For 18 days after Erika Becerra gave birth, she fought for her life, hooked up to a ventilator in a Detroit hospital.
Diagnosed with COVID-19 on Nov. 7 at just shy of nine months pregnant, Becerra, 33, was otherwise healthy, relatives said, and excited to welcome her second child.
Initially, her coronavirus symptoms were manageable at home: body aches and some tightness in her chest, Claudia Garcia, Becerra’s aunt and godmother, said.
But then, Becerra started having problems breathing, and her husband, a landscaper, rushed her to the hospital by ambulance. With her condition worsening by the day, doctors opted to induce Becerra on Nov. 15, a couple weeks before her due date, Garcia said.
Becerra’s son, Diego, was born healthy. But chaos followed his birth: Becerra’s oxygen level plummeted, the doctors at Henry Ford Hospital told Garcia. Instead of getting to cradle her baby boy, Becerra had to be intubated.
She never got the chance to hold her newborn, according to her distraught family. At one point, hospital staff brought the baby close to her cheek so he could sense his mother’s presence, a doctor told Garcia, but family members do not know if Becerra was aware that Diego was there.
While Becerra was initially responsive with eye and hand movements in the first several days that she was intubated, her condition deteriorated. On Dec. 3, she died.
“I am speechless when it comes to the reality of this,” Garcia, 41, told NBC News. “We want to make sure everybody understands the tragic consequences of this damn virus. I don’t want anyone to suffer this pain.”
Becerra had recently moved to Detroit from her hometown of East Los Angeles and was a stay-at-home mom to a daughter who turned one year old while Becerra was on the ventilator.
Garcia, who lives in Fontana, California, spoke with Becerra’s doctors daily and relayed the information to Becerra’s Spanish-speaking husband and parents. Every time the phone rang, Garcia jumped, fearful it would be bad news.
She said Becerra’s death has stunned her close-knit family. Becerra was “happy — so, so, happy” to bring a little boy into her family, Garcia said. Diego was named after his father, Diego Becerra, while the couple’s first child, Erika Guadalupe, was named after her. Becerra nicknamed her daughter Lupita.
Her family described Becerra as selfless and caring.
“Erika was the most wonderful person you could ever meet,” Miguel Avilez, her brother, told CNN this week through tears. “For her, other people’s happiness was her happiness.”
Becerra’s family does not know where she got the coronavirus, but believes it was during a hospital visit she had made when she started having preterm contractions. Doctors have told her family that her death was due to the coronavirus, not any complications of pregnancy or delivery, according to Garcia. (Henry Ford Health System in Detroit declined to comment, citing patient privacy laws.)
An uncommon phenomenon in pregnant women
Deaths of pregnant women due to COVID-19 are uncommon, but not unheard of, said Dr. Stephanie Gaw, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California at San Francisco.
“We know that most have very mild cases or asymptomatic cases that don’t require hospitalization,” she said. “But we also know that if you do require hospitalization for COVID, you’re more likely to get very sick, and sicker compared to if you weren’t pregnant compared to women of the same age.”
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added pregnancy to a list of conditions that carry a higher chance of severe or fatal complications from COVID-19, based on a large study of pregnant women that found that they faced a 70% increased risk of death compared to symptomatic women who were not pregnant.
Still, Gaw said the overall risk of death remains low for pregnant women with the coronavirus.
“You’re at higher risk of getting very sick, but most don’t get very sick, fortunately,” she said. Nonetheless, pregnant women should take measures such as wearing a mask, social distancing, washing their hands well and “being really selective about who you interact with closely” to reduce their chances of catching the coronavirus, she said.
Becerra took all those steps and still fell ill, Garcia said. Her death comes as the United States is seeing a record uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and fatalities.
The virus has struck minorities, including the Latino community, disproportionately hard. Garcia urged fellow Latinos to take the illness seriously.
“Not everyone makes it,” she said.
No one else in Becerra’s family tested positive for the coronavirus, including Diego, who was monitored for several days at the hospital after he was born. The newborn and his sister are being cared for by their father and Becerra’s parents, who flew to Detroit from California to sit by her hospital bedside for her final moments. Over FaceTime, Garcia got to say goodbye, too.
Becerra’s family plans to hold a small memorial service in Detroit. Garcia started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the funeral; as of Wednesday afternoon, more than $86,000 in donations had poured in, mostly from strangers. Garcia said she was overwhelmed by the generosity.
“We come from a very, very humble background,” Garcia said. “We don’t ask for much. She doesn’t ask for much.”
Becerra’s family will put the overflow of donations toward raising her children. Garcia plans to tell the kids all about their mother as they get older: how Becerra would lovingly rub her pregnant belly with Diego inside; how she would gently play with Lupita; and how everyone she met fell in love with her “beautiful soul.”
“I’m going to make sure their Mommy stays alive in their heart forever,” Garcia said. “They are going to know who their mom was.”
This story was originally published on NBC News.