When Dr. Juan Fitz, an emergency medicine physician in Lubbock, Texas, caught the coronavirus, he viewed it like he did everything else: as an opportunity to help others.
Fitz, 67, “lived and breathed emergency medicine,” said Dr. Michael Chamales, the medical director of the Covenant Health Emergency Departments in Lubbock and a fellow ER physician who worked with Fitz for 15 years.
So it was not a surprise to those who knew him that Fitz planned on using his diagnosis to educate the public.
Hospitalized in early October with shortness of breath at Covenant Medical Center, where he worked for nearly 20 years, he texted a longtime friend, Christy Martinez-Garcia, to tell her he was sick. Martinez-Garcia is the publisher of a monthly news publication serving Lubbock’s Latino community for which Fitz wrote health columns, and when she asked him if he would be willing to share what Covid-19 symptoms felt like with her readers once he got out of the hospital, Fitz did not hesitate to say yes.
“We just said, once you get done, we’ll do an interview on our Facebook page,” Martinez-Garcia, 52, said. “That got him excited.”
Instead, Fitz’s condition worsened, and he was transferred to the intensive care unit, where he was later put on a ventilator, his daughter, Natassja “Tasha” Sloan, said. On Nov. 3, he died.
Fitz was a larger-than-life presence wherever he went, Sloan, 36, who also lives in Lubbock, said. He loved to dance, watch “Looney Tunes” and trash-talk anyone who rooted against the football team at his medical school alma mater, Texas Tech University.
But his true passion was emergency medicine, Sloan said. He chose to go into the field because he loved mysteries.
“He always said, ‘It’s something new every day,’” Sloan, an insurance billing specialist, said. “In the emergency department, you’re solving a case, and you have a short amount of time.”
Fitz was an active member of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians and the Lubbock County Medical Society. His dedication to his patients garnered him multiple awards, including in 2008, when he was recognized as a “Hero of Emergency Medicine” by the American College of Emergency Physicians.
“A really good friend of mine told me, ‘God needed a damn good doctor in heaven, and hand-picked your dad,’” Sloan said. “I’m like, ‘Could he have not picked someone else?’”
Fitz was born in El Paso, raised by parents who both spoke Spanish as their first language. Fluent in Spanish himself, he was particularly interested in helping Latino patients. For 15 years, he wrote for Martinez-Garcia’s bilingual publication, Latino Lubbock Magazine, educating readers about everything from the importance of flu shots to the dangers of leaving toddlers in hot cars.
“He utilized his language skills and his cultural background to make that connection,” Martinez-Garcia said, adding that she has been flooded with messages of condolences from her readers since Fitz died. “From the medical community, to the Latino community, to his family, to his patients, so many different groups are going to feel that void.”
Fitz’s family believes he caught the virus in late September from a dying Covid-19 patient whom he treated in his hospital. He is one of more than 1,700 front-line health care workers across the United States who has been killed by Covid-19.
His death stunned his emergency department colleagues.
“I think all of us are still a little shocked and a little in disbelief that we’re not going to see him come walk through the door again. It’s been a very sobering experience,” Chamales said. “This is the first time one of my colleagues has died of anything related to what we do in the emergency department.”
With his death, one final message
Fitz’s death comes as the coronavirus is raging across Texas. The state recently hit 1 million cases, the most in the nation.
Sloan described her father, who separated from her mother when she was a child, as a constant, reassuring presence— someone she could call or text at any hour and always receive a response. When she was growing up, her dad made sure to attend her basketball games and volleyball matches, even if it meant he had to switch shifts with another doctor.
“I’m going to miss his laughter, his orneriness, just his character,” she said. “He’d light up a room.”
In addition to Sloan, Fitz had two younger children with his girlfriend: a five-year-old son and a daughter who is just 15 months old.
Fitz’s family is holding a celebration of his life on Wednesday, and plans to bury the former Army service member with military honors at the Fort Bliss Military Cemetery in El Paso, Sloan said.
In a statement, Covenant Health CEO Richard Parks called Fitz a “powerful force both personally and professionally,” and described him as a “brilliant physician and with a passion for not only caring for patients, but for educating fellow and future health care workers.”
His friend Martinez-Garcia said that Fitz would have wanted to convey one final message after his death.
“Wear your mask,” she said. “Simple as that: Wear your mask.”