ST. PAUL -- It’s been almost three months since state health officials reported the first Minnesota death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Luningning Mariano, 88, of St. Anthony Village, died March 19, just a few days after testing positive. As of Saturday, 1,282 more people in Minnesota have also died of complications related to the virus.
“It’s going to touch all our lives — whether it’s a neighbor or a friend or a friend of a friend,” said Eleanor Beltran, one of Mariano’s daughters. “If you’re not touched by the virus, and you don’t know anybody, you could say, ‘Well, maybe I could be safe,’ but with all these deaths, it comes nearer to all of us. It really is sad to think of how many have died since Mom passed away.”
The coronavirus has exacted a heavy toll on Minnesota since Mariano’s death. There have been business owners, church organists, janitors — loved ones missed by many who have died. The virus hit Minnesota’s seniors the hardest: 82% of those who died were over the age of 70.
When the first Minnesota death was announced, officials would only explain that the patient was a Ramsey County resident in their 80s. The Minnesota Department of Health would not give a name or even say if it was a man or woman, only that the patient had undisclosed underlying health conditions in addition to the risk factor of being a senior citizen and that it appeared they had contracted it from a relative who had traveled internationally and later tested positive for the virus.
The Pioneer Press searched records to reach out to the patient’s family. Here is Luningning Mariano’s story:
It came on suddenly
Family members aren’t sure how Mariano contracted COVID-19. Her husband, Inocencio Mariano, died Jan. 31 at the age of 93, and family members traveled from the Philippines to be with her after his death.
Mariano was taking medication for hypertension and also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, Beltran said. Around March 14, her mother started complaining of joint pain and aching muscles. The next day, she told her daughters she had indigestion.
When Mariano woke up on the morning of March 16, she experienced a sudden shortness of breath, Beltran said. They called 911, and Mariano was taken by ambulance to Mercy Hospital-Unity campus in Fridley, Minn.
Over a 12-hour period, she went from needing two liters of oxygen to 15 liters, said Beltran, who is a physician. A normal blood-oxygen saturation — meaning the amount of oxygen in the blood — is usually 100; Mariano’s dropped to an alarming 76, she said.
Doctors wanted to intubate, but Mariano’s health care directive was clear: Do not resuscitate. “She did not want to go on a ventilator,” Beltran said. “She had a living will. That is what she wanted.”
It was a confusing time
That her mother was the first person in the state to be hospitalized with COVID-19 was a mixed blessing, Beltran said. “We were lucky and unlucky in a sense,” she said. “It was really still not known what to do. It was kind of a confusing time.”
Mariano’s three daughters in Minnesota were allowed to spend the last 24 hours in the hospital with her. “At the time, they knew she was slowly getting worse,” Beltran said. “We were able to be with her and hold her hand, and she was able to tell us what she wanted to do with everything.”
Mariano, who had eight children, 21 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren, took a mental inventory of everything in her apartment and began divvying up her possessions, including her books, CDs, cookbooks, pots and pans.
“She said, ‘Remember so-and-so,’ one of the grandkids, ‘wanted to have the writing desk? Oh, give it to her,’” Beltran said. “‘Oh, that blue bag! I noticed one of the grandkids wanted my blue bag; give it to her.’ She was very alert and very with it. Her memory was so good, so she was able to tell us what she wanted.”
Mariano scolded her daughters for being with her in the hospital, because she was worried that they might contract COVID-19; Beltran later tested positive, she said.
“She’d say, ‘Why are you here? Why are you here? Don’t come near me,’” Beltran said.
Prayers and songs
Family members in Minnesota, California and the Philippines got to say goodbye via Zoom. “She was able to talk to everybody,” Beltran said. “We had prayers, and we had songs — the songs that she loved.”
Mariano said she didn’t want a funeral Mass, given the concerns about COVID-19, but she asked for her and Inocencio’s remains to be taken to the Philippines to be interred, according to Beltran. “She said, ‘When the time is right, when everything dies down, I want a big reunion in the Philippines,’” she said. “So that’s what we are going to do, maybe sometime next year when things are better.”
Luningning Mariano’s will included two sentences about what she wanted her family to do when she died: “I just want a Mass for me and for them to sing my favorite songs. And I want them to remember my loving them.”
Happiest among family
Beltran said her mother loved playing mah-jongg and was “unbeatable in Scrabble. She was our walking Scrabble dictionary. She knew the meaning of a lot of short words that make Scrabble fun, like Qi, xu, xi, qat and raia.”
She was happiest when hosting huge family gatherings. She loved to bake and cook; her specialties were baked macaroni, beef stew, lengua de gato (Filipino butter cookies) and ensaimada pastries, Beltran said.
She and Inocencio, who were married almost 67 years, grew up in the Philippines before immigrating to the U.S. in the late 1980s. They lived in California before relocating to Minnesota in 2011 and settling in the Twin Cities.
The couple, who lived at the Landing in St. Anthony Village, baby-sat all of their grandchildren, even the ones who live in the Philippines, and never missed major events like baptisms, birthdays, soccer games, recitals, graduations and weddings, Beltran said.
They loved to dance and listen to music by Filipino and Korean artists. Other favorites: Kenny Rogers, Luther Vandross, MercyMe, Ed Sheeran, Scotty McCreery, Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban.
“In the videos we have of them, they’re always laughing together or dancing,” Beltran said. “They lived a very simple life, but they lived a very full life. They always reminded us to always love each other, and they inspired all of us to live a life of joy. That is their greatest legacy.”