JuanJose Martinez has come into a huge responsibility at age 19 — caring for four of his younger siblings, aged 7 to 15, after his 43-year-old mother died from coronavirus in August.
The Palmdale, CA teen cooks, cleans and helps his siblings with their online schooling, he said. But this isn't even the hardest part.
“It’s still hard on them, but I try to comfort them the best way I can,” Martinez said of his grieving siblings who he said need emotional support. “At times we’ll cry together.”
Martinez, along with his mother Brenda Martinez and his five siblings, all tested positive for coronavirus in early August, a shock to the family.
“She was just always careful. She would usually stay home and took extra precautions,” Martinez said about his mother, who was diabetic. “She would always wear a mask when she stepped out. She would always sanitize.”
Martinez said he took similar precautions and his five siblings largely stayed home for virtual schooling.
The siblings — one of whom is a two-year-old who now lives with a paternal father —were all mostly asymptomatic. But Juan and his mother weren’t as fortunate. They experienced many of the symptoms commonly associated with coronavirus such as cough, fever and chills while isolating at their Palmdale home, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles.
A few days into their isolation, Brenda's mild symptoms turned grave when she began having difficulty breathing. She was experiencing shortness of breath, Martinez said, and was rushed to Palmdale Regional Medical Center where she’d later become unresponsive and put on a ventilator. In the meantime, Juan continued battling his own sickness while also on full-time dad duty, caring for his five siblings suddenly without their mother.
Without their father able to help, bills piled up for the family and Brenda’s sister-in-law Crystal Acosta Torres set up an online fundraising campaign for the family’s basic expenses, NBC Los Angeles reported at the time.
"My nephew is grateful because this is a lot while he's making these decisions for his mom and taking care of his siblings while she continues to fight for her life," Acosta Torres told City News Service of the fundraising campaign, which racked up thousands in donations. "It's hard for the family, and we want to thank everyone for helping where they can."
But after a week-and-a-half-long stay at the hospital, Brenda would succumb to the virus that befell her household just two weeks earlier and leave behind six children, her eldest having watched over video conference as doctors performed CPR on her before her passing.
Martinez, who said he eventually developed pneumonia because of the virus, is now speaking out and urging others to take the coronavirus seriously. It’s one of the ways he hopes to keep his mother’s memory alive.
“It’s serious. It took our mother from us and I’d hate for something like this to happen to anyone else,” said Martinez.
Martinez added it upsets him to see people not heed coronavirus safety regulations like mask wearing and social distancing. He said this type of behavior is especially dangerous because people like his mother, who had an underlying health condition, are at greater risk for serious complications if they contract the virus.
“There’s times when I go out to the store and I’ve seen a couple people not wearing their mask,” he said.
In July, California became the state with the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, overtaking New York. Then, August would go on to become California’s deadliest month during the pandemic with a reported 3,745 deaths, an 18% increase from July, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.
In an Oct. 28 interview with NBC Los Angeles, Martinez reiterated his advice for people who still think the coronavirus is a hoax.
“I just hope people take their precautions,” he warned. “It’s no joke.”
As coronavirus cases surge across the country and infections are spreading at the fastest rate since the start of the pandemic, Martinez hopes that people learn from his family’s story.
As for the other way Martinez said he is keeping his mother’s memory alive: six necklaces with his mother’s ashes in them. One for each of Brenda's children, a token her eldest hopes his siblings, especially the younger ones, can remember her by.
“I plan to just move forward with them the best way I can, to provide the best way I can,” he said.
On Wednesday, Martinez set up an additional online fundraising campaign for his family after the previous one started by his mother’s sister-in-law in August raised over $75,000.
On the new fundraising campaign’s website, Martinez writes, “I promised her [mother] that I will keep my siblings together and take care of them.”