This Utah respiratory therapist died of COVID-19 in the hospital where he helped save newborns for decades

The colleagues of Rufino Rodriguez, 65, showed him love in his last moments.

(Photo courtesy of the Rodriguez family) Mariano Rufino Rodriguez, who worked as a respiratory therapist at Utah Valley Hospital's newborn intensive care unit for decades, died at that hospital Saturday, Jan. 23, 2020, from complications of COVID-19. He was 65.

Rufino Rodriguez worked 37 years saving lives as a respiratory therapist at Provo’s Utah Valley Hospital, where he “was the one who would fight for all the babies” in the newborn intensive care unit, his son said.

On Saturday, as the colleagues who worked to keep him alive paid tribute to him, Rodriguez died at Utah Valley Hospital from complications of COVID-19. He was 65.

Rodriguez joins a growing list of Utahns who have died from COVID-19. As of Monday, the Utah Department of Health reported that the state’s death toll from the pandemic had reached 1,597, with the addition of two people — both Utah County residents, a man between 65 and 84 years old, and a woman between 45 and 64. Because of privacy rules, and delays in UDOH’s reporting, it is not known whether Rodriguez’s death is yet part of the state’s count.

According to the COVID-19 Forecast Hub, which aggregates predictive models of pandemic trends, Utah could see another 300 deaths — a total of 1,900 — from COVID-19 in the next four weeks. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that Utah’s death toll could rise to 2,391 deaths by May 1, though that projection could be reduced by dozens of deaths if the vaccine rollout speeds up or 95% of the state’s population consistently wears masks when in public.

Rufino Rodriguez’s son, Rufino Stephan Rodriguez, said Monday that his dad came from a big family — he was one of nine siblings — and at the hospital, “he worked in the trenches with all of his coworkers for so long, they think of him as family, too.”

(Photo courtesy of the Rodriguez family) Rufino Rodriguez, who worked as a respiratory therapist and member of the LifeFlight team at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, died at that hospital, Jan. 23, 2020, of complications from COVID-19. He was 65.

Last June, when Rodriguez turned 65, he talked to his son about retirement — but said he couldn’t abandon his coworkers in the middle of a pandemic. “I can’t leave them when they need me,” his son recalled him saying.

Mariano Rufino Rodriguez was born in Guatemala on June 22, 1955. He graduated from medical school in Guatemala, before emigrating to the United States in the 1980s — the family can’t recall exactly when — to seek political asylum.

Regulators in the United States wouldn’t accept Rodriguez’s Guatemalan medical degree, his son said. So he trained under Dr. Stephen Minton, the founder of Utah Valley Hospital’s newborn ICU, to become a respiratory therapist.

“The NICU can be a stressful place. We have extremely premature babies, and basically all sick babies go to a newborn intensive care unit,” Minton said Monday. “Rufino was one of those people who bring a light into a room. He had a great sense of humor. He was very knowledgeable, and he would help anybody.”

In particular, Minton said, Rodriguez “could identify with parents quite well, and develop relationships with them — especially our Spanish-speaking parents. He would become a real close friend to the parents, and that helped them through the stress.”

Soon after joining Utah Valley, Rodriguez signed on to the NICU’s transport team, flying by helicopter to bring severely ill patients to the hospital, Minton said.

(Photo courtesy of the Rodriguez family) Rufino Rodriguez, front row, second from left, and members of the LifeFlight team at Provo's Utah Valley Hospital. Rodriguez, a member of that team and a respiratory therapist, died at Utah Valley Hospital, Jan. 23, 2020, of complications from COVID-19. He was 65.

In January 1990, Rodriguez married Dana Abbey, a Brigham Young University student he met through a mutual friend. They had one child, Rufino Stephan Rodriguez (whose middle name, though spelled differently, was given in homage to Dr. Minton). The couple divorced in 1998.

At Utah Valley, the pandemic “has been a major stress on the NICU,” Minton said. For months, doctors weren’t sure whether mothers could spread the virus to their babies, either before or after birth, he said. Sometimes, when a mother had tested positive for COVID-19, she was not able to visit her infant in the NICU.

On Dec. 17, 2020, Rodriguez happily reported to his son that he received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

But Rodriguez tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 21, four days later. On Christmas Day, he was admitted to the Utah Valley Hospital emergency room. On Dec. 26, he was put on a respirator.

“When someone you love is on the ventilator and you’re responsible for their care, every day becomes numbers,” the younger Rodriguez said. “You ask about his glucose levels, you ask about his heart rate, his breathing rate, his ventilator settings. You ask about his blood gases. … Your whole life is about the updates, and tracking the numbers.”

On Dec. 29, while Rodriguez was in the hospital, his father and housemate, Felicito Rufino Rodriguez, died at age 94. The younger Rodriguez said they don’t know for sure whether his grandfather died from COVID-19.

The younger Rodriguez and his wife, Catelyn, were monitoring his father’s situation remotely, from Minnesota. The nurses told the younger Rodriguez there was no point in coming to Utah yet, because they would not be allowed into the hospital to visit him.

“The nurse said, ‘The only time we’re going to tell you to come visit, there’s two reasons: One is to help us get him into transitional care, because he made it, and the other one is to come to say goodbye,’” Rodriguez’s son said.

On Wednesday, Jan. 20, Rodriguez’s son got that call. He and Catelyn flew in from Minnesota, and he was at his father’s bedside the next day.

On Saturday night, Minton said, about 280 of Rodriguez’s colleagues gathered outside Utah Valley Hospital to pay tribute to their friend. Many of them held laryngoscopes, the lighted tools used to intubate babies, and shined them toward Rodriguez’s room — “because he always brought light into the room whenever he was there,” Minton said. (A cousin posted video of the moment on Twitter.)

At 6:45 p.m., a LifeFlight helicopter on its way to a call hovered briefly outside Rodriguez’s hospital room. On its return, at 8:30 p.m., the pilot shined the helicopter’s spotlight into Rodriguez’s room. At that moment, his son said, Rodriguez’s heart beat for the last time.

“I said, ‘One last flight for you, Dad,’” Rodriguez’s son said, tearfully.

Rodriguez is survived by his son, Rufino Stephan, and daughter-in-law, Catelyn; three sisters, Rosa, Mercedes and Amelia; and three brothers, Victor, Billy (who lived with Rufino and their father in Provo) and Carlos. Another brother, Freddy, died previously.

A memorial service is being planned for Saturday, Jan. 30, at a chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Provo; time to be announced. Only family members are invited in person; others can watch via a Zoom livestream.

Catelyn Rodriguez has launched a GoFundMe site to raise money for UNICEF, with which Rufino Rodriguez worked closely during his life.

(Photo courtesy of the Rodriguez family) Hundreds of people — many holding lighted laryngoscopes — gather in the parking lot of Provo's Utah Valley Hospital on Saturday, Jan. 23, to pay tribute to Rufino Rodriguez, a longtime respiratory therapist there. Rodriguez died at the hospital that night, of complications from COVID-19. He was 65.