CORONA, Calif. — Antonio Espinoza loved the Los Angeles Dodgers. He loved them so much that he was laid to rest in his favorite Dodgers jersey. His family and friends, including his 3-year-old son, donned a sea of blue-and-white baseball shirts and caps in his honor.
Espinoza died at age 36 of COVID-19, just days after he got his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. He was a hospice nurse who put his life in danger to help COVID-19 patients and others have a peaceful death.
When COVID-19 hit, it was no surprise to his family that this “gentle giant,” as friends and family called him, stepped up to the plate.
“His attitude was like, ‘No, I’m not going to be scared,’” said Nancy Espinoza, his wife of 10 years. “This is our time to shine,” he told her. “'I became a nurse for a reason.'"
As a hospice nurse and chief nursing officer for Calstro Hospice in Montclair, California, Espinoza routinely made house calls, visited assisted living facilities and performed death visits — during which hospice nurses pronounce patients dead.
Hospice workers aren’t just doctors and nurses, but also include home health aides, social workers, chaplains and counselors. In the past year, they have frequented some of the highest-risk environments, such as nursing homes, assisted living facilities and patients’ homes.
Hospice requires intimate patient care, and the additional safety requirements and need for personal protective equipment made it challenging, said Alicia Murray, board president of the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association. But hospice workers adapted, she said, knowing they might be the only people who could comfort dying patients when family members were not allowed to visit medical and long-term care facilities.
“They’re taking care of dying people and, in particular, people dying of COVID who may be spewing out the virus,” said Dr. Karl Steinberg, a geriatrician and palliative care specialist who is the medical director of Hospice by the Sea in Solana Beach, California, and several nursing homes.
A few months into the pandemic, when Calstro Hospice began caring for COVID-19 patients, Espinoza helped develop a COVID-19 unit. Part of his job was to make sure staff members had sufficient personal protective gear, including himself.
“Some people had a hard time getting a hold of all the PPE gear, but his office had adequate equipment,” his wife said. Right before he got sick, he was excited to receive a big shipment of gowns, N95 masks, booties and face shields from San Bernardino County, she said.