How do you thank doctors and nurses for saving your life?

In the case of Margarita Montañez, a 73-year-old grandmother and longtime resident of the City of San Fernando, you do it with tamales.

On Dec. 17, Montañez took over 800 tamales, cemitas (Mexican bread) and salsa to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles as a show of gratitude to healthcare workers who kept her alive after she was admitted into the intensive care unit (ICU) there following a COVID-19 diagnosis earlier this year.

“We [sometimes] don’t know how to repay those who save our lives,” said Montañez, a grandmother of 12.

Her Battle With COVID-19

For Montañez, her health problems began in late March when she started feeling body pains and headaches, and “just wanted to be in bed.”

Accustomed to not worrying her family, she was ill for days without telling anyone, until her situation worsened.

“Later, when I coughed, there was a little bit of blood in the phlegm,” Montañez recalled.

By April 3 she was desperately ill. Her daughter, Cindy discovered  that Montañez’s temperature had risen to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

“She said. ‘Mom, we have to go to the hospital. Get ready,’” Montañez said.

They rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where, after an examination, she was admitted into the ICU. Montañez said she doesn’t remember anything after that.

She said she was in the ICU for four days connected to “every machine” as doctors and nurses worked to save her.

Montañez said her daughters told her that at one point doctors told them “I had to be disconnected [from the life-saving machines] because there was nothing else they could do for me.”

She said her daughters begged the doctors to keep trying and they decided to try an experimental drug as a last resort. That saved her life, she believes, as well as all the prayers from family and friends in her native Veracruz, Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico (where her husband’s family is from).

Montañez regained consciousness about a week later and spent 17 days in the hospital. Throughout that time, she says, the nurses, doctors and healthcare workers came to see her, talk to her and keep her spirits up.

“They always talked with me. We would laugh, converse — that helped me a lot,” Montañez said. “It gave me a lot of energy.”

She recalled a male nurse, who came by one day jumping and with his hands up, saying,“Hallelujah!” “Hallelujah!”

“I thought he was crazy,” she said. “But he told me, ‘you have no idea how I feel. I took care of you in the ICU and I never thought I would see you again.”

The Tamales

During the conversations with healthcare workers, they learned Montañez liked to make tamales for her entire family on special occasions. So they would kid her, telling her she had to bring them tamales for Christmas to try them out.

“Yes,” she would simply answer.

Several months passed and Montañez always remembered those tongue-in-cheek requests.

And she decided to do it.

With help from her sister, family, and a couple of friends, Montañez made nearly 600 tamales — de rajas y queso, y pollo con salsa roja (cheese and green pepper, chicken in red salsa) — to take to the hospital.

It took them four days to make that many tamales and when one of her daughters told the hospital what she intended to do, the hospital had another request:  there was another unit where they had cared for Montañez that also wanted some tamales.

So the family rushed to buy additional tamales from a local store.

In the end, they showed up with over 800 tamales, bread and salsa.  

Doctors and nurses welcomed the food with open arms, and have since sent her messages thanking her for the gesture. A nurse who saw Montañez when she brought the tamales, remembered her and said she wanted to hug her. It was an emotional moment for all.

For Montañez, it’s a small gesture for the gift of life they gave her.

“This was from my heart, to thank them for what they did,” she said.

Rehabilitation

Despite some early weakness, Montañez— who volunteers with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) and is also an Aztec dancer — said she hasn’t suffered some of the lasting secondary effects other COVID-19 patients have reported for several months after recovering from the virus.

She has tested negative 11 times since leaving the hospital and plans to get the vaccine as soon as she’s eligible to get it.

“I would gladly get it,” she said. 

She encourages others to not be afraid of getting vaccinated, and to also get tested and wear a mask.

“This (virus) does exist. A mask is the only thing that protects us. It’s very easy to use it. When you head outside, you have to wear it because you never know where you could get (coronavirus),” Montañez said.

She also wants others to thank healthcare workers who are on the front lines and saving people’s lives.

“Take them a cake, some cookies, anything. They are risking their lives for us,” said Montañez, who will be preparing more tamales for Christmas.

But this time she won’t be making as many as she did for the hospital workers. It will be just enough to distribute among her children and grandkids because the family won’t be gathering this year in order to keep safe from the pandemic.

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