Nello Rubio liked to make people smile.
“When he walked into a room, everyone knew it because within minutes they were all laughing,” said Karen Rubio, his wife.
Nello, who was infected with COVID-19, suffered a coronavirus-related stroke on May 4. On May 9, he died. He was 57 years old and in reasonably good health. Although he had Type 2 Diabetes, Nello had been focused on losing weight, reducing the medication he needed to take for the diabetes.
In the second half of April, he was advised by his employer to remain at home because several of his coworkers had been diagnosed with COVID-19. The next day, he developed a fever and was told by his employer to go get tested. His test was positive for COVID-19, and thus he believed that he contracted the illness from his coworkers. Thereafter, Karen became sick too, and they quarantined themselves at home.
COVID-19 hit them hard. Nello’s fevers were high and hard to control, and he had chills and headaches. Karen was weak. She suffered from pain throughout her body. She lost weight rapidly, unable to eat. Her cough was worse than Nello’s, whose wasn’t that bad, more of a throat-clearing. They both lost their sense of taste and smell.
Gradually, after about two weeks, Nello began to improve. He was getting up and walking around. His fever was gone.
“He was over the worst of it,” said Karen who, at the time, was still very sick herself.
But on May 4, when she went to the bedroom to check on him, something wasn’t right. When Karen spoke to him, his answer didn’t make sense, and he wasn’t moving normally, so she suspected he’d had a stroke.
She remembers being overwhelmed by the realization that she needed to get him to the hospital, which meant maneuvering down a narrow staircase. At that moment she thought, “God, please get me through this.”
For a second, Karen said, she lost focus. “My whole life went through my head. Everything.” But she had to get her husband down to the first floor, which was a struggle.
“I felt like God was with me at that moment, when I needed help to get him down the stairs,” said Karen.
But as soon as he got to the bottom of the stairs, he collapsed. And he didn’t speak again.
When the ambulance left her house, taking Nello to the hospital, she didn’t know it would be the last time she’d see him.
Long ties in town
Nello moved to Forest Park when he was in sixth grade. He attended Field Stevenson and the Forest Park Middle School. Then he went to St. Joseph High School.
He and Karen met in seventh or eighth grade.
“We looked at each other. And then we looked away. We were not interested,” said Karen with a laugh.
When she was a sophomore in high school at Trinity, they met again at a dance. He asked her out. She said no.
“But the next year, he asked me out again, and I said yes,” said Karen. She was a junior in high school, and he was already working at Ferrara Pan, the company he worked at for 42 years.
Karen graduated from Trinity in 1982 and married Nello a year later. “We would have been married 37 years this August,” she said.
At Ferrara Pan, Nello mostly worked in shipping, but Karen said he took on different roles there, from making candy for a short period of time to helping with personnel issues and smoothing production processes at different company locations.
“He knew how to organize people and production,” said Karen.
Karen and Nello lived together in a few apartments until they moved to the house she’s lived in for 25 years.
“Our family was involved in everything,” said Karen. “You name it, we probably did it.” Their children participated in swimming at the park. Baseball. Their sons were in Boy Scouts. Their daughter in Girl Scouts. The kids went to camp at the park district. Attended the public schools in town.
Now, their children are grown. Nello, the oldest, will turn 34 on June 13. Michelle is 32. Nico is 30. Michelle has two boys of her own, and Karen and Nello have been involved in their lives as well, helping out at school functions and with Boy Scouts. Their own children grew up dancing – Nico has danced all over the world – and this became an important part of their grandchildren’s lives too.
“Nello got really involved at the dance studio when our grandsons were taking lessons,” said Karen. They both attended travel competitions with them, and Nello helped with props. He was one of the “dance dads,” even though he was a grandfather.
“He was a family man,” said Karen. “And we were a very proud Nana and Papa.” (They didn’t want to be called “grandma” and “grandpa,” added Karen, laughing.)
“When I think about the happiest times we had, it was at our kids’ or grandkids’ events,” said Karen. “Baseball games or dance competitions. We had so much fun.”
A difficult decision
Nello was taken to the hospital on Monday, May 4. The doctors were in regular communication with Karen, who couldn’t visit because she was still so sick herself, and the hospital was limiting visitors anyway.
And then on a Thursday in May, they called with bad news.
Nello’s brain was swelling. The doctors said they could cut and remove a piece of his skull to reduce the swelling. But they told her he would never be the same. He wouldn’t be able to walk or talk. He probably would lose most of his comprehension.
Without the surgery he would likely die.
The doctors wanted to know how to proceed.
“I asked my kids if they would hold it against me if I decided against the surgery,” said Karen. The nurses, whom she’d been talking to regularly, said Nello showed no signs of comprehension.
But before she had to choose, the doctors called back. They had decided not to operate. It wasn’t safe.
“I was grateful that it was no longer my choice,” said Karen.
Nello died that Saturday morning at 6:18 a.m. Over Zoom, his family told him they loved him.
“The hardest part is nobody was with him when he died,” said Karen. “I hope he didn’t know he was alone.”
‘This is not pretend.’
Karen said that physically, she’s feeling better now. She’s no longer coughing, and she’s moving around. But she’s still weak, and she’s lost weight. Muscle. Strength.
“It’s really hard,” said Karen. “I feel so cheated by life sometimes.”
She and Nello had an agreement. “His mother is 92. He was supposed to live until he was 100. But that didn’t happen.”
There are things Karen wants people to know.
First, how loved and loving Nello was. “He had strong family ties, and a great love of his kids and grandkids,” she said.
Second, that the COVID-19 crisis is real, and it impacts people in the community – your neighbors, your family, your friends.
“I want to see people wearing masks,” said Karen. “This is not pretend. This is real. It’s about protecting yourself and your loved ones and the people around you.”
Those who have lost someone to COVID-19 understand the risks of not wearing a mask and the importance of being safe, said Karen. “Wearing a mask and protecting yourself and others can be the difference between life and death.”
Karen will miss his laugh. The joy he brought to family and friends. He was a big sports fan, particularly fond of the White Sox, but with such a love for boxing and wrestling that he used to host watch-parties at their house.
And the world, said Karen, will not be the same without his accepting attitude, the openness with which he greeted everyone he encountered.
“What we had in common,” said Karen, “was that we had love in our hearts for everyone we met. We always gave people the benefit of the doubt until they gave us a reason not to. When we loved someone, they were part of our life forever.”
Contributions to help Karen Rubio and her family can be made at gofundme.com/f/nello-e-rubio039s-funeral-fund.