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Remembering Front-Line Workers Lost To COVID-19

Many front-line workers continued serving others during the pandemic but lost their lives in the battle with COVID-19.
Isabel Seliger for NPR

It has been five months since the novel coronavirus started infecting Americans. Since then, the U.S. has lost more than 120,000 people to the sickness it causes — COVID-19.

So many have been touched by the deaths of family and friends. Here we remember just a few of those who continued working during the pandemic because their jobs called for it and who, ultimately, lost their lives.

On the last dinner Yves-Emmanuel Segui had with his family, "we went to this African food and art center in Harlem,"  his daughter Morit Segui recalls. "My dad insisted [on] this dinner, and I was so busy with work — we kept pushing it back."
/ Courtesy of Morit Segui
Courtesy of Morit Segui
On the last dinner Yves-Emmanuel Segui had with his family, "we went to this African food and art center in Harlem," his daughter Morit Segui recalls. "My dad insisted [on] this dinner, and I was so busy with work — we kept pushing it back."

Yves-Emmanuel Segui, 60

Pharmacist in Yonkers, N.Y.

"I think that he just thought: 'Work as usual. There are a lot of sick people and that's even more of a reason for me to work,' " his daughter Morit Segui, a resident physician and OB-GYN in the Bronx, says of her father.

Yves-Emmanuel Segui had been a pharmacist in Ivory Coast for more than 10 years when political unrest forced the family to leave in 2004. The family immigrated to the U.S. for what he said were "better opportunities."

But Segui had a hard time getting his pharmacy license in the United States. There was a language barrier — he spoke French — and the skills for pharmacists in Ivory Coast are much different, more like being a nurse.

Morit says her father took the pharmacy licensing test eight times. He never gave up — and finally passed.

Segui got a job at a community pharmacy on the border of Yonkers and the Bronx about two years ago, but he continued to make ends meet as a parking garage attendant in Newark, N.J. He died on April 6 of COVID-19.

"I have so many good memories of growing up in the Ivory Coast with my dad. Going to get ice cream was one of the happiest things. Taking trips through the country with him. I love driving because of that — he taught me how to drive," Morit says.

And she fondly recalls him staying up late with her at night after they moved to the U.S., helping her translate her homework (the main language in Ivory Coast is French) so she could get through it. "When I was going through his things, I found the same dictionary we used to translate every word," she says.

Morit's last memory of her dad is meeting him at the halfway point on his two-hour commute.

"Finally, it was time for his dream to be realized. No one expected him to die so soon after working so hard," she says.

Jose Diaz Ayala with his daughters Gianna, left, and Laylanny in 2015.
Emily Brandon / Courtesy of Grisel Pineda
Courtesy of Grisel Pineda
Jose Diaz Ayala with his daughters Gianna, left, and Laylanny in 2015.

Jose Diaz Ayala, 38

Police sergeant in Palm Beach County, Fla.

"It's good to be a police officer because you are helping people. You save people and it's scary, but you are saving people," says his 7-year-old daughter, Bianca.

"He had promised the girls some trips over the summer. And our daughter's quinceañera is coming up, and that's a big deal, especially for a father and for his daughter. And I know he was working a lot for that as well," says Grisel Pineda, Diaz Ayala's former wife and the mother of his girls, referring to the coming-of-age celebration for Latinas.

Sgt. Jose Diaz Ayala was an officer in the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office in Florida. He died on April 4 at age 38 of complications due to COVID-19.

He left behind three daughters, all under the age of 15. They and their mom remember Diaz Ayala as someone who could always make them laugh.

"I get my catchphrases from him," says daughter Gianna, 10. "This is an A/B conversation so C your way out of it!"

Diaz Ayala's 7-year-old daughter, Bianca, says her dad took her on adventures, such as going on rides at the carnival. "I think he rode the scary one with me. I think because I was scared. I think I sat in his lap, or I sat next to him. I always held his hand with two hands because his hand's really big."

Pineda was divorced from Diaz Ayala but says the two remained friends. "He was extremely protective of the girls, like when it came to boys."

One time, Diaz Ayala found out that his eldest daughter, Laylanny, had been sharing gummy bears with a boy at school. "And he's like, 'No, no, no, no. You only share your gummy bears with your dad and that's it! No more gummy bears for the rest of the school year!' " Pineda recalls.

Pineda says that after the pandemic got worse, Diaz Ayala was working overtime at the sheriff's office — despite the risks — for some extra spending money.

His daughters lost their provider, their protector. But more than that, says 14-year-old Laylanny, they lost their best friend.

"He was young at heart. The way he talked to you, he just talked to you like you were the same age as him. Like you were, like, equal," she says.

Rose Harrison holds her newest grandchild, her 10th, in January.
/ Courtesy of Amanda Williams
Courtesy of Amanda Williams
Rose Harrison holds her newest grandchild, her 10th, in January.

