LOVINGTON, NM — Angie Guillen recalls the early days of COVID-19, when the new virus — then dubbed “The Coronavirus” — was just beginning to impact global supply chains.
“Before all the craziness,” she said, sitting in an embroidered chair in the lobby of the New Mexico funeral home where she works as a caregiver. “We went to Walmart and everything was empty. We couldn’t find water, we couldn’t find anything. So we came back the next day and there was nothing, the shelves were empty. Because of the virus. It’s a feeling I can’t explain.”
Then her place of work — the Kirby-Ratliff Funeral Home in Lovington, New Mexico — showed undeniable signs of the deadly virus. Corpses began to arrive. First one, then a few at a time, and then multiple arrivals not only from Lovington but from the rest of New Mexico and Texas.
“Everyone that died, it was COVID. One or two every day from COVID,” she said. Then, as the tide of bodies from the region’s major cities — Albuquerque, El Paso, Las Cruces, Lubbock, Roswell — began arriving at her funeral home, she knew this global pandemic would be unlike anything she had ever seen.
“I didn’t know what to think. There was so much death. There wasn’t room for the bodies over there, so they were shipped to us,” she said. “When they died, we had to pick them up. We would send our personal van to pick them up.”
Guillen, who started at the funeral home eight years before COVID-19, could never have known that her role as a funeral home would one day place her as a witness to victims of COVID-19, the modern world’s longest and most devastating pandemic. She shared thoughts on how the pandemic has affected her and her family and life. She is one of dozens of New Mexicans interviewed by the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative as part of our coverage of the state’s recovery from the ongoing pandemic.
As of October 2022, Lea County, where Lovington is located, had more than 22,500 COVID-19 cases and 406 deaths. Lovington, the county seat, has a population of 11,400.
Guillen’s job at the funeral home brought her very close to the mourners of COVID victims. Her death, she said, was more difficult to mourn because the disease struck quickly, ravaging her loved one’s body and leaving family members unprepared to cope with the sudden loss.
She said COVID deaths, however protracted, still come as a shock to family members. The rapid deterioration, constant loss of ability to breathe, confinement to bed, a ventilator, and death leave families surprised and devastated.
“It hurts to see grieving families,” she said. “When they just died from COVID, you didn’t expect them to die from it. If they died of a heart attack or were in hospice, the family is better prepared for their death,” she said.
Angie remembers when she first started working at the funeral home.
It was July 2012 and she shocked her mother by taking a job at a local funeral home.
“When I started working here, I told my mother and she was like, ‘Mija! Why do you work in a funeral home? Eres muy miedosa! (You’re such a scaredy-cat)!’” Angie recalled with a chuckle.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know Mom. If I don’t like it, I stop working there,” she said.
Ten years have passed since that conversation with her mother. A lot has happened since then, especially since COVID-19 swept through the world almost two and a half years ago, infecting and killing millions of people.
Then the deaths in her family began. Her nephew, early 40s, died of COVID.
Then, tragically for Angie, her mother, 75-year-old Selfa Moreno, tested positive for COVID. The virus was in their home and the family prayed and prepared their mother to fight to save her life.
“I said to her, ‘Mom, you’re going to have to fight! You will have good days and you will have bad days. But you have to be strong and fight your way through it all!’” she recalls telling her mother. “My mom said, ‘Yes, I know and I will.’
Her mother — a devout Catholic who skipped group rosary prayers because some group members weren’t wearing masks — then developed a high fever and began struggling to breathe. She went to the hospital and was flown to Lubbock.
“She lasted 15 days and then died of COVID. We didn’t expect my mother to die,” Angie said softly. “Until the last day… She died around 6 p.m. on December 11.”
She believes her mother contracted COVID when she went to the hospital for a non-COVID health matter.
At the time of her mother’s death, Angie was unable to visit her due to contracting COVID herself.
Her mother’s body was flown back to the Lovington Funeral Home where Angie worked. Still stuck in COVID isolation, Angie was unable to attend her mother’s funeral.
“She was buried on a Friday, and after that I came back to work. I couldn’t say goodbye,” she said.
She also missed her last opportunity to speak to her conscious mother. Before being put on a ventilator at Lubbock Hospital, Selfa called her daughter at the Lovington funeral home.
“I spoke to a family at the funeral home and the girl who answered didn’t tell me it was my mom,” Angie said.
She tried to call the hospital back.
“I tried to call my mother. I was never allowed to speak to her again. So I never had to say goodbye. She was already gone, she was just on the ventilator,” Angie said.
Selfa’s death deeply affected the family she left behind.
“My granddaughter was very close to my mother,” Angie said. “Every time she comes home, she goes to the cemetery.”
“We’re all still taking this very hard,” she said.
Reyes Mata III is a reporter for the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative.