FRESNO, Calif. – In the Before (as their children call pre-coronavirus), Rene and Veronica Ramirez sometimes joked after a hectic day that they were "livin' the dream."
It was a dream hard-won.
Veronica, a pediatrician, was the daughter of a single mother from Orosi, a rural Tulare County community without access to clean drinking water. Rene, an emergency room physician, was from the other end of the agricultural valley and had driven long, fog-shrouded roads to classes at Fresno State, becoming the first in his family of farm and factory workers to graduate from college.
When the pandemic hit, their dream put them at the center of a global catastrophe. They lived in a large, multigenerational household, where the risk of COVID-19 transmission would be magnified. Veronica was pregnant with their fourth child, and Rene worked on the front lines in a hospital, where treating the sickest patients carried the risk of bringing the virus home.
Then in January, Rene and Veronica each received their second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, becoming part of what could finally be a turning point in the pandemic. Rene joked that he felt as if he had a new superpower, like out of one of his son's cartoons.
Then to his shock, he began to cry. "I'm sorry — I don't cry," he said, and wept more as Veronica laid her head on his chest and rubbed his arm.
As the vaccine brought a glimmer of hope, the yawning darkness of the past year cracked open. The Ramirezes, like many, are facing what they have lost and what mercies they were granted.
A year ago, Rene and his colleagues with the Fresno campus of UC San Francisco, saw hospitals in Italy overrun with COVID-19 patients. They knew it was only a matter of time until it reached California's fifth-largest city, which has some of the nation's most concentrated poverty and is surrounded by farm towns where people work closely in the fields, packing houses and processing plants.
Some of the doctors bought RVs or built guest houses to keep themselves separate from their families. Recently, a senior doctor in the department said he would get the vaccine because he loved his wife and had not kissed her in eight months to protect her.
The Ramirezes decided they would trust Rene's diligence to safeguard their household, which includes Veronica's mother, Olga, 64, the family storyteller who makes homemade tortillas and chicken soup, and Veronica's aunt, Lupe, 55, who paints scenes of her hometown of Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Both help care for the children.