Rose Harrison, 60

Nurse in Hamilton, Ala.

"She worked her entire life. She worked three jobs most of the time. She loved her family," daughter Amanda Williams says of her mother. "Mother was the absolute definition of self-sacrifice. Pure love, selflessness. She was a natural giver."

Rose Harrison worked nursing jobs and owned a barbecue restaurant with her husband. She was mother to three, and in another prize role, she was a grandmother to 10.

Harrison cared for her patients at two nursing homes in Alabama during her career until she died of COVID-19 on April 6. She was 60.

"Mother went to nursing school, later in her 20s when the textile plant she worked at closed down. As unfortunate as it was at the time, it was actually a blessing," Williams says. "She was able to enter the nursing profession, which was definitely her calling."

Williams adds that her mother was a motivator for her. "Nursing school, being difficult as it is, she was able to push through it with, you know, us three children. And I use that as my inspiration 'cause I was a single mom when I went through nursing school, and I had three small children. And so I thought, 'If she could do it, I can do it.' "

Harrison had been a nurse for 30 years.

"I think she just, she didn't consider herself first; she always put others before herself, so I know that she was more worried about the other residents than herself," Williams says.

She fondly remembers her mother playing, laughing and dancing with her grandchildren.

"She was just a sassy, sassy woman from Alabama that would speak her mind," Williams recalls. Harrison loved Alabama football and country foods — she was best known for her banana pudding and strawberry shortcake.

"Her family was her everything. She was the foundation of our family. She was who everyone turned to for comfort."

Gianmarco Bertolotti at his home in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens.
/ Courtesy of Monique Bertolotti
Courtesy of Monique Bertolotti
Gianmarco Bertolotti at his home in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens.

Gianmarco Bertolotti, 42

Mason at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City

"I want to make sure that his light lives on, you know; he was taken from us in such a dark way. I want to make sure people remember him," says Bertolotti's sister, Monique.

Gianmarco Bertolotti was always creative, his sister says. He loved going to concerts and making art — and that same creativity helped him become a mason at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Bertolotti kept going to work until he was hospitalized himself on April 15 after being diagnosed with pneumonia in both lungs. He died on April 22 after contracting COVID-19 while continuing to work.

Bertolotti loved New Orleans — its culture and music — which he discovered by accident and shared with Monique.

"My brother was like an explorer in life, you know, and then he explored without restriction," Monique says. She says he went to New Orleans on a cross-country trip for his first time with friends. "My brother was drawn to the same things I was drawn to. He loved the music. He loved the people. He loved like the freedom of expression down there."

In remembering Bertolotti, members of his family say they want to be more like him — to find more ways to enjoy life.

"My uncle wants to approach life more gently and not to sweat the small stuff. I would like to explore life without restriction, like my brother did," Monique says. "I would love for my dad to do the same thing. My dad is very old school and very responsible, but this, this loss is tremendous for him. My brother was his best friend."

Zlatko Veleski in August 2016 on the rooftop of a building in New York City.
/ Courtesy of Katerina Veleska
Courtesy of Katerina Veleska
Zlatko Veleski in August 2016 on the rooftop of a building in New York City.

Zlatko Veleski, 53

Building porter in New York City

"Everything was about my mom and him. Valentine's Day, Women's Day, Mother's Day, her birthday. He surprised her every time — he would come with roses or anything just to, like, make her feel better. He just had that kind of heart," Katerina Veleska says of her father.

Zlatko Veleski — known as Goldy to his friends — was a family man and a champion for his fellow worker. He was a maintenance worker in the twin towers during the Sept. 11 attacks — and escaped. Veleski was active in his labor union, voicing concerns about the health and safety of his co-workers during the pandemic.

He worked until March 30 and then tested positive for the coronavirus. He died on April 8 at age 53.

Veleski's daughter, Katerina, 26, says her parents shared a strong bond. They met in Macedonia, where her father grew up, when her mother was on a trip there. After they got married, he came to America with his new wife.

"My mom went over there for vacation, and they met each other, dated for 10 days, and she just knew that he was the one," the daughter says. Her mom was 19 at the time. "They were inseparable. Anything that my dad did was with her. He, anything that he did, was for her."

Katerina recalls the 50th birthday party they threw for her dad at their church. "My two nieces were there — which are his two granddaughters — and they put cake on his face, which at anybody's birthday he is the first one to put cake on their face. Everybody saw my mom next to him so they took that as an opportunity to just scream, 'Kiss.' ... We were just mesmerized by how much love they still have after all those years."

Veleski died two days before the couple's 32nd anniversary.

"She feels like she basically lost her best friend. ... It's just hard day by day. It's a day without him," Katerina says of her mother.

Devin Dale Francis proposed to Micaela Scott in 2018.
/ Courtesy of Micaela Scott
Courtesy of Micaela Scott
Devin Dale Francis proposed to Micaela Scott in 2018.

Devin Dale Francis, 44

Radiology technician in Miami

"He was a good guy, a great father and the greatest soul mate, you know, a very hard worker ... and a good chef," Micaela Scott says of her fiancé.

Devin Dale Francis was a front-line worker twice over. The hospital radiology technician also had a job with an airline.

He was months away from getting married when he died of COVID-19 on April 8. Francis was known as Gummy Bear by his friends when he was younger. And he loved to cook.

He was smart, liked to crack jokes and was "quick-witted," Scott says. "He would put a smile on your face. ... Nothing really got to him."

Their daughter, Dekayla, turned 11 in May.

"He was very shy. But if you knew him, you'd never really see him mad," Scott says.

She fondly recalls when they got engaged:

"When he proposed ... it was Christmas; he proposed to me 'cause when we first met, we met around Christmas. I wanted a perfume. ... So when I opened it, I was so happy. Like, oh, my God, he got me — so I'm thinking that's all I got. I was excited about just that. We went to my parents' house. Later on that day, he proposed to me."

Esequiel "Zeke" Cisneros with his wife, Brenda Cisneros, left, and stepdaughter Angie Monroe.
/ Courtesy of Angie Monroe
Courtesy of Angie Monroe
Esequiel "Zeke" Cisneros with his wife, Brenda Cisneros, left, and stepdaughter Angie Monroe.

Esequiel "Zeke" Cisneros, 64

Nurse at a psychiatric hospital in Medical Lake, Wash.

"For me, he was just a genuine support all the time. Like it was clear that he was there, no matter what, for us — so for me," Angie Monroe says of her stepfather. "He was kind of like a good luck token that you knew you always had in your pocket."

Esequiel "Zeke" Cisneros was a nurse working with psychiatric patients at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake, Wash. He contracted COVID-19 and died on April 13, two days before his 25th wedding anniversary.

"He had apparently picked out a couple [of] rings for my mom's birthday in June, and he picked out a 25th-anniversary ring. ... So we ... had to go get those. And that was a really hard thing to do," Monroe says.

Cisneros had been a nurse for 20 years, working alongside his wife, Brenda, also a nurse at the hospital.

"It was clear that he cared about people. You have to be a nurse. I think it was clear that he cared about us, too," she says. "Every time that anything would happen, stressful, you know, lives are stressful, or anytime that we needed anything. He was always there for us."

Cisneros loved reading – on topics such as history and economics – and wrote fiction.

"It was kind of calming to talk to him. One thing for sure, with Zeke, is that if you started talking to him, you knew you were gonna be there for several hours. It wasn't, like, a short conversation," Monroe says.

And, she says, he really loved her mom — and would tell her lots of jokes.

"I know for a fact that he just loved my mom dearly, like, he was the epitome of a gentleman. He was the type of guy that would open the door for her. ... He would buy her roses, flowers like every day and every week," she says.

The couple had matching dogs – his was Ricky and hers was Lucy — named for the characters in the classic TV sitcom "I Love Lucy."

"I went all the way through undergrad and grad school as a single mom, and I wouldn't have made it without him," Monroe says. "He had that confidence, confidence in you, that you didn't have. There was never any doubt in my ability. He told me, 'You're amazing, you know, you can do it.' And I knew he did that for a lot of people."

Erlin Galarza, 66, was a New York City bus driver.
/ Courtesy of Transport Union Workers
Courtesy of Transport Union Workers
Erlin Galarza, 66, was a New York City bus driver.

Erlin Galarza, 66

Bus driver, New York City

"He loved the church. He loved his job," Ana Maria Galarza says of her husband of 42 years. "He wanted always to help people. That's one other thing, is that if anybody needed help, he would tell them, you know, 'I'm here. If you need me, I can help you.' "

Erlin Galarza drove New York City buses. He was a Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus driver, and he contracted the coronavirus while he was working — months before a planned retirement.

He always liked hearing the stories of people traveling alone on the bus.

Galarza sang in two church choirs. Music enchanted him even as a boy in Ecuador. He just wanted to sing.

"When he was about 10, there was a big choir, and he went one night when they were rehearsing. And then the director came, and she said, 'No, you're too young. You cannot come in here.' And he sat at the door for hours until they were done. And when he came to the United States, the first church that he visited had a choir. He got so excited, and he joined the choir until his death. So he was born with the music in his soul, I think."

Ana Maria says she misses how her husband would call her from work just to check in. Sometimes she still looks out for him in the lobby of their building.

"He would tell me what time he was going to come, and I'd get to greet him at the door every afternoon or every night. Sometimes I forget, and I think he's coming. When you spend most of your life with a person and then this person is gone so quickly, it's hard."

