Coronavirus — and commitment — claim much-loved surgical tech from Dearborn

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Her friends know that COVID-19 killed Monica Echeverri Casarez. There's no way to prove it, but they suspect the contributing factor was commitment.

Casarez, 49, went charging into most things full-speed: jobs, causes, laughter, the Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week she co-founded and helped grow. With her two monthly shifts looming at Harper Hospital, though, she admitted she was leery.

A part-time certified surgical technologist at Harper Hospital, Monica Echeverri Casarez loved the orderliness and precision of her job.

She showed up anyway, March 22-23, "because it was the right thing to do," says her best friend, Maureen Sheahan. "She felt like she had an obligation to the people there and the mission."

That was a Sunday-Monday. By Thursday night, she felt a cold coming on. Friday, her temperature spiked. Fifteen days later, in a hospital bed on Sunday morning, she died, while her 63-year-old husband, Jorge, fought his own coronavirus battle at their home in Dearborn.

Monica Echeverri Casarez became one of 1,602 coronavirus fatalities in Michigan, as of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's Monday briefing. Like all of the others, she was more than a number. More than most of us, say those who loved her, she stood up and was counted.

As a tenant, she raised her own rent. As an employee, she was not afraid to raise her voice. As an activist, she was willing to raise hell, but that was the easy part. She was also efficient.

She met Sheahan, 65, fresh out of Canton High School, when she plunged into protests against U.S. policies in Central America. She went on to spend two decades with Southwest Solutions, a Detroit nonprofit, then left to become a certified surgical technologist.

Ultimately, she scaled back at the hospital to juggle a half dozen jobs, among them working with a Southwest Solutions entrepreneurship program, expanding the restaurant week, working as an interpreter for her cousin's translation agency and teaching her medical specialty at Henry Ford College.

"She kept saying she wanted to convey to the students the miracle of the human body," Sheahan says. It was a particular challenge since many speak Spanish or Arabic as a first language, and one of the reasons she kept pitching in at Harper was to demonstrate the possibilities.

"We don't know if the hospital is where she got the virus from," says Diana Beltran, 35, the cousin with the interpreting business. For its part, the Detroit Medical Center declined to comment on Casarez or the number of employees who've contracted COVID-19.

Monica Echeverri Casarez died Sunday of COVID-19. Her husband of seven-and-a-half years, Jorge, is recovering from the disease at home in Dearborn.

What Beltran knows for certain is that Casarez was the most organized person she knew, and one of the most loving.

"She kept a tight calendar. She would text me: 'I have 10 minutes,' and she would call," Beltran says.

Beltran is expecting a son on July 5, and as host of the baby shower, Casarez had just sent invitations.

"She loved stationery, markers, colors, all of that," says Beltran, and the party would have started on time and run on schedule.

Anne Schenk had been a friend for years when she and her future ex-husband bought a Hubbard Farms duplex in 2001. Casarez became the tenant on the first floor.

"We never raised the rent on her," says Schenk, 52. "She would decide she wasn't paying us enough, and start writing larger checks."

The house became something of a social club for a cluster of friends that included Jorge Casarez, who worked with mentally ill adults.

Monica and Jorge shared Latin American backgrounds; her parents emigrated from Colombia, though she was born on vacation in Canada, and his roots extend to Mexico. They also shared a workplace, Southwest Solutions, and a wavering reluctance to risk destroying a friendship with a romance.

"One time, they were both overserved, and they had a little fling," Schenk says. "They were both a little embarrassed by it," but also emboldened.

"We all saw it," says John Van Camp, 76, whose 45 years at Southwest Solutions included decades as CEO. "The energy between them was obvious."

Van Camp, now retired near Sarasota, Florida, says Monica was not afraid to "make me squirm." She'd ask questions, sometimes at accelerated decibels, "pushing the status quo, pushing for better outcomes. But she was right."

With Jorge, the correct answer came more slowly. "Everyone was so full of joy when they became a partnership," Van Camp says.

A year after their first official date, they visited New York. At the top of the Empire State Building, Jorge proposed. The section where they stood, improbably enough, remained theirs alone for 20 minutes as the city and the future lay before them.

They married at an old Hungarian Catholic church in Southwest Detroit and held the reception at the Redford Theatre, where the marquee read, "Good Things Come to Those Who Wait Starring Jorge and Monica."

Monica Echeverri Casarez and her husband Jorge smile in a family photo.

A friend played the guitar. The theater screened "Amelie," a French romantic comedy about a young woman who devotes herself to making other people's lives better. A party followed in the lobby.

The next 7½ years, friends say, was a love story, in ways grand and small.

When Monica felt poorly on that Thursday night, Jorge made her a fruit plate, with sliced apples and segments of what looked to be a tangerine. She posted a picture of it on Facebook, and her friends beamed.

Then, two weeks later, they cried.

She lived at full speed. She died too quickly.

It's the nature of the virus, where the scoreboard reads 1,602 and counting, one by one.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn