After getting COVID-19 and facing 25% chance of surviving, 17-year-old Iowa City student to graduate
On a rainy spring afternoon, Iowa City High School teacher Tom Braverman asked his student of four years, Issac Cortez, why his senior year stood out from the rest.
Cortez, a soft-spoken 17-year-old, was quiet for a moment while gathering his answer.
"Because I was near death?"
Braverman smiled. He had been thinking about Cortez's impending graduation, scheduled for June 6, and all the work it takes for students to get there — not necessarily his experience with the coronavirus. But that's where Cortez's mind jumped.
"I wasn't afraid, at first, when I heard about COVID-19," Cortez said in an interview with the Press-Citizen, "because I guess I thought, 'It's not going to affect me.' Until that day that it did. And since I got out of the hospital, I've just been more concerned about my own safety and other people's safety as well."
Cortez spent Dec. 4 to Jan. 6 in the hospital
In early December, Cortez had been staying back from school at his home in North Liberty, just outside Iowa City, for about a week. He expected that eventually his head would stop aching and his body would no longer feel weak and swollen.
Then he woke up around 5:30 a.m., struggling to breathe. His mother, Gloria Turcios, later described the scene like watching him drowning in the air.
They rushed him to the hospital, where Cortez ended up spending a month confined to bed and intubated in a coma for three weeks.
Doctors said there was about a 25% chance he would survive.
Turcios was allowed to remain by her son's bedside at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital, providing a sense of support that isn't always an option for those whose loved ones are hospitalized with COVID-19. Although she did not have the virus, she was still restricted from leaving the room and could exit the building only once per day.
She remembers a particular moment from their time at the hospital: a hug from a Chilean doctor, trying to calm her down. That was the low point of the hospital stay, about a week and a half in, when a team of doctors had to fight to keep Cortez's heart working.
"Me acuerdo que una doctora Chilena me abrazó, y me dijo que Issac — el corazón de el estaba en muy mala condición," she said, describing the scene in Spanish.
Translated: "I remember when a Chilean doctor hugged me, and told me that Issac — his heart was in very bad condition."
The experience was more than terrible, Turcios said. But it was made worse because she didn't expect someone so young to be seriously ill.
Since the onset of the pandemic, only 4% of coronavirus cases in Iowa have been reported among people 17 years and younger.
Turcios said that watching her son fight for his life was also a reminder that it's not uncommon for Hispanic communities to have doubts about COVID-19. That's why she posted pictures from the hospital on social media.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanic/Latino populations are twice as likely to contract the virus as non-Hispanic whites. They are 2.8 times as likely to be hospitalized for it.
She wanted people to spread the message that the coronavirus is "real," it's "fierce," and "you have to believe it exists, because my son almost died from it."
Issac is now vaccinated and ready to graduate
Cortez's condition eventually improved enough that he could leave the ICU. He passed the time recovering by watching "Spiderman" and "Jumanji" from his hospital bed, a stand-in for his preferred pastime, video games. His favorites are "Call of Duty" and "Battlefield."
In a recent post-COVID checkup, Cortez was relieved to learn that his heart doesn't appear to have any long-term damage from the virus. He also received his vaccination via a clinic put on by the Iowa City Community School District in early May. He says other people should do the same for their own safety, because "you don't want to end up in the hospital like I did."
He'll go on to participate in the district's work experience program as part of the special education department, building job skills for post-graduation life.
Braverman says that in the time he's known Cortez, whose nickname is "Lord Craig," he's learned he's a force to be reckoned with: He's funny and often sarcastic, but also has a "deadly serious side and has said some of the most profoundly insightful things."
Braverman also says that "when any of his friends were feeling low or in need of some good advice, Issac provided it, and he stood by them when none of their other peers would."
Issac's absence, and the reason for it, didn't go under the radar at school. Braverman says teachers, friends, paraprofessionals, support staff and administrators were all genuinely concerned for him, and like his peers, prayed for his quick recovery.
"Of course, I also believe that the doctors and staff at the University of Iowa were amazing and collectively committed to making sure Issac would get out, graduate and go on to live a long, fruitful life," he said.