Jeffrey Baumbach and his wife, Karen.
/ Courtesy of Kaila Baumbach
Courtesy of Kaila Baumbach
Jeffrey Baumbach and his wife, Karen.

Jeffrey Baumbach, 57

Nurse in Stockton, Calif.

"My dad was the type of person to always make everyone laugh. If you were ever having a bad day or needed someone to talk to, my dad would always be there. No matter how you met my dad, once you meet him, you will instantly love him. ... He was just a genuine person, and he loved everyone," says daughter Kaila, 26, of her dad.

Jeffrey Baumbach was a nurse in Stockton, Calif. He died of COVID-19 at age 57 on March 31.

"The main reason he became a nurse in the end was because he wanted to help people," Kaila says. "All he ever wanted to do was help everyone."

Kaila says she was always amazed by how her dad remembered everyone he met. When she questioned him about it, he told her it's not the face or name that's memorable – it's the stories.

Baumbach would jokingly make up answers to questions when he didn't know the real one. The family would call them "Jeffisms." Kaila recalls: "He would just smirk at you and tell you what he thought was the answer. And it was usually always wrong, but it would make us laugh."

One of her favorite memories of her dad is of taking him with her to get tattoos when she graduated from high school. "I was really scared to go alone." And then there was the time her acceptance to a California college she wanted to attend was withdrawn. She was devastated. Her dad picked her up and drove her to the college and demanded to know what happened. They figured it out — and she was accepted.

Baumbach and his wife, Karen, were married for 33 years.

"It was the ideal marriage. When I eventually get married, that's exactly how I want my marriage to be. It was full of love," Kaila says. "And they always showed how much they loved each other just by doing the little things. And they always put each other first. ... They're my role models."

And her dad was always there for everyone, she adds.

"I cannot thank him enough for always being there for me. I cannot thank him enough for all that he's taught me. I cannot thank him enough for showing me how to live life to the fullest. And I cannot thank him enough for teaching me how to love and loving me for me."

Scott Blanks, left, with his friend Vincent Estrada at Estrada's wedding in December.
/ Courtesy of Vincent Estrada
Courtesy of Vincent Estrada
Scott Blanks, left, with his friend Vincent Estrada at Estrada's wedding in December.

Scott Blanks, 34

Dental assistant in Whittier, Calif.

"Scott really had the ability to leave these imprints on everybody's lives, even though he would move on or people would move on; they still remembered him. It wasn't so much what he said to us, his friends — it was the way he made us feel," says his friend Vincent Estrada.

Scott Blanks was a dental assistant and barista. Despite a busy life, Blanks always made time for his friends. It could be a spontaneous visit to Boston in the middle of winter or a regular night out dancing.

He became sick with COVID-19 and died on March 27, two weeks after being hospitalized.

Estrada had known Blanks for 10 years. The two met online and started spending time together.

"Scott was very comfortable with himself. He just really just owned who he was from a very young age. I did not. I had a very hard time, as a Latino gay Catholic man, coming to terms with who I was," Estrada says. "And I remember one time we were together and then he just, he was very direct. He just turned to me and he goes, he said, 'So are we dating? Are we friends or what?' "

Estrada said he didn't know what he wanted; he just knew he did not want to be alone.

"He just said, 'It's OK, boo.' And then he just hugged me," Estrada recalls. "I think he saw that I was in a difficult place in my life. He was just always around, and he slowly made me find myself again and be more confident."

Estrada got married in December.

"He got to see me dressed up marrying another man. ... For him to see that I had [come] to this moment was very special. I could just see Scott beaming there and big smile on his face," he says.

Estrada remembers a video of Blanks dancing at his wedding.

"They're doing a Mexican line dance to Spanish music with Scott. So it's all Latinos. And then here's this African American guy dancing, this, this Mexican line dance, and he's doing it better than everybody else."

That was the last time Estrada saw him.

Meghan Collins Sullivan produced and edited this project. Michael May, Gerry Holmes and Catherine Whelan edited for radio. Matt Kwong and Taylor Haney contributed reporting. Katie Daugert, Nicolette Khan, Sarah Knight, Elizabeth Metzger, Greta Pittenger and Julia Wohl with NPR's Research, Archives & Data Strategy team fact-checked. Lee Smith copy edited. Alyson Hurt consulted on design.

If you'd like to join us in this project of remembrance, please fill out the form below.

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Meghan Collins Sullivan
Meghan Collins Sullivan is a senior editor on the Culture Desk, overseeing multiplatform books coverage at NPR. She edits stories for NPR's radio programs and, manages the Book of the Day podcast, and leads teams creating projects such as Books We Love.
Adelina Lancianese
Adelina Lancianese is the senior producer for the NPR podcast Rough Translation.
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