Every Christmas Eve for the past decade, Gerry Rangel dressed in a black coat and sunglasses to act as Santa Claus’ bodyguard at a family party that brought together dozens of his relatives in his hometown of Long Beach, California.
The 39-year-old, who used to work as a bouncer, would escort St. Nick around the party, shooing away the little ones to give him some space. “It was the most hilarious thing,” his cousin Erika Alvarez told BuzzFeed News.
But for 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the family decided not to see each other for the holidays, hoping that by staying home they would be able to safely get together sometime in 2021. Then in December, as California’s case numbers and hospitalizations began to spike, Gerry, his brother Oscar Rangel, and their parents got COVID-19. On Christmas night, Gerry, who had diabetes, was feeling dizzy and short of breath, so he called 911. Paramedics checked him out, told him to get some rest, and said to call urgent care if his symptoms worsened, his family said. The next day, he died at home.
“We’re just at a loss now,” Oscar said. “A part of us is just gone, and that's never going to come back.”
For the past couple of months, the state’s healthcare system has been inundated with an unprecedented number of COVID-19 patients. In Los Angeles County, where the Rangels live, virtually zero ICU beds were available over Christmas and New Year’s. Ambulances waited hours to offload patients, staff treated people in hospital gift shops and hallways, and paramedics opted against transporting some patients who weren’t severely ill — who under normal conditions would have been able to get hospital-level care.
A spokesperson for the Long Beach Fire Department confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it had responded to the address where Gerry lived with his parents on Dec. 25 and again on Dec. 26, when he died, but could not release any information about the visits because of privacy law. Gerry’s family and friends still don’t know why paramedics declined to take him to a hospital, but they can’t help but wonder whether he might be alive today if they had.
“It's almost like they just told him to lay down and die,” said Ti Cross, a friend of Gerry’s since high school. “They just left him there.”
Born on April 1, 1981, Gerardo Bruno Rangel, who went by Gerry, spent his entire life in Long Beach, where much of his large, close-knit family also lives. Everywhere he went, he repped his hometown. “He was Mr. Long Beach,” his brother Danny Rangel said.
“I don’t think he owned any other shirts besides Long Beach shirts,” Alexis, Danny’s 17-year-old daughter, added.
For many years, Gerry worked as a bartender and security guard at bars and nightclubs in the city’s downtown. But his primary passion, aside from his family, was working with kids as an instructional aide for the Long Beach Unified School District and camp counselor for the YMCA.
He often worked multiple jobs, yet always made time for his family, taking the kids to the mall or the amusement park and showing up for birthdays and game day gatherings. He was the fun uncle to his brothers’ and cousins’ kids and a teddy bear to all.
“He was the happiest, most loving, most giving, selfless person that you could possibly know,” Alvarez said. When Gerry would walk into a room, everybody would stop what they were doing and scream his name, she added.
He was “the life of the party,” his brother Oscar said. “He always had a smile on his face, always had people laughing and smiling. He was just an entertainment package in one person.”
As an instructional aide, Gerry was the adult in the room whom students gravitated to. Keturah Robinson, a biology and earth science teacher at Beach High School, told BuzzFeed News that when he would help chaperone field trips to the Aquarium of the Pacific and California Science Center, the teens always wanted to be in his group.
“[As] a Long Beach native and Mexican American man, he could relate to students in ways that I could not as a white woman, where they really identified with him,” Robinson said. “He just had a rapport with them.”
After working for years, Gerry went back to school in his thirties, earning an associate degree from Long Beach City College and then a bachelor’s in psychology from the California State University, Long Beach. Shortly before his death, he finished his first semester of a master’s program in therapy and counseling at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
He hoped to one day be a school counselor and even talked about starting a youth center, said Cross, Gerry’s friend since high school.
“I was proud of Gerry,” she said. “I'm glad that he got to that point where he started to know himself better and know what he wanted to do for what was supposed to be the rest of his life.”
Losing Gerry amid a surge of COVID-19 cases, at a time when it’s been unsafe for friends and family members to be together, has made his death all the more devastating, his loved ones said. Gerry faced a higher risk of developing a severe illness from the coronavirus because he had diabetes, a reality that his friends and family said he took seriously. “We were both working hard to stay as virus-free as possible,” Cross said.
The day before Gerry died, she sent a group text to him and other friends, wishing everyone a merry Christmas and expressing relief that they had all stayed healthy throughout the pandemic. She didn’t know at the time that Gerry was sick.
“I joked with our group, saying, ‘Man, I'm so glad that we all made it through 2020,’ and it's crazy because we didn't,” Cross said.
Since Gerry’s death, two other Rangel family members, a cousin and an uncle, have died of COVID-19. They believe all three were infected separately.
“Our family is living through a nightmare,” Alvarez said. “I feel like I'm walking in fog, like this isn’t real. This is stuff that you see on the news and isn't going to happen to you, but it's happening. We’re living it, and it’s something that we’re going to have to live with the rest of our lives.”
Now, they hope others will heed the calls to wear a mask, keep socially distancing, and stay home as much as possible, even as California allows some businesses to reopen and group activities to resume.
“We never thought we would have got it. We all got it, and unfortunately we had a brother that passed away,” Oscar said. “It's just so easy to get it. It just happened so quick. All these people are saying it's fake or it's not real or it's not going to happen to me, but it’s happening. This is real.”