By Gayle Gupit Mayor
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Waiting anxiously at the hospital lobby of Swedish Issaquah, Beija Flor clutches a yellow sign with the handwritten words “BEST DAD EVER!”
Michael Flor finally emerges after a record-breaking 62 days in the hospital fighting COVID-19. He reunites with his wife, Elisa Del Rosario, and daughter Beija as applause erupts from the doctors, nurses, and caregivers.
“When they say that fighting this COVID-19 is going into unchartered territory, it is so true,” Elisa said.
Flor started feeling achy and feverish on Feb. 25 and after a few days of ups and downs, he was transported to Swedish Issaquah at 2:30 a.m. on March 5. Initially he was diagnosed with having pneumonia, but his results came back positive for COVID-19 the following day.
A few weeks after being admitted to the hospital, complications from the virus caused his major organs to fail. Data shows that the disease frequently leads to hospitalization and death in men over 60 years old.
“We were told to say our goodbyes on the evening of March 28,” Elisa said. “No words can capture the depths of our despair that night because we couldn’t even be with him. But nurse Louise, same name as his mother’s, promised she would stay in the room so he wouldn’t be alone.”
Flor’s stay in the intensive care unit, including 29 days on a ventilator, is considered the longest on record at Swedish.
While in the hospital last March 17, on Saint Patrick’s Day, Michael Patrick Flor turned 70. Elisa, Beija, and Beija’s boyfriend Sam sang together through the sunroom window, while nurse Missy held the phone to Flor’s ear.
“He may have been able to hear us.” Even though Flor was still sedated, Elisa was hopeful.
Flor was born in 1950 and grew up in a mixed-race household. His father, Vincent, was from Iloilo, Philippines, and the ancestry of his mother, Louise, can be traced back to Baden-Baden, Germany. Growing up, he naturally struggled with identity.
“I recognized that I was both of Filipino and German backgrounds, but didn’t know much about either. Having one foot in the Filipino culture and the other in a white culture was interesting for me,” Flor said. He grew up in Seattle’s culturally and ethnically diverse Central District.
“Parents watched and took care of all the kids and every door of every home was open to all the kids to run in and out of all day long,” Flor said. “My experience with the Filipino culture was family and community get-togethers … there were many social activities at the local churches—Maryknoll and Immaculate—as practically everyone I knew was Catholic.”
After graduating from Seattle’s Immaculate Conception School, Flor attended O’Dea High School.
“This was my introduction to being an “other” as previously, all my classes were predominantly made up of students of color,” Flor said.
Before beginning college at the University of Washington, Flor worked in the canneries of Alaska, where he experienced discrimination. Back then, the sleeping areas and work at the canneries were segregated.
“The jobs for each were as segregated as the Filipinos worked sorting and butchering fish, the Natives did sliming and pulling fish guts and eggs, and the white guys supervised,” Flor said. “But despite this, I made friends with many manongs who made sure we were doing, or at least trying to do, the right thing.”
He often struggled with his ‘Filipino-ness.’ “While I identified as being a person of color, an Asian American or Filipino, I often really didn’t know what that meant,” Flor said. “It wasn’t until I met my wife and we traveled through the Philippines in the late 80s that things came into perspective.”
Michael and Elisa met in 1987, when they both worked for United Way of King County, and they eventually got married in 1990.
They have two children— Christopher, 26, who graduated from the University of Portland, and Beija, 24, who graduated from Lewis & Clark College. Flor doted on his children and taught them many life lessons.
“He was basically ‘Mr. Mom’ for 10-plus years during our kids’ crucial teen years in middle school and high school,” said Elisa.
Christopher recalls the time when his dad taught him how to ride a bike at Lincoln Park. After falling repeatedly and feeling discouraged, his dad convinced him to persevere.
“I felt his hand guiding me forward,” Christopher said. “I looked back as if thinking, ‘let go,’ but there he was about 40 yards back, beaming with joy.”
