South Bay activists spent lifetime fighting for worker rights. Then they got COVID-19.
From left, Rebeca Armendariz and her mother, Augustina "Sally" Armendariz, pose for a portrait outside their Gilroy home. They both recovered from COVID-19. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Alone in her hospital room at night, Augustina “Sally” Armendariz kept the light on to counter the loneliness and fear she felt at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center, where she spent four days battling COVID-19 last month.

The 77-year-old lifelong Santa Clara County resident and 60-year community activist is a fighter by nature, but she said she had never experienced anything close to the exhaustion and uncertainty of the novel coronavirus, which had claimed 129 lives in the county and 2,745 across California as of this weekend.

“When you’re there for days, you wonder,” Sally said. “It’s the anticipation of, ‘What’s really going to happen to me?’ It’s a weird feeling, you don’t know if you’re gonna make it out of there.”

After three days of waiting, she was approved for a COVID-19 test on April 7 after experiencing mild symptoms, including a fever and difficulty breathing. She was hospitalized 11 days later after her oxygen levels dropped, she developed viral pneumonia and was unable to eat or drink, eventually shedding around 20 pounds within two weeks.

“They told me that I was positive, and it only got worse,” she said. “You can’t eat nothing — not even a teaspoon of water, because the water tastes like salt. You can’t talk, you can’t walk, you can’t do anything. It’s just horrible.”

Augustina “Sally” Armendariz stands in the doorway of her Gilroy home Thursday afternoon, with her hospital bracelet still on her wrist. The 77-year-old activist is now recovering at home after battling COVID-19. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Sheltering at home since Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody’s first mandate, Sally doesn’t know exactly how she contracted the illness. It could have come from a bank ATM, the grocery store or from her daughter, Rebeca Armendariz, who had delivered food, diapers and other resources around the community each Friday prior to her mother’s diagnosis.

“It just comes along with the territory, and I think my mom would agree,” Rebeca said. “In her activism throughout her life she’s been threatened before, but we really did feel like we were going to lose her (to COVID-19), and that was scary.”

But Rebeca was diagnosed with the virus, too.

Rebeca said her mom’s positive status brought more guilt, fear and panic than her own positive test result. Working as a union representative for the County Employees Management Association, which represents more than 2,300 public servants from janitor supervisors to nurses, she was able to take time off and paid family leave, but the pressure of being a caretaker for herself and her entire family took its toll.

She had a less-severe sickness but still battled chills, fatigue and gastrointestinal tract issues, as well as physical manifestations of stress and anxiety days after re-testing negative for the virus. Now with both on the mend, Rebeca, 45, is thankful for Kaiser in San Jose, especially hearing stories of denials for testing at the county-owned St. Louise Hospital just north of their home.

“If anybody knows my mom, she’s a firebrand. This virus is a beast, the way that it took her out,” she said. “We all got together as caregivers; we didn’t sleep so we could watch her breathe. But even more than that, the community really enveloped us in love and support. I can’t say it enough, but I think that’s what really saved our lives.”

Esperanza Cid was one of hundreds of family, friends and Gilroy residents who worked to keep the Armendariz family well. An organizer of the GoFundMe that has raised more than $5,000 so far, the Gilroy Unified School District employee said it was a way to give back to the family that has helped vulnerable populations regionally for generations, especially those experiencing homelessness and immigrants, including Cid’s parents decades ago.

“It happened to someone that was really going to be the pillar and a leader in our community for the most vulnerable,” Cid said. “Rebeca was the person that was going to be able to (be a bridge to) people who didn’t have resources, so her being down in the most critical time in our community – the sentiment was, ‘You did this for so many people at a magnitude that you’ll never realize, so we’ll be there for you.’”

The Armendariz family received gifts of citrus fruits, flowers, teas, toilet paper, sanitizer, phone calls, prayers and nopales – a favorite traditional Mexican cactus dish Sally dreamt of when heading home from the hospital. The financial, medical and emotional support lifted concerns of paying rent, buying groceries and covering copays for the list of treatments, Rebeca said.

Rebeca Armendariz poses for a portrait outside her Gilroy home Thursday afternoon. She recovered from COVID-19 while taking care of her mother who also had the novel coronavirus. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Sally no longer needs the oxygen and walker. Motivated to see her family again, especially her 3-month-old great grandchild, she’s heeded all medical advice – including taking the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine, which she said helped – and surpasses twice the recommended work in physical therapy, just because she loves a challenge.

“You have to have a little faith, first of all in our creator and then in the medical staff that’s taking care of you,” Sally said. “They’re doing the best they can and you know they have families too, but they’re risking their life to help your life. They’re all angels sent from God, they are so good.”

Now home, she still feels tightness and pressure in her chest, but she’s talking, walking and cracking jokes again. Even so, a team of pharmacists, doctors and respiratory therapists call twice a day checking in and giving advice for care, while her phone is inundated with personal calls and messages.

“I think about it and I want to cry,” she said. “There’s nothing they haven’t brought us. If I live to be a million years, I’ll never ever be able to thank all these people for the love they showed.”

Before she’s out of the woods from this case of COVID-19, concerns of possibly getting it again haven’t stopped her from getting ready to get back to work. As part of the nonprofit Community Agency for Resources, Advocacy and Services in Gilroy, Sally’s already been working from home with her computer and keyboard set up to the TV, as the community copes with increased issues within schools, families, law enforcement and unemployment.

“Let me tell you, I’m ready to go back to the office, but my family and doctor won’t let me,” she said. “People come in and send messages that they need help, and we have to give them the help. Landlords are trying to evict people, people can’t pay the rent, and we need to be getting attorneys down here to help them.”

There’s also a lot of community health education to do, they both agreed, especially as Latino men have recorded disproportionally high death rates in the county, and concerns continue for farm workers who often lack unemployment benefits. Many who had health benefits before the pandemic lost that coverage if they lost their jobs.

“This is a stark reminder to union members that we always fight to maintain and improve the benefits that we do have,” Rebeca said. “But on the flip side, I’d love to be in a country and world where our ability to live and survive and thrive isn’t tied to a job, isn’t tied to a system that is based on somebody’s arbitrary evaluation of the merits of your work.”

But even as these medical, financial and survival concerns are hitting nearly every sector of every community, neither of the Armendariz women think the pandemic will bring necessary changes to the political lens of health care. That’s why they’re gearing up to get back to work and help – as soon as they physically can.

“You just keep organizing and hope that our story, our suffering, our work will lead people to that road of understanding,” Rebeca said. “We faced death with this virus. We fought it off, together and with our community. We’re ready to help others do the same.”

Follow along with San José Spotlight’s real-time coronavirus coverage on our LIVE BLOG here.

Contact Katie Lauer at katie@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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