Miguel De La Torre would always offer visitors food, even if they weren’t hungry.
“He was just the happiest person,” his daughter Hunter De La Torre said.
Some of her brightest memories with him came on birthdays – even when he lived in North Bend while she remained in Coquille, her father would never miss a birthday. Often, she’d get two birthday cakes: one from family and friends in Coquille, and the other, a tres leches cake her father brought her.
Now though, that’s changed. This fall, Miguel endured a long battle with COVID-19, and early on Thanksgiving morning, became one of millions worldwide to die from the virus. After spending most of his life in the area, he left behind family, friends and coworkers when he became the fourth — and youngest at the time — person in Coos County to die with the virus.
Originally from Durango, Mexico, he came to the U.S. as a teenager in pursuit of the American dream, according to Hunter.
That brought him to Southern Oregon. For almost three decades, Miguel worked as a lathe operator at the Roseburg Forest Products mill in Coquille, living in North Bend with his wife and three of his sons and seeing his other children regularly.
Eventually, Miguel began getting sick at work, and was diagnosed with asthma. That condition alone, would become the “underlying condition” that complicated his eventual case of COVID-19, Hunter said.
“He was a healthy guy, and was a really hard worker,” Hunter said.
His community at work, the love he shared with his family and his involvement in his church all meant he was well respected in the community, she said.
“You meet anybody and, ‘Oh, Miguel’s your dad? He’s a good guy,’” Hunter remembers hearing.
And it wasn’t just tres leches cakes he’d share — before the pandemic, he’d always been inviting to family, guests and the friends of his kids, even if he didn’t know them.
“He always made sure everybody was fed,” said Kameran Winder, Hunter’s sister.
A diagnosis “like a kick in the chest”
Miguel and his close family had been taking the right precautions, Hunter said — being careful about the virus and navigating changing recommendations to avoid getting sick.
Still, the virus found its way to them, and he was diagnosed Oct. 26. Hunter and her sister remember the day they found out.
They’d first gotten a call that someone at the mill had tested positive. They didn’t know who, and knew the call wasn’t a good sign, but it wasn’t quite real to them yet.
Until they learned the individual was Miguel. He’d sent them a photo from Bay Area Hospital, where he’d just been admitted.
“It just kind of changes your whole world, finding that out,” Winder said.
Hunter had a gut feeling about her father’s worsening condition and the possibility of losing him. She could hear the impact of the virus on his voice over the phone when they spoke for the first time after he was hospitalized.
“It was like he’d just got done running a marathon,” Hunter said.
According to Winder, Miguel couldn’t talk and had severe difficulty breathing within three days.
It was the beginning of a fast, month-long decline in Miguel’s health.
“When my dad got it, it really attacked him,” Hunter said. “The rapid decline of his health was just outrageous.”
He spent about a week at Bay Area Hospital. He got pneumonia while there, and part of his time was on a ventilator — a step Hunter said indicated to her the seriousness of his condition.
Soon after that week, the hospital staff determined he might have more success at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland and transferred him there.
Once there, the lifesaving efforts continued. He had a tracheotomy, a procedure in which doctors insert a tube through the neck to open a direct airway.
Hunter kept in contact with her father as best as she could, calling the intensive care unit nurses for updates often, sometimes multiple times a day and sometimes not knowing how to ask if he was doing any better.
The hospital staff, which Hunter credits for their kindness and caring for her father and his family during such a painful period, would set up video calls with him, as he couldn’t have visitors while he was still contagious.
“It was pretty scary, though. He was up on a lot of machinery,” Hunter said.
Soon speaking to her father became more challenging. He was often heavily sedated to prevent his body — at 56, he was younger and healthier than many severe virus patients — from fighting the machinery and treatments he’d been given.
But the virus remained. He had a stroke at one point, likely due to blood clots caused by the virus.
The doctors kept trying: He received two shots as part of an experimental study on leronlimab, a drug researchers think could improve immune function in severe COVID-19 patients.
As Miguel’s condition continued to decline, Hunter, still living in Coquille, went with another family member to visit her father in Portland. By Nov. 25, he was no longer contagious, meaning she could go in the room with him.
“I was lucky, I got to say goodbye to him,” she said.
Soon after they’d left the hospital, Hunter got a call from the nurses. They said she should come back quickly.
“We flipped a you-ee, and I’m just losing my mind,” Hunter said.
When they arrived, she found her father in his worst state yet. Miguel De La Torre died soon after, in the early hours of Nov. 26, at the age of 56.
“It was COVID that did this.”
On Nov. 28, Miguel’s death became public when the Oregon Health Authority issued a message like more than a thousand it’s shared since March:
“Oregon’s 894th COVID-19 death is a 56-year-old man in Coos County who tested positive on Oct. 26 and died Nov. 26 at Oregon Health & Science University. He had underlying conditions.”
With that announcement, Miguel’s death became a statistic, a number: 894. But to Hunter and her family, he’d always been so much more.
“No matter what, he’d always crack a joke,” Hunter remembered of a loving and caring father.
In the time since her father’s death, Hunter and her family have received an outpouring of support from community members, friends and complete strangers sending condolences and contributing to medical bills through a GoFundMe. Now, she hopes Miguel’s life will remind others in the community about the importance of COVID-19 precautions.
The “underlying conditions” that health officials announce are often vague, but Hunter says Miguel’s asthma diagnosis was all it took to get him that label.
Asthma wasn’t what killed him, though. Without the virus, he’d still be alive today, she said.
“It was COVID that did this,” Hunter said.
Winder added that some in the community haven’t taken the virus threat as seriously as they should.
“It’s not the flu,” Winder said. “If he’d had the flu, he would still be alive today.”
The two have become advocates for the recommendations that are now central to daily life: Avoid gatherings, and listen to public health authorities for guidance on how to stay safe. And, prepare to get vaccinated in the coming months.
“Take it if it’s available, and choose to stay safe,” Hunter said.
Those are simple steps, especially when compared to what she experienced this Thanksgiving.
“You never think it’s going to happen to somebody you know,” she said. “When one of your family members are a statistic, it’s just a really big slap in the face.”