Both Flor and his wife Elisa share an interest in working with underrepresented groups. Flor is the associate director at Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, and Elisa is the deputy director for the Asian Counseling and Referral Service.
“We are both committed to social justice causes and participate in rallies, marches, and demonstrations for equity and equality,” said Flor, who has worked for various nonprofit organizations for most of his career.
One of his earliest influences was Bobby Kennedy.
“While I was very young, I was taken by his passion and commitment to better our society for all people, but especially people of color,” Flor said. “Locally, I was influenced by the Gang of Four— Bob Santos, Bernie Whitebear, Roberto Maestas, and Larry Gossett—for their commitment to working on behalf of each other and to uniting communities of color towards a common goal. I was honored to know each of them personally and to work with them on different projects.”
Flor is an avid cook and enjoys entertaining friends and family at home. He is someone that people enjoy being around.
“He nurtures by nature, through the food he cooks, the stories he tells, and the space he creates that welcomes people,” Beija said.
Before contracting COVID-19, Flor was an active soccer referee in youth and high school games.
“I was a referee for over 10 years and also liked mentoring new, younger referees and supporting their development,” Flor said.
During Flor’s absence from home, neighbors, friends, and family helped with groceries, brought prepared meals, ran errands, mowed the lawn, and helped with minor repairs in the house. At one point, a neighbor even fixed the family’s broken refrigerator.
“All that compassion, care, and support gave me strength,” Elisa said. She recorded the emotional journey through an online journal, which she described as being somewhat therapeutic.
He was treated with remdesivir and other off-label therapies as part of the treatment protocol. Countless doctors, nurses, and therapists were instrumental in his recovery from the illness.
“We can’t thank the medical team at Swedish ICU enough for all they did for Michael,” Elisa said. “We owe a big debt to health care workers for their compassionate care, even in the face of danger and risk to themselves.”
On May 20, after 15 days at a skilled nursing facility, Flor made his long-awaited return home. His West Seattle neighbors came out in full force to welcome him.
“My dad has always taught me to show love and compassion. After he returned home, he has imparted that notion ten-fold,” Beija said. “He says that we always have second chances with all facets of our lives. His experience with second chances was much more literal than what most of us will ever experience.”
Two months in bed at the ICU resulted in the loss of over 30 pounds, muscle atrophy, loss of endurance, and loss of balance. Flor will continue to receive physical therapy to build muscle strength and relearn how to walk. He will continue to receive dialysis treatments.
“My medical team was fantastic. … The emotional care I received from the team of nurses was beyond belief and helped me more than any physical care that they provided,” said Flor. “It could have been very easy to be depressed, but my humor, the care I received from the hospital staff, and the love and prayers I received from my family and friends helped me survive.”
Although the Flors haven’t received the actual bill, the 181-page expense accounting from Swedish Issaquah amounted to roughly $1.1 million, which doesn’t include physician fees, skilled nursing facility stay, in-home physical therapy, and dialysis three times a week.
“While the costs are mind-blowing … I have Medicare and Medicare Advantage, which will cover most, if not all, of the expenses,” Flor said. “We understand that Congress also set up a fund for all COVID-19 expenses.”
Flor is optimistic about the future.
“Spending two months in ICU at Swedish Issaquah fighting and beating COVID-19 gave me a new perspective on my life and my relationships.” He and Elisa will be celebrating 30 years of marriage in August.
“At a minimum, I see Elisa and I traveling to visit all the countries we’ve talked about but haven’t had a chance to see yet.”
The family is well aware that thousands have lost their loved ones to the virus.
“While we celebrate my dad’s life, I am personally going to hold in my thoughts all of the grieving families who lost their fathers or loved ones,” Beija said. “This Father’s Day is a celebration of the second chance in life as a family.”
On the day Flor left the hospital, he wore a black T-shirt with the iconic ‘S’ logo— ‘S’ for Superman. This man—a husband, a father, a community advocate—had beaten the novel coronavirus beyond all odds. On many levels, Michael Flor is, indeed, Superman.
Gayle can be reached at email@example.com.