'This is literally life or death': Motivational speaker shares experience losing father to COVID-19

ABC News(BAKERSFIELD, Calif.) — BY: MATT GUTMAN and MEREDITH DELISO

Misty Diaz has undergone 28 surgeries due to spina bifida. During the hundreds of days she’s spent in hospital beds, her father would drive his pickup the 110 miles from Bakersfield, California, to Los Angeles to visit her in the hospital. When visiting hours ended, he’d return to his parked truck, curl up for a few hours in the flatbed and drive back to Bakersfield in time for his 4 a.m. shift at a grocery store.

“My dad sacrificed everything,” said Diaz, a motivational speaker and adaptive athlete who uses crutches.

“He worked so hard to make sure that I, despite having a disability, would be OK,” she said, noting that the family needed health insurance to ensure Diaz got the care she needed. “There has not been a day he has not worked.”

Lately, Diaz has been the one sitting vigil outside a hospital. When she learned that her father’s kidneys were failing as he neared the end of his battle with COVID-19, she did the reverse drive, from L.A. to Bakersfield, to be with her family.

Her father, Jose Pinales, passed away at the age of 62 on Wednesday morning, nearly two weeks before his retirement, Diaz said.

In a tearful interview with ABC News’ Matt Gutman on Wednesday, Diaz described the past two-and-a-half weeks as a “slow-walking nightmare.”

After her father was diagnosed with COVID-19, “it started escalating from one to 100 literally overnight,” she said.

At first, Pinales lost his sense of taste and had body aches and a slight fever. By the third day of his diagnosis, he was hospitalized. Before he was intubated and put on a ventilator he texted Diaz, “I love you.”

Diaz said she never thought it would be their last communication. She had always thought she would die before the man who’d always protected, but never coddled her, did.

When she was a child, her father built her a treehouse in an apple tree. When she asked him how she was supposed to get into it, he replied, “Figure it out.” So she asked for a rope, which he tied to a branch, and she would haul herself into it. When she was old enough to drive, they both learned how to use hand controls for drivers who are disabled.

But late Tuesday night, Diaz and her siblings had to decide to allow him to die. His kidneys had failed and medical staff feared a heart attack was next. “We just didn’t want him to be in any more pain,” she said.

A nurse held up an iPad so they could FaceTime him and say goodbye.

Hours after they signed a DNR (do-not-resuscitate) order, Pinales passed peacefully, nurses told Diaz.

When a nurse assured her that her father had not died alone, that he was surrounded by staff, even though all families were prohibited from the ward, Diaz said she wept.

 Diaz posted a wordless video on TikTok Monday after a particularly hard day during her father’s illness. She filmed herself weeping — great, big grief-stricken sobs. It has been viewed more than 683,000 times.

“I want to use my influence to shed light on how serious this COVID is,” she wrote. She begged people to wear a mask.

“People just need to make adjustments,” she told ABC News. “It’s about respecting other people.”

“This isn’t a joke,” she added. “This is literally life or death.”

Her family decided to cremate her father, said Diaz, who plans to make a necklace out of his ashes to wear during her competitions.

“He taught me to never give up, to keep on going, use your voice,” Diaz said. “‘Walk with your legs, Mija. Walk with your legs one foot in front of the other.’ That’s what he always would tell me. ‘You have the ability to walk — walk.’ So today we’re going to take it one day at a time and just walk through this.”

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