Coronavirus death of 12-year-old prompts difficult questions

Ernesto Guzman faced numerous health challenges, and as pressure grows to reopen the state, will more children like him face the same fate?

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Ernesto Guzman, 12, a former Gage Park boy who died of COVID-19.

Ernesto Guzman, 12, a former Gage Park boy who died of COVID-19.

From GoFundMe

Ernesto Guzman, age 12, on Thursday became the youngest Illinois resident known to have died from complications of COVID-19.

Ernesto was not a healthy boy, to be sure.

Since age 6, he had suffered the effects of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a genetic nerve condition that weakens muscles, usually of the lower extremities but sometimes respiratory muscles as well.

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Ernesto used a wheelchair or a walker and the help of his mother each morning to get out to the street in the front of their Gage Park bungalow to catch a van that until recently took him to Marquez Elementary, an ACERO charter school.

Ernesto also suffered from asthma and obstructive sleep apnea, two other underlying health problems with potentially serious consequences that have figured into many other COVID-19 deaths, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office.

But make no mistake, doctors say it was the coronavirus that caused the pneumonia that took Ernesto’s life early Thursday morning at Advocate Christ Medical Center, Oak Lawn.

Because his death occurred after midnight, it is not yet counted among the 3,928 official COVID-19 deaths in Illinois, but it was listed among the single-day record high of 126 deaths reported Thursday from Cook County by the medical examiner.

None of those individuals were younger than Ernesto. Previously, the youngest known victim was a 19-year-old man from Riverdale, who died April 10.

Early in the pandemic, state officials announced the death of a 9-month-old infant that they attributed to COVID, but that death remains under investigation by the Cook County Medical Examiner and has never been officially determined to be caused by the virus.

Will the death of a 12-year-old boy cause more people to take this disease seriously?

I doubt it.

Even now, I know someone is reading this and saying “but children die all the time,” and that is true. Children die all the time, and I realize more of them have died of something other than COVID-19 in the two months we’ve been in lockdown.

Still, what if he’s just the first child to die as the disease continues to spread, indeed if it accelerates as we accommodate the desires of those who want to visit their favorite bars and restaurants, or more to the point, the more understandable desire for the owners of those businesses to try to make money again?

There are other vulnerable children. Do we sacrifice them for the sake of the economy, knowing that the financial crisis will take its own toll?

I don’t know the answer to that. Personally, I wouldn’t want to take the risk just yet, but it’s easy for me to say, my family still secure and everyone drawing a paycheck.

Sometime in the last two months, Ernesto’s family moved from the Gage Park home to Indiana, neighbors said. A “For Rent” sign hung Thursday in the window.

In fact, the neighbors did not know Ernesto’s name, not even the children who lived across the street, because Ernesto did not come out and play with the other children, apparently because of his health.

A GoFundMe page that was opened Thursday to support his family showed Ernesto in a white suit at church. First communion maybe? Sorry, I don’t know my religious rituals. But I see a sweet boy.

Officials from Marquez Elementary issued a statement saying they were heartbroken to learn of his death.

“Ernesto was a cherished member of the Marquez community joining our family in Kindergarten through most of his sixth-grade year. Although he and his family recently relocated, he was still one of our Marshals and kept in close touch with his Marquez friends and teachers. He was a special member of our school community.”

“Ernesto loved Fortnite, art projects, science experiments, jokes and riddles, spending time with friends, and is remembered for being an incredibly sweet and loving confidant to everyone he met. We love Ernesto and will miss him with our whole heart.”

I reached a family member by phone. Through her tears, she said she did not speak English.

The man who came on the line next said politely: “We have no comment at this time.”

I’ll have to let their GoFundMe page do the talking.

Since his first surgery for Charcot-Marie-Tooth, Ernesto “has been fighting for his life with his strong spirit,” it states.

“While he may have been taken from us at such a young age, we will never forget the importance of unity and family he valued so much. He was constantly surrounded by love and happiness, and we know he’s made an impact on anyone he’s met.”

Take this seriously, folks. Take it very seriously, because the life you risk may not be your own.

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