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'I Remember Him With That Smile': Beloved Phoenix Doctor Dies Of COVID-19 At 99

Dr. José Gabriel López-Plascencia spent over 60 years providing health care for low-income families in Phoenix.
Dr. José Gabriel López-Plascencia spent over 60 years providing health care for low-income families in Phoenix.

In June, Marcel Lopez and his cousins set up a Zoom video call to say goodbye to their grandfather. Retired physician, José Gabriel López-Plascencia — Dr. López for short — was near death at his home in Phoenix. He was unable to speak, but he let his grandchildren know he was listening.

"Every time we talked to him, he'd kick his leg and move his arms to let us know he was hearing us," Marcel says. As they sang his favorite song " Por Un Amor," he noticed over the video call that his grandfather started crying. "I would've loved to have been there holding his hand, just to see him one last time."

A few hours later, Dr. López died from complications due to the coronavirus. He had just turned 99. Dr. López is one of the more than 163,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States , a disease that has hit the country's Latino population especially hard.

His work in medicine helped generations.

"I remember him with that smile," says Blanca Fernández. She's in her quiet living room in Phoenix looking at a faded photo of a young Dr. López and his wife from their anniversary party. "They were always having fiestas and we were always there, singing and dancing," she says. "We were compadres."

Her photo is proof that Dr. López was a sharp dresser. He's wearing a black tuxedo with ruffles and a big bow tie. For Fernández, that outfit is actually a reminder of the time he saved her husband's life. On a hot Arizona day in 1974, her husband, Jesús Fernández, came home from his construction job with severe symptoms of heat stroke. Instead of dialing 911, Fernández called Dr. López.

"[Dr. López] was on his way to a doctors' banquet and he came to my house right away," Blanca Fernández says. "He came with his tuxedo on and he took care of my husband because my husband was dying. So we are very grateful to him — because he really saved my husband."

Dr. López arrived in the U.S. in 1947 after a Catholic priest in Arizona invited him to help provide health care for low-income families.
/ Courtesy of the López family
Dr. López arrived in the U.S. in 1947 after a Catholic priest in Arizona invited him to help provide health care for low-income families.

The older generation remembers Dr. López as one of the few Spanish-speaking doctors in all of South Phoenix. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1921, he arrived in the U.S. in 1947 after a Catholic priest in Phoenix invited him to help care for low-income families in Arizona. Dr. López practiced medicine and surgery for over 60 years — even enlisting in the Arizona Army National Guard as a medical officer. He served neighborhoods in South Phoenix that once faced decades of segregation and poverty.

"People knew where they could go for help, and that was Dr. López," says former patient Abe Arvizu Jr. He can still picture the crowded waiting room inside Dr. López's office. "It was wall-to-wall — no room — and people out in the hallway waiting. And they were mostly undocumented, or farm workers, or just the poor people from the surrounding areas."

"People didn't have to make appointments, they would just walk in and he would see them," says Olivia Rosales-Murrieta, 83, who was Dr. López's receptionist in the early 1960s. "He never asked me, 'How many more patients do I have to see?' I never — never — heard him complain."

Dr. López (left) enlisted in the Arizona Army National Guard as a medical officer. He retired in 1977 as a Lt. Col., and continued to practice medicine until he was 89.
/ Courtesy of the López family
Dr. López (left) enlisted in the Arizona Army National Guard as a medical officer. He retired in 1977 as a Lt. Col., and continued to practice medicine until he was 89.

Rosales-Murrieta was with Dr. López at the start, back when he saw patients out of his house in Tolleson — a small farming community west of Phoenix. "Most of his patients didn't have medical insurance," Rosales-Murrieta says. "They paid in cash." And if his patients didn't have enough money for an appointment, they would find other ways to pay.

"They would exchange," says Arvizu Jr. "For a lot of people in the barrios, that's how you survived. Whether you did lawns, whether you did cement work, brick work, or whether you had a bakery or made food — [The López's] always had food at their house."

In communities left out of the healthcare system, Dr. López was their trusted caregiver. He looked after multiple generations of family members and stayed with patients until his retirement at 89. He had a saying: "It's not how hold you are; it's how long you've been living."

His family is holding onto those words now, as they're confronted by the devastating tragedies of this pandemic. Shortly after Dr. López's death, his daughter Barbara Ann Sordia and her cousin Humberto "Junior" Trujillo also died from COVID-19.

Like many of his loved ones, 88-year-old Blanca Fernández (with her photo of Dr. López in his tuxedo) decided not to attend his funeral Mass due to rising coronavirus cases in Arizona. She's been home thinking about the last phone call she had with her old friend.

"Oh yes," she says. "Two weeks before he died." Dr. López called to check-in on her family, and to remind her that it was almost his 99th birthday. "We talked for the last time; I'm very sorry about his loss," she says with a pause. "And also, I'm glad. Because pretty soon, I'll be over there with him. I'll be there with Dr. López, singing and dancing."

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