This COVID-19 Hero Was Election Day’s Biggest Loss
The Texas emergency room doctor contracted the virus as President Trump criss-crossed the country, telling lies.
One uncontestable Election Day outcome was the death by COVID-19 of an esteemed and beloved emergency room doctor who leaves two young children.
Dr. Juan Fitz of Lubbock, Texas, had fallen ill in mid-October. He had been on a ventilator, fighting for his life, as President Trump went from rally to rally repeating a despicable and false allegation that doctors had been inflating the pandemic death count to “get more money.” That baseless claim brought cheers from largely maskless supporters who were following his heedless example in ignoring simple precautions that might have saved tens of thousands of lives and could still save tens of thousands more.
In-person voting was underway across the country when 67-year-old Fitz died in Covenant Medical Center, the hospital where he had saved so many lives. His was one of eight lives lost to the virus in Lubbock County, along with 1,122 others nationally on Election Day. He also leaves a wife, a grown daughter, and a host of fellow emergency medicine workers who held him in the highest regard.
“My specialty of emergency medicine just lost a leader, Dr. Juan Fitz, to COVID,” Dr. Esther Choo of Oregon tweeted. “He was an outstanding physician and a leader in the field, active in the Texas College of Emergency Physicians and the American College of Emergency Physicians.”
She went on, “My colleagues and I will go in for you every day until this thing is over, no matter what. As hospitals and ICUs fill beyond capacity, as we endure ongoing PPE and testing shortages, and face heartbreaking losses like this one.”
Back in 2008, the American College of Emergency Physicians honored Fitz as a “hero of emergency medicine.” He had been at it for 34 years this June, when the organization posted an interview with him about fighting on the front lines against COVID-19. He said that he drew upon his time in the Army.
“My previous military background causes me to prepare for each patient as if I were going on patrol, taking as many precautions as possible,” he reported.
His foremost worry was his loved ones.
“I have two children at home, ages 5 years and 10 months. I find myself waking every night around 3 a.m. with worries that I have been infected and have brought it home to my immediate family. There is additional stress from other family members as well. I am fortunate that I have a strong faith.”
He was asked what was particularly unsettling about the pandemic.
“It’s the uncertainty of the symptoms,” he said. “So many patients present with so many different symptoms such as stroke or heart issues and are testing positive for the virus. There is no rhyme or reason. There are some that look as though they have symptoms of COVID-19 yet test negative while others we didn’t presume to have contracted the virus, test positive. It’s difficult not having adequate equipment or tests. I am frustrated with those who fail to understand this pandemic.”
He was also asked about the impact on his personal life.
“It has been rough. My partner is much younger than I am and doesn’t have a medical background so the stress has been much higher. She is always checking with ‘Dr. Google’ and reading how I am going to bring the virus home. I changed the way I practice, not because of her concerns but because of mine. I definitely do not want to bring it home so I had to adjust and start using scrubs and changing clothes before I greet my children. I’m not able to talk about what happened in the [Emergency Department] because they do not understand. Instead, I talk with my fellow doctors and veterans.”
He added, “I see my son sad because he can’t go out to play or go to the park. But this has brought me closer to my son and my daughter. I spend as much time with them as I can.”
The next question was what inspires him to keep fighting.
“We are emergency medicine. We are mavericks, pioneers. Like I tell my students and residents, ‘I am Airborne, I am cavalry, I go into the thick of it and, challenged by the situation, find ways to improve and sort things out.’ I always wanted to be a doctor, and I love being an emergency doctor.”
He had a message for the patients.
“We are here to take care of you! We are trained for the unknown, we are trained in chaos and how to control it. Emergency medicine is a state of controlled chaos. We are the Sherlock Holmes of medicine, ready to take on the unexpected. We take the sickest of the sick. We are here for you 24/7/365.”
Then came the day in October when Fitz began to experience COVID-19 symptoms. He was at home and headed into the emergency room, this time as a patient. He drove himself there because if his wife drove him, the children would have had to come along.
“He didn’t want to startle his children,” a friend, Christy Martinez-Garcia, told The Daily Beast. “When he got there, he sent me a message. He says, ‘Hey, I came down with coronavirus. Keep me in prayer.’”
Martinez-Garcia is the publisher of Latino Lubbock Magazine. Fitz had been writing a column for it called “The Doctor Is In,” and she suggested that when he was discharged he would be able to report firsthand about getting COVID-19.
“In my mind—and I’m sure his, too—he was going to get through it,” Martinez-Garcia said. “But then he didn’t.”
He quickly went from bad to worse to even worse. Word spread among the many people who had worked with him, including Eddie Kirkpatrick, a retired firefighter who had gone on to spend five years as an emergency technician in Covenant Hospital, leaving before COVID-19.
“I think it kind of caught everybody off-guard,” Kirkpatrick said. “You wouldn’t have thought he would get it, and when he got it, it just grabbed him with both hands.”
Fitz was soon on a ventilator in the ICU. An ER nurse texted Kirkpatrick on Tuesday to say Fitz had died. Kirkpatrick afterward spoke of Fitz as being everything a doctor should be.
Fitz was unendingly patient with medical students and residents. He would remain the picture of calm in the most dire emergencies even as his mind flashed to everything that needed doing. Kirkpatrick compared Fitz to a floating duck.
“The feet are going at 100 miles an hour under the water,” Kirkpatrick said. “But he’d never let you see it.”
What Fitz let everybody see and feel was his compassion and determination to do whatever he could. He was one person with COVID-19 who would have been glad it was him instead of somebody else.
“He’s a super nice guy trying to help people out and he gets it,” Kirkpatrick said. “I am telling you, he’d rather it be him. That’s the kind of guy he was, He cares for people. Docs like him don’t come around all that often.”
Martinez-Garcia was heartbroken, feeling the loss for herself, his family and for the community, which he called mi gente, my people.
“He truly exemplifies being a doc,” she said. “He died taking care of others. The hard part is he’s gone. He’s just gone.”
She recalled a moment at a gala to which Fitz had brought his children.
“I remember him kissing them,” she said. “He was a superhero to his children. And you know what, he was a superhero to me.”
Fitz was also just fun to be around. Whether with his kids or his wife or his friends or emergency medicine teammates, he always brought joy to it.
“His laugh will be missed,” Martinez-Garcia said. “Everything about Dr. Fitz will be missed. He always had a way of making things better.”
She spoke of all the health-care workers on the front lines and of the responsibility the rest of us have to back them up.
“They’re not thinking about themselves, they’re thinking of taking care of their patients,” she said. “We’ve got to help by masking-up and taking all the precautions necessary.”
One precaution that will be taken in Lubbock is making an upcoming veterans parade virtual. The theme will be unity. There will be particular recognition for Fitz.
“His service in the battlefield and then in the hospital,” she said.
She hopes his example will join that of all our fallen heroes to teach a badly needed lesson.
“We need to stand as one,” she said.
But lately, there are too many people who stand only for themselves, who fail to take even simple measures to save the lives of others even as they speak passionately about The American People. And President Trump has been encouraging them, saying all the talk of COVID-19 is just a ploy by the Democrats.
In fact Trump's downplaying of the danger was part of his political strategy to divert the electorate’s attention from more than 230,000 deaths and make them focus on the economy.
A discouraging number of Americans were doing just that on Election Day even as Fitz became one of the latest to die.
“He’s gone,” Martinez said. “This could have been prevented. I think that’s what angers me. We could still have him.”
And one certainly about the future, whatever the final vote count, is that Fitz’s now young children will grow up without him.
“It's just sad they’re not going to be to see him,” she said.