to hand sanitizer and pink shoes for her 1-year-old daughter, Lua, she always found herself needing the seemingly random stuff her mother would send to her while sick in bed, Tulip said.
Papadimitriou was a bank teller when she decided to become a respiratory therapist three decades ago “because she wanted to help people.” She went back to school to switch careers, all while Tulip and her brother were still young.
“She stuck with it for a very long time until she became very well regarded as a respiratory therapist,” Tulip said.
Papadimitriou’s seeming ability to anticipate other people’s needs didn’t go unnoticed by those who knew her.
Tulip has met an array of people who say her mother helped them through various hardships. Papadimitriou helped a woman go through a separation after meeting her at a car dealership. She printed out her personal workout regimen to share with co-workers who couldn’t afford trainers. She sent baby gifts to a new mother she had never met.
“Her patients adored her,” said Tulip, referring to notes she has gotten from patients who kept in touch with her mother.
“I got a message from a woman in Hawaii, because my mom worked in Hawaii for about a year or two,” Tulip said. The woman said she remembers her father “‘telling me about a woman who sat by his bedside and who kept him company and talked to him.’ I am pretty sure that was your mom.”
‘A COVID death is like no other’
It’s been two months since Papadimitriou’s death. The grief weighed so heavily on Tulip that she was unable to celebrate her 40th birthday in July and Lua’s first birthday in August.
Papadimitriou had said she had plans to visit her only granddaughter, whom she had long prayed for, in New York to celebrate her first birthday.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Tulip said. “She could have seen her grow up to be a teenager. She could have seen her go to prom. She could have seen her get married and go to college. … That is what gets me the most, that she can’t see Lua grow into a young woman.”
The grief has also pushed her to become more politically active.
“If I hadn’t have lost my mom to COVID, my experience might’ve been calmer. But because it’s COVID and because COVID has become political, my grief has just really turned into action and trying to get justice for my mom,” she said.
In an obituary published in The Dallas Morning News, Papadimitriou’s family said her “undeserving death is due to the carelessness of the politicians who continue to hedge their bets on the lives of healthcare workers through a lack of leadership.”
The Urquiza family in Arizona also wrote an obituary in the Arizona Republic calling out “the carelessness of the politicians who continue to jeopardize the health of brown bodies through a clear lack of leadership” after their father died of COVID-19 around the same time.
Kristin Urquiza was compelled to start a social media campaign called Marked By Covid to amplify the stories of families that have gone through the pain of losing loved ones to COVID-19. Tulip recently joined the campaign.
“As a result of my work with Marked By Covid, I’ve had a number of people reach out to me” who were also unable to say goodbye or unable to freely gather to mourn, Tulip said. “When you lose someone to COVID, it’s hard to relate with someone who has lost someone to something else.”
“A COVID death is like no other,” she said. Such deaths are particularly painful, she said, because they’re preventable — and sudden.