RUSKIN — One by one, the Begazo family fell victim to COVID-19.
It started with Leo Jr., treated at a hospital then sent home to isolate from his family. Soon, his sister, Diana María, his father, Leonardo, and his mother, Carolina, had the disease, too.
Back in early April, they didn’t know whether Leonardo would make it. He’d been hospitalized and given a 40 percent chance of survival. He was in a coma for 10 days.
Like his wife, Leonardo Begazo works in nursing, but he resisted getting care. At first, seeing his son recover quickly at home, he didn’t think he needed to go to a hospital. Later, as he grew sicker, he didn’t want the hospital staff to intubate or attach him to a ventilator.
“I drew my own conclusions and thought that in three or four days, I would be fine,” he said. “What I didn’t do was pay attention to a big difference — my son is 21, and I am 47.”
Leonardo credits the doctors and nurses at South Bay Hospital with helping save his life — by providing medical treatment as well as putting his troubled mind at ease.
The family also got help from Leonardo’s brother Renzo, a retired Army major who drove from Georgia and set up camp in the back yard to care for 12-year-old Diana María and communicate with loved ones. And they point to the prayer chains — friends and relatives talking with one another via Zoom from New York, Virginia, Leonardo’s native Peru and Colombia, where Carolina was born.
The family’s ordeal provides a case study in COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus that has infected more than 42,000 people and claimed the lives of about 1,900 in Florida. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises anyone infected to separate from others by staying in a “sick room” or area and by using a separate bathroom if available.
“The longer we are around others with COVID-19, or in places with contaminated surfaces, the greater our chances of acquiring the infection,” said Dr. Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida. “This means our greatest risk is from those with COVID-19 with whom we live.”
For a whole family to get sick is probably not uncommon, Levine said, given the high transmissibility of the disease. “However, until more testing is done we will not know for sure,” she said.
Doctors believe the disease began spreading through the Begazo family March 17 when Leo Jr. first felt feverish. The family doesn’t know how he caught it. They were cautious, they said.
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By March 30, his temperature was 103.8, and his father took him to St. Joseph Hospital South in Riverview. Diagnosed with COVID-19, he got outpatient treatment and medicine to control the fever. Doctors told him to isolate at home.
The next day, his parents and his sister traveled to a Hillsborough County drive-in test site at Raymond James Stadium. The adults had a slight cough, the girl a low fever. The results came back five days later, all positive for COVID-19.
Leonardo, a nurse and clinic manager at Moffitt Cancer Center, took charge of caring for Leo Jr. at the son’s apartment in Tampa. He kept him to a single room, cleaned with disinfectants, made sure they wore gloves and masks.
But on April 3, Leonardo came down with a fever, dry cough and difficulty breathing. He was examined at St. Joseph Hospital South, but doctors determined his condition did not require hospitalization, he said. They sent him back to the family’s six-bedroom Ruskin home to isolate. He said he felt a little better for a while.
“I didn’t want to be admitted to the hospital, because there is a risk of getting a new infection,” he said.
Leo Jr. was responding well to rest, hydration and medicine. But on April 5, his father could hardly breathe. Carolina called 911.
Leonardo felt like he was dying. “The air was limited, and I had no energy.”
He asked the paramedics to take him to Saint Joseph Hospital, because his files are there. But he ended up at smaller South Bay Hospital in Sun City Center. He panicked, not knowing anyone at South Bay and fearing the hospital lacked the capacity to treat patients with COVID-19.
“But happily, I was wrong," he said. "And now I think it was one of the best mistakes of my entire life.”
Moments after Leonardo was admitted, a nurse recognized him. They had taught together at Florida Career College in Brandon. She assured him that everyone at the hospital was in his corner.
The family’s test results came back the day Leonardo entered South Bay. Three days later, Carolina, a nurse technician at Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Tampa, was admitted to the same hospital with COVID-19. She spent two days in intensive care with pneumonia and another four days under observation before being released.
Like Leonardo, Carolina, 47, resisted going to the hospital. “I never imagined that I would end up in the same intensive care room with my husband.”
His condition worsened.
Doctors told Carolina that intubation was his last chance, and he finally agreed.
Each day of his stay, Leonardo was encouraged by the hospital team to keep up the fight.
“They took me by the hand, they spoke to my ear, they made me feel at peace. I heard many words of encouragement, hope, and above all, solidarity. All of that was my food of life."
His was one of the most serious COVID-19 cases South Bay has treated, spokeswoman Lesley Lykins said.
“Each patient’s story is unique, and with Mr. Begazo, who is a nurse, we felt a special connection,” Lykins said.
South Bay is part of HCA Healthcare and has relied on the company’s “large and advanced network" in dealing with the pandemic, said Dan Bender, the hospital’s chief executive officer.
“Our hospital ramped up early,” Bender said. "We spent hours, days thinking through scenarios, and we were prepared.”
Leonardo considers his recovery a miracle. Doctors said he was at high risk for cardiorespiratory arrest.
“Everything was against me."
He was discharged April 23. The team that helped care for him lined the sidewalks to wish “Mr. Leo” good health as he left the hospital. One of them was nurse Chona Trevino.
“I believe everything happens for a reason, and Mr. Begazo’s story is filled with true blessings,” Trevino said. “We are a small hospital, but that is not reflective of the size of our hearts here.”
Leonardo still feels a little weak and has shortness of breath. He’s getting therapy at home for the next two weeks, breathing supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day so it can reach his heart and lungs more effectively. It helps him feel stronger, more alert.
“Your life changes after an experience like this,” he said. "I am a believing man. I know all this was not the result of chance. It was a miracle of science and my God.”
Leo Jr. has fully recovered and is applying for jobs. He has two interviews scheduled.
Diana María came down with COVID-19 right after recovering from flu earlier in March. She knew this time was different — not just a fever, but fever, aches and a cough. She, too, has fully recovered.
Another sibling, Army Capt. Christian Begazo, has been monitoring his family’s health from his post in Hawaii.
Carolina is glad to have it all behind them.
“It is a dramatic horror story, with a happy ending.”
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