(CN) — First, Luis Barache had a sore throat.
The 67-year-old New Jersey resident had experienced similar irritation over the years, so the symptom was not unusual. But in mid-March of 2020, it was enough to prompt Barache to make a doctor’s appointment.
At the time, many Americans were talking about the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 as if it were a faraway problem, Barache remembers now. “I’d heard about Covid,” he said, “but we were told, ‘it’s not going to be in the United States, that’s in China … don’t pay any attention.’”
Barache’s appointment was the last of the day, he recalls, around 6 p.m. Restaurants and bars were still open, and after visiting the doctor, he caught a movie: "The Irishman."
Over the next two or three days, even with the medicine prescribed by his doctor, Barache’s symptoms got worse. He developed a fever. His appetite disappeared; his longtime partner, Edgar, had to force him to eat. Chills got so bad that Barache remembers asking the friend who eventually drove him to the emergency room to grab a blanket from the car, to warm himself while sitting in the socially distanced waiting room.
After eight hours of treatment, which included being put on an IV and taking a Covid-19 test, Barache was sent home. His fever was down, and a doctor told him it was too dangerous to stay any longer. “It’s getting crazy here,” Barache remembers the doctor warning.
He returned home, under doctor’s orders to self-isolate, since a Covid-19 diagnosis seemed likely. His partner took over the duties of cooking and caring for Barache’s 84-year-old mother, María de Zubiria, who lived with the couple.
Barache’s mother got sick anyway. Already under treatment for Parkinson’s disease, she quickly developed a sore throat and lost her appetite, mirroring Barache’s symptoms. Breathing became difficult, sleep did not come, and, when emergency medics arrived at the house a few days later to take her to the hospital, they told Barache to prepare for the worst.
A conversation with a medic stands out in Barache's memory: “'Be prepared,' he told me. ‘It can be a miracle, but she’s in bad, bad shape.’”
Unable to accompany his mom to the hospital, Barache got updates from doctors by phone. His mother was on a respirator, still fighting. Then, she couldn’t fight anymore. She died after three days in the hospital.
Two or three days after that, Barache got the test results affirming he had Covid-19. His partner Edgar, 56, tested positive, too, though he never got especially sick.
Now, Barache has mostly physically recovered. For a few months, his full head of hair would shed in handfuls when he showered, and for now, lingering blurry vision still prevents him from driving at night. But losing his mom made the pandemic’s toll permanent for Barache and his family.
Their story mirrors many who lost a loved one to a disease that nobody knew about just a year ago. Half a million Americans have now died of Covid-19, and while the disease thrust most of the planet into the unknown last year, its steadily growing death tally underscored the inevitability of the somber milestone the nation crosses today.
Looking back to the early days of the pandemic gives a sense of how far we’ve come. Hospitals have tweaked their methods of care to better serve patients, and continue to do so. Public health officials have wrangled messaging to address misinformation.