She Goes From COVID Front Lines to the Mask-Haters in the Capitol
Arizona State Rep. Melody Hernandez tries to save COVID victims while her colleagues in the Capitol refuse to wear masks.
Melody Hernandez is a working paramedic as well as a newly elected Arizona state representative, and the COVID-19 victims she sought to save last month included a father in his thirties whose wife looked on while holding a baby.
Hernandez had at first been focused only on the patient that she and her fellow first responders were fighting to revive.
“We did everything we could to save this man,” she later told The Daily Beast.
A firefighter reached for something to elevate the husband’s head as they established a better airway and Hernandez recognized it as a pillow such as a mother might use when setting a baby on her lap. Hernandez first took note of the various infant items in this living room where the father was sprawled in cardiac arrest. She then saw who was standing behind.
“I turned around and I saw the mother trying to hold back tears, holding a baby that could not have been more than 2 or 3 months old,” Hernandez recalled on Monday. “She was doing her best to stay strong.”
The mother watched the first responders continue giving their all, finally placing the father of her child on a stretcher and wheeling him to the ambulance.
“She was still cradling her baby and comforting her baby,” Hernandez said. “Obviously the baby doesn't know what’s going on, but she was doing her best to be a good mother. I remember thinking, “What is next for her?’”
The father was pronounced dead at the hospital. He thereby became one of those whom Hernandez had run for office to represent.
“Those who passed away don’t have a voice any more,” she told The Daily Beast. “I see it as my job and duty to fight for them because they can no longer do that.”
A 26-year-old first-generation Mexican American with seven years in the emergency medical services and four years as a paramedic, Hernandez ran as a Democrat in District 26 encompassing the Tempe area. She came in first in a four-way race, with 34.2 percent of the vote, and seeks to make her win a victory for the young mother and her baby and all the family members of the pandemic’s fallen.
“The families are left to pick up the pieces,” Hernandez said.
She worked a 48-hour shift on the weekend before the Jan. 11 swearing-in of new Arizona state legislators. She responded to three cardiac arrests in one 12-hour period.
“I went from that to being inaugurated” Hernandez said. “I go from putting on my paramedic boots to putting on my high heels.”
The state Senate requires all members to wear masks. But Hernandez was in the House of Representatives, which actually had two ceremonies: one for people who wore masks, and another for those who refused.
“I’m going to be inaugurated with people that treat the pandemic like it’s a joke, that treat it like it’s not serious, people that think it’s not going to happen to them, that they’re immune,” she said of the anti-maskers.
“For me it was a slap in the face. To go to the Capitol utterly exhausted mentally from the amount of death I had seen that week. To have my body be sore from working at bringing people back to life. And then to have these people treat what I did as a joke, like it doesn’t matter all those people died.”
She had freshman orientation that day and the following morning went right to work on a frontline workers’ bill of rights. The end of the week saw her out of the high heels and back in the paramedic boots, responding to a cardiac arrest just two minutes into the tour.
“And three more that day,” she said.
When she returns to the state Capitol at the start of each week, the sight of the smugly defiant legislators who refuse to wear masks is that much harder to take after seeing how the COVID fight has drained and worn down her fellow first responders.
“In every single one of us, you can see the exhaustion in our eyes and faces,” Hernandez said. “We can feel it in our bones and muscles… We’re just trying to make it to the next day.”
Her EMS comrades are quieter now, even one who was always so talkative and positive, so welcoming and curious about other people.
“To almost hear nothing from him all day...” Hernandez said. “It’s not that he’s having a bad day. We’re all having a bad year.”
They no longer hang out at the end of a shift.
“Now we just scatter,” she said.
A Jan. 24 report by the Arizona Public Health Association marking the anniversary of the state’s first known COVID-19 infection observes that Arizona’s horrific body count “has not been because of bad luck or fate” as had been suggested by Gov. Doug Ducey.
“It is largely because of an inability to learn from policy successes and failures, bad decisions, misplaced priorities, and an inability to execute core responsibilities,” the report says.
Even as the death toll this week surpassed 13,120 and infections topped 759,000, Ducey continued to reject a statewide mask mandate or to reimpose an effective shutdown that he prematurely ended. And the Republican-controlled legislature has served as an accomplice in what the report rightly terms ”an unimaginable tragedy.”
Hernandez is doing what she can both in the House and in the field. After a week as a legislator that ended with a Latina leadership event, Hernandez spent this past weekend back as a paramedic.
The post-holiday COVID surge seems to have finally abated, but Arizona was still the hottest hotspot in the nation in per capita deaths and infections, and she went from one “difficulty breathing” call to another starting at 7 a.m. Friday. She handled at least three definite COVID patients. She responded to a cardiac arrest early Morning morning that was likely COVID-related and proved fatal.
Six hours later, she was back to work as a legislator. She spoke to The Daily Beast of her double life and said some past calls return to her as nightmares.
“I have seen a very horrible number of deaths,” she said. “Part of me wishes I had kept count just so I could say, ‘Me, personally, this is how many I watched pass away.’”
She allowed that she has in some ways become accustomed to the horror.
“One friend asked me, ‘Is it not that bad at work anymore?’” she reported. “For me now, it feels almost normal. It’s nothing new. Before it was shocking. You come home and cry, you grieve… It’s just our reality now.”
But Hernandez has memories that can still leave her fighting back tears in the recounting. She spoke of a woman who asked if she could give her husband one last kiss as he was about to be loaded onto the ambulance.
“She said to him, ‘Please come home, I don’t want this to be the last time I see you,’” Hernandez recalled.
And then there was the memory of the mother who stood cradling her baby as Hernandez fought to save the father.
Hernandez now began to choke up, but steadied herself just as the mother had.
“I hope she’s OK,” Hernandez said.
And it was on behalf of the mother and all the other constituents who can no longer speak that Hernandez voiced a message to everyone who still fails to treat the pandemic seriously.
“People, wear your masks,” said Hernandez, paramedic and legislator.