It was a Copacabana sparkle at the end of a cautionary tale.
The celebration of an amazing soul that persevered despite serious, life-threatening complications from one birthday to the next.
Here’s what happened:
In early November of last year, Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza requested a rare day off in a 33-year career at the Chicago Police Department.
It was his birthday, but he wasn’t feeling well.
“I had no idea I had been hit [with COVID-19], although there was no vaccine available then,” said Mendoza, who was working the midnight shift at the Area 5 detective division at Grand and Central avenues.
Mendoza, brother of Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, said it was his partner, now-Lt. Christine Blauel, who worried about how her sick co-worker sounded over the phone, saved his life by calling an ambulance, which rushed him to a hospital.
“I went down pretty fast,” he told Sneed. “I was out of it pretty quickly and not making much sense.”
What followed was a long-haul COVID fight that included nearly two and a half months in the hospital and continues more than a year later.
“I have zero recollection of the first 30 days,” he said.
The virus “caused five or at least six strokes in my brain, cost me both my kidneys and hit me with a number of vascular and renal issues while being hospitalized for 72 days, including 41 days at the ICU at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.”
His sister told Sneed that family members feared the worst.
“We thought we were going to lose him over and over again,” she said. “He spent the rest of his conscious time in the hospital vomiting and dealing with blood pressure going wild in both directions.”
Even though he’s out of the hospital, he said he still has short-term memory loss and needs to “GPS” everything to get to where he wants to go. He still isn’t back to work and has applied for federal disability.
There also was a serious emotional component to his ailment.
“One of my strokes hit a part of my brain ... leading to uncontrollable [crying] ... so I can’t watch ‘Sponge Bob’ or ‘Homestead Rescue’ on TV without crying,” he said with a laugh.
But he then slid into sadness, tearing up and saying, “I’m a guy who has seen a lot of hateful stuff for years as a detective and was able to keep things inside. So this is all new.”
A bachelor who treasured a job he made his life; Mendoza now lives with his mom and sister — whom he calls “Suzie” — and her husband and the couple’s son. (“He’s the only one I permit to call me ‘Suzie,’” the comptroller said!)
So last month, when former state Sen. Bill Marovitz asked her to emcee a Copacabana-style event at his West Loop eatery Carnivale, she initially declined because it was the same day as her brother’s 57th birthday.
“Then, he countered with a suggestion I couldn’t refuse: to showcase the birthday with a toast while I emceed the event,” she said.
Marovitz personally invited her brother, their family and Joaquin’s close friends in the police department to attend the $125-a-ticket event for free.
“I then jumped at the chance to toast my brother,” she said.
Sgt. Mendoza got to celebrate with a night of sizzling Latino music, strutting tapsters, feathered mambo flutterers, pulsating salsa and samba dancers and an aerialist who flipped upside-down while pouring champagne.
“When the room roared with applause during my toast, it was the magic my brother needed for the journey ahead of him,” Susana Mendoza said.
“I truly never thought I’d live long enough to see that night,” said Sgt. Mendoza. “I’d never seen anything like that before.
“I’m still the luckiest guy in the world. To have Suzie in my life is a miracle.”
Thank you for your service, Joaquin.
And may the sizzle of the salsa in your life never stop.
Spigot celebration: Congrats to Chicago’s kitchen designer extraordinaire Mick De Giulio on winning a 2021 Grand Prix International Award for kitchen and faucet designs … Yum. Did you know Chicago’s historic Palmer House, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, invented the original Brownie recipe? Now, you do. … Saturday birthdays: Rita “West Side Story,” Moreno, 90, singer Brenda Lee, 77, Jermaine Jackson, 67, Greg Thompson, 60 and priceless. … Sunday birthday: Dionne Warwick, 81.