PROVO — The Utah Valley Hospital community is mourning the loss of one of their own to COVID-19. Rufino Rodriguez, a 65-year-old respiratory therapist, is now the second member of the NICU unit at the hospital to die from the virus.
Multiple doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists reached out to share Rufino's story as another example of the toll the pandemic has had on our medical community.
"Rufino was one of those special people," said Dr. Stephen D. Minton, director of neonatology at Utah Valley Hospital.
When Rodriguez left Guatemala more than 30 years ago, it was for a better life.
"He was always bright," said Regie Peterson, a respiratory therapist who worked with Rodriguez for more than 30 years. "He always wanted to get experiences and learn."
But coming to America meant leaving behind his medical degree.
"Here, we didn't accept his credentials, so he became a respiratory therapist," said Minton.
Rodriguez joined Minton as one of the first members of Utah Valley Hospital's NICU.
"He was in our unit from 37 years ago," he said. "He loved that, he was addicted to that."
Regie Peterson was another of the unit's veterans — for more than 30 years he flew next to Rodriguez on the LifeFlight team.
The two cared for more than 35,000 babies.
"He has been my friend and my brother, my co-worker for all these years," said Peterson.
We don't want his death to be just, 'Utah had another death from coronavirus today.' I want people to know that he was a valuable person.
–Regie Peterson, NICU, Utah Valley Hospital
But on Christmas, six months shy of retirement, Rodriguez tested positive for COVID-19.
His health quickly deteriorated.
"I started to accept that he might be retiring to heaven instead of from work," said Peterson.
On Saturday night, doctors realized they were running out of time.
"They had put out the word that this was going to be his last night," said his co-worker.
Within two hours, dozens of doctors, staff, and former patients stood in the parking lot and shined their phones at the 11th floor.
"He lit up the room, that is why last night all of us were out there with lights — we were sending that back to him," said Minton.
Rodriguez died as the light from the LifeFlight helicopter illuminated his room.
"He wasn't old enough to die, he didn't have reasons to die. He died because he got the coronavirus," said Peterson. "We don't want his death to be just, 'Utah had another death from coronavirus today.' I want people to know that he was a valuable person."
"Rufino would want his death to have meaning, and if it could save other people and get the message out of how important it is to mask and do social distancing and all those things and how bad that this disease can be in certain individuals — we can't predict who they are — he would want that to happen," said Minton.