MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In Utah, more than 2,000 people have died from COVID-19. One of them was Mariano Rufino Rodriguez. He went by Rufino and was a beloved respiratory therapist working with Provo's smallest humans in the neonatal intensive care unit.
RUFINO STEPHAN RODRIGUEZ: A lot of these babies have to wear, you know, like, a respirator face mask thing. And it's so hard to get these facemasks to fit the baby's faces. So he sewed, like, a strap for these face masks to be able to be held to the baby's head.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
That's his son, Rufino Stephan Rodriguez. He says his dad was planning to retire before the pandemic hit but felt called to help.
RODRIGUEZ: I still kind of regret it, but I'm like, if you want to work, like, if you feel like you can't leave your coworkers at this time, you know, like, you should do what your heart tells you to.
KELLY: The elder Rufino was a doctor in Guatemala, but his medical license didn't transfer when he immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s. So he started over and in time became a respiratory therapist at Utah Valley Hospital's NICU in Provo. He also worked as part of the local Life Flight team, transporting infants in critical need of care.
RODRIGUEZ: He was known for not only what he did for the babies, but also for the reassurance he brought for the parents. He would get these parents who are fearing for their child's life to laugh, you know? He would help them relax.
CHANG: Rufino Rodriguez had a talent for making everyone he came in contact with feel happy and at ease.
RODRIGUEZ: His smile was so infectious, and he would do such outlandish things. Like, there's a - one of my favorite pictures is he has a mop on his head, and he's dressed up in all his PPE with the face mask on. It's just, like, you know, the most ridiculous things.
KELLY: The younger Rufino was anxiously awaiting the day his father would get the coronavirus vaccine. He had his first dose December 17, then four days later tested positive for the virus.
RODRIGUEZ: I was constantly stressed about him. And then, you know, I finally find out that he got the first vaccine, and it was probably the best news I had. Yeah, but it was, you know - it wasn't early enough.
CHANG: The night he died, dozens upon dozens of Rufino Rodriguez's friends, colleagues and former patients stood outside the hospital. They held the lights on their phones up in the air, pointing to Rufino's room. Above them, a Life Flight helicopter shined its light, too. Dr. Stephen Minton was among them, and he told KSL TV in Utah that Rufino was, quote, "one of those special people."
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STEPHEN MINTON: He lit up the room. That was why last night, all of us were out there with lights. We were sending that back to him.
KELLY: Rufino Rodriguez died in January in the hospital he worked in for more than 30 years, surrounded by his son, daughter in law and in the distance, his community. He was 65.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIEN MARCHAL'S "INSIGHT I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.