The best birthday gift: Man in hospital for a year finally gets to see his 4 children together

Nurses and family plan festive, outdoor celebration for long-term patient

(SACRAMENTO)

Rogelio Lopez, who has been hospitalized for more than a year, had just one birthday wish.

He wanted to see his four children, ages 6, 9, 11 and 13, in person.

So, last Thursday, after intensive planning by his team of caregivers, Lopez was placed on a portable ventilator and wheeled on a hospital bed from Tower 6 to the main entrance of UC Davis Medical Center. There he enjoyed a tearful reunion with his kids.

Roughly 15 additional family members joined in the festivity, including his siblings and nephews. And to add to the party atmosphere, a mariachi ensemble played celebratory songs in honor of Lopez, who turned 38.

“Rogelio smiled as his four kids caressed and hugged him, as it had been more than a year since they had seen their father, all together, in person,” said Yesenia Ramos, a UC Davis resident physician who serves on a team of doctors training to care for patients in urban, underserved areas. “The doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and others tearfully watched this touching reunion.”

Dayshift Assistant Nurse Manager Ashley Dotger, a go-between for the family and staff, called the celebration a gratifying experience for nurses.

“I think the nurses on Tower 6 med-surg take great pride in being able to give great care to those who have extended stays,” she said. “It is humbling to be a part of somebody’s life when they’re struggling.”

In video filmed by Ramos, Lopez appears on his bed with a colorful, striped blanket covering his legs, while being escorted outside by six staffers wearing face shields. They reunite him with his family where the assembled mariachis, heavy on trumpets, play “Las Mañanitas,” a popular birthday song. Lopez’ older family members surround the bed while children holding “Happy Birthday” balloons greet their dad, one by one.

Lopez has been unable to speak but his sister, Lourdes Lopez, who coordinated the event for the family, said her brother deeply appreciated the celebration.

“It was incredible and emotional to see him laugh,” she said. “The kids didn’t want to leave, the time seemed really short to them,” she added.

Rogelio Lopez on his 38th birthday is surrounded by family members he hasn’t seen together in more than a year due to his hospitalization
Rogelio Lopez on his 38th birthday surrounded by family members he hasn’t seen together in more than a year due to his hospitalization

Lopez’s medical ordeal began in December 2020 when he returned from vacation in Mexico and showed up at the Sacramento County Health Center complaining of puffy legs, a swollen stomach and shortness of breath.

“He was hoping to get better with just medication,” recalled Lisandra Franco, a primary care doctor who also is an attending physician to the medical center’s residents in the TEACH program, or Transforming Education and Community Health.

She knew better.

Because Lopez had diabetes and worsening kidney problems, Franco sent him to the emergency room. Within days of being admitted, Lopez started dialysis. Then he contracted COVID-19 pneumonia requiring intubation, developed bacteremia, had heart valve surgery, suffered a heart attack, encountered lung problems, a gastrointestinal bleed and multiple other health issues that are not easy to solve.

“He’s definitely gone through a lot of challenges while he’s been in the hospital,” Franco said. “He’s still trying to get better every day for his children, and it’s really touching to see that.”

When caregivers met with Lopez over the summer to discuss his uncertain prognosis, they learned about how much he missed his children, who haven’t all been able to visit together due to COVID-19 restrictions. Lopez, who is estranged from his wife, told his care team that if he was still hospitalized on Dec. 30, he wanted to spend part of his birthday with his children.

Lourdes Lopez, who visits her brother’s bedside every evening, envisioned a birthday celebration. She shared her idea with her siblings, one of whom suggested they hire mariachis like Mexican families do for weddings and other life milestones. Unfortunately, the brother who suggested mariachis was unable to see his plan come to fruition – Lourdes Lopez said he died from COVID-19 not long after.

Pulling off the celebration was a well-orchestrated collaboration involving physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, language interpreters, a transportation team, child life specialists, social workers and administrators.

“This simple transport outside takes a team approach, an attribute which UC Davis does exceptionally well,” explained Dotger in an email to other nurses and leaders before the event. “We are very excited to make this possibility for this long-term patient.”

Franco, the attending physician, said Lopez is the kind of patient that doctors and staff will never forget.

“It feels really good to be able to work at a place like UC Davis,” Franco said. “Obviously, medical treatment is one of the important aspects of patient care, but you can’t forget the human part of medicine, which is treating each patient with empathy and respect. UC Davis really focuses on that aspect of patient care.”

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