'I Remember Him With That Smile': Beloved Phoenix Doctor Dies Of COVID-19 At 99 Patients knew José Gabriel López-Plascencia as "the doctor that served the poor." He spent over 60 years caring for low-income families left out of the healthcare system in Phoenix.
NPR logo

'I Remember Him With That Smile': Beloved Phoenix Doctor Dies Of COVID-19 At 99

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/897926271/901219130" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'I Remember Him With That Smile': Beloved Phoenix Doctor Dies Of COVID-19 At 99

'I Remember Him With That Smile': Beloved Phoenix Doctor Dies Of COVID-19 At 99

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/897926271/901219130" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's take a moment to remember Jose Gabriel Lopez-Plascencia - or Dr. Lopez for short. He was a retired physician who died of complications of coronavirus one week after his 99th birthday. His work in medicine helped generations.

JOANN GAMA RODRIGUEZ: Dr. Lopez, you will never be forgotten for your genuine kindness, love of everyone and peaceful demeanor. You were truly one in a million.

INSKEEP: JoAnn Gama Rodriguez (ph) was trained by Dr. Lopez as a surgical tech at Phoenix Memorial Hospital in Arizona. When we called her to talk about him, she felt so strongly that she wrote down these thoughts.

RODRIGUEZ: For me and all those assistants you trained and sent in the medical world, thank you, Dr. Lopez, from the bottom of our hearts. I'm sure that somehow, some way, you'll hear my message. And I'm sending you a million hugs to heaven.

INSKEEP: Dr. Lopez is one of well over 160,000 people who've died from COVID-19 in the United States. His grandkids had to say goodbye over a Zoom call. Marcel Lopez says his grandfather was unable to speak but let them know he was listening.

MARCEL LOPEZ: You could just hear that he was struggling to breathe. And, you know, he was tearing up. And my aunt just kept wiping his eyes. And every time we talked to him, he'd kick his leg and move his arms I guess just to let us know that he was hearing us.

INSKEEP: They sang Dr. Lopez his favorite song. And he started to cry.

LOPEZ: You know, I would have loved to have been there, you know, holding his hand and just to see him, you know, one last time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POR UN AMOR")

VINCENTE FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

INSKEEP: How many lives can you touch in 99 years on this earth? NPR's Danny Hajek called people who remember Dr. Lopez.

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: Blanca Fernandez is speaking to us from her living room in Phoenix, looking at a faded photo of Dr. Lopez, one of her oldest friends.

BLANCA FERNANDEZ: It's his wife and him. At his side is me.

HAJEK: It's from an anniversary party. And Dr. Lopez is a sharp dresser in a black tuxedo with ruffles and a big bow tie.

B FERNANDEZ: They always having fiestas. And we always were there, you know, singing and dancing. So we were compadres (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POR UN AMOR")

HAJEK: He was also her family's doctor. And that photo of him in his tuxedo reminds her of the time he saved her husband's life. Years ago, her husband worked construction. And he came home with severe symptoms of heatstroke. Instead of dialing 911, she called Dr. Lopez, who was on his way to a fancy doctors' banquet.

B FERNANDEZ: And he come to my home right away. He came with his tuxedo on and took care of my husband because my husband was dying. We are very grateful to him, yes, because he really saved my husband.

HAJEK: The older generation remembers Dr. Lopez as one of the few Spanish-speaking doctors in all of south Phoenix. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1921, he arrived in the U.S. after a Catholic priest in Arizona invited him to help care for low-income families there. And he spent over 60 years working in neighborhoods that once faced decades of segregation and poverty.

ABE ARVIZU JR: The people knew where they could go for help, and that was Dr. Lopez.

HAJEK: Abe Arvizu Jr. was one of his patients growing up. And he can still picture the crowded waiting room inside Dr. Lopez's office.

ARVIZU: I mean, it was wall-to-wall, no room and people out in the hallway waiting. And they were mostly undocumented, farm workers or just poor people from the surrounding areas.

HAJEK: Dr. Lopez provided affordable health care to families without insurance. And if those patients didn't have the money for an appointment, they'd find other ways to pay him.

ARVIZU: And so they would exchange. A lot of people in the barrios, that's the only way you survived whether you did lawns, whether you had a bakery or made food. I mean, they always had food at their house.

HAJEK: In communities left out of the health care system, Dr. Lopez was their trusted caregiver.

ELVIRA ORTEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

HILDA ORTEGA ROSALES: He is the doctor that served the poor.

HAJEK: This is Elvira Ortega (ph). Her daughter, Hilda Ortega Rosales (ph), is our interpreter. Elvira says her family saw Dr. Lopez for 35 years. He looked after three generations of family members including her husband, who lived with Alzheimer's for over a decade.

ORTEGA: (Non-English language spoken).

ORTEGA ROSALES: She says that she's very emotional because he was always so good to her.

ORTEGA: (Non-English language spoken).

ORTEGA ROSALES: She still is connected to him because there are still two medications that she takes today that were prescribed by him that is helping her to have a better quality of life.

HAJEK: Dr. Lopez retired when he was 89. He used to say, it's not how old you are, it's how long you've been living. And his family has been holding onto those words as they've been confronted by the devastating tragedies of this pandemic. Shortly after Dr. Lopez's death, his daughter, Barbara Ann Sordia, and her cousin, Humberto "Junior" Trujillo, also died from COVID-19.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

HAJEK: On the livestream of Dr. Lopez's funeral mass, there's an American flag draped over his casket.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: Let us begin in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

HAJEK: Everyone inside the church is wearing a mask. But the pandemic kept some loved ones away. Blanca Fernandez, with the photo from earlier, she's 88 and decided it was safer to stay home. And she's been thinking a lot about the last phone call she had with her old friend.

B FERNANDEZ: Oh, yes, two weeks before he died.

HAJEK: Dr. Lopez called to check in on her family and to remind her that it was almost his 99th birthday.

B FERNANDEZ: Yes. We talked for the last time. I'm very sorry about his loss. Yes. And I'm also glad because, pretty soon, I'll be over there with him (laughter). I'll be there with Dr. Lopez singing and dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABOR SZABO'S "UNTIL IT'S TIME FOR YOU TO GO")

HAJEK: Danny Hajek, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABOR SZABO'S "UNTIL IT'S TIME FOR YOU TO GO")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.