One year later: Remembering Loretta Dionisio, the first COVID death in LA County

Loretta Mendoza Dionisio with her husband Rodrigo. | Contributed photo

ONE year ago, Los Angeles County marked its first death attributed to COVID-19.

Loretta Mendoza Dionisio, a retired 68-year-old Filipina, was traveling with her husband, Rodrigo, when she contracted COVID-19.

“The couple had a recent layover in South Korea, and once they landed in Los Angeles on March 8, the wife had tested positive for COVID-19,” the Asian Journal reported in March 2020.

Dionisio fell ill on March 9, 2020 and died the next day on March 10 at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center. She was 68 years old.

She was described as “outrageously friendly, the kind of person liable to invite the sales clerk at T-Mobile to join the family for dinner,” in a New York Times report. It was a trait that made her children cringe, but was also something they loved.

She was also described as “tough,” having been a diabetic and survivor of two bouts of breast cancer.

Dionisio was born in Pasay City, Philippines, to parents who had fled by foot into the countryside to escape the Japanese occupation during World War II, at times eating roots to survive, according to the NY Times.

She met her husband at an art school in the Philippines, and they left for the United States in the 1970s, finding work as commercial artists.

They settled in Orlando and raised their two children, Rembert and Rowena.

However, “an unfinished business” in the Philippines nagged at Loretta.

“Her father, who had grown up in poverty, had spent years scrimping to buy land for a coconut plantation in the coastal region of Camarines Norte, promising his children it would support them in their old age,” said the NY Times.

“This was dubious — the land’s value had dwindled over the years to a few thousand dollars, and the government had forced the family to surrender the property when they immigrated to the United States,” it added.

According to the report, Dionisio was intent on collecting compensation for the plot from the Philippine Department of Agrarian Reform.

“She and her sister had chipped away at this task for years, a wrestling match with provincial land bureaucrats who demanded a long list of notarized documents,” the NY Times noted. “This spring’s trip was the one in which Ms. Dionisio would collect the check.”

Her husband tried to dissuade her as news about COVID-19 was “beginning to circulate.”

The NY Times said Loretta called home in early March to announce that “she had achieved her goal: Zipped inside her suitcase was a check from the Filipino government, compensating the family for the loss of the coconut plantation.”

“She turned toward home, a trip that would take the couple through Thailand and, briefly, South Korea,” it added.

At one point during the couple’s trip, Dionisio had a fever. The couple landed in LA to stay at Rodrigo’s sister’s home in Walnut for two days before returning home to Orlando.

When they arrived, Dionisio called her daughter saying she needed to rest after the 11-hour flight.

“She was joking and laughing about not being able to get into the house,” Rowena told the NY Times. “She said, ‘I’ll call you later. I need to sleep.’ And then I never heard from her again.”

According to reports, Rodrigo performed a cardiopulmonary resuscitation first aid procedure on Dionisio when he couldn’t wake her up.

She was taken to Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center and went into cardiac arrest four times. She was declared dead at 2:57 a.m. on March 10.

The day after, LA County officials reported that Dionisio tested positive for COVID-19 and that her death was the first known case connected to the virus in the county.

“It’s hard for me to come to terms with the fact that Mom is gone,” Rowena told the NY Times. “I’m searching for her. Her smell. I want to touch her hand.”

To date, 525,904 people from the U.S. have died from COVID-19. In LA County alone, 22,041 individuals have been taken by the virus.

Editor’s note: The Asian Journal is working to document those of Filipino descent who have lost their lives because of the coronavirus in the United States. If you know of someone or would like to offer a remembrance of someone who has died of COVID-19, please tell us about them by emailing [email protected] with the subject line “Remembering Lives Lost.”

Ritchel Mendiola

Ritchel Mendiola is a staff writer and reporter for the Asian Journal. You can reach her at [email protected].

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