Within five weeks of each other, a Hialeah father and son, a retired doctor and another who was treating patients on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, passed away from complications related to COVID-19.
Dr. Jorge A. Vallejo, 89, a retired obstetrician and gynecologist, died on June 27, 2020, after being hospitalized at Palmetto General Hospital on Father’s Day, six days before his death. His middle son, Dr. Carlos Francisco Vallejo, was hospitalized the same day.
A well-established obstetrician in South Florida, Jorge Vallejo delivered what was once considered the smallest baby born in the United States in 1992 at Hialeah Hospital. The little girl, born after 22 weeks and called ‘The Miracle Baby,’ was 15 ounces, or less than 1 pound, when she was born, ultimately tying the record for smallest baby born in the U.S.
“It made me feel near to God,” he told a Herald reporter in 1992, referring to Baby Zascha, who is now 28 years old.
His son, Carlos, 57, died on Aug. 1 after spending 42 days in the intensive care unit at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston. His family said he was caring for as many as 76 COVID-19 patients, many of them elderly nursing home residents, before he fell sick.
Relatives said in interviews with the Miami Herald that five members in their family, including Carlos’ wife, were infected with COVID-19, which they believe Carlos contracted from one of his patients.
The Vallejos are originally from Guantánamo, Cuba. Jorge was born on June 12, 1931, to Spanish immigrant parents, in a family of physicians.
It was in Guantánamo where he met his wife Gisela and together they had three children: Jorge, Carlos and Freddy. Jorge became a psychiatrist, Carlos, an internist, and Freddy, a dentist.
Jorge Vallejo’s family says he was an outspoken critic of Fidel Castro’s revolution and a devout Christian and fled with his wife and two sons on a raft in 1965. (Freddy had not been born yet.) Surviving a precarious journey under the eye of a tropical storm, the family arrived in Key West and later settled in Hialeah.
Jorge spent 10 years learning English before becoming certified as an obstetrician-gynecologist in the States. He worked until his wife’s death in 2005.
He delivered eight of his nine grandchildren and once treated the late Cuban salsa icon Celia Cruz.
In fact, his presence was so ubiquitous that when one of his granddaughters, Jessica Vallejo, first interviewed for a job as a reporter for CBS4 Miami, others at the station asked her if she was “la nieta [granddaughter] del Doctor Vallejo.”
“I asked her, ‘Is by any chance your grandfather a doctor?’ She said yes, and I said, ‘Oh my God, he delivered me!’” said Marybel Rodriguez, co-anchor of CBS4’s News This Morning. “A lot of people came from Cuba, and when they came here, he was their doctor.”
“Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to meet him, but he got me to this world,” said Rodriguez.
His son, Carlos, was born on March 23, 1963, five months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and two years before the family fled Cuba.
“My dad was a great athlete ... he actually turned down a [sports] scholarship to study medicine in the Dominican Republic,” said Carlos’ son, 26-year-old Charlie Vallejo. Charlie is the second of three children.
Carlos’ wife, Lissette Vallejo, 57, said he was a board director at Palmetto General Hospital and led medical teams at three different nursing homes in South Florida. He lived close to his father, whom he often saw and cared for.
“He really was a hero to so many people. I didn’t even want him to go to the nursing home and the hospitals because I was terrified,” said Gisselle Vallejo, his 31-year-old daughter. “He wanted to be loyal. It was like he was available for them 24/7. He really was the true definition of a hero. I knew that when COVID started, that he was going to be a hero.”
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His youngest son, 23-year-old Kevin Vallejo, said he was set to begin medical school Monday at Florida International University, but delayed his first day of classes due to his father’s death.
“He was just my role model. I could talk to him every day for hours,” Kevin Vallejo said. “He was such a giving doctor that if his patients were going through a hard time… he would see them for free and tell them not to worry about it.”
His children said their dad took all the precautions to continue seeing his patients as they battled COVID at hospitals and rehab centers, sometimes taking personal time to make sure patients were comfortable and had what they needed.
“A lot of these patients are scared and alone. A lot of families are not able to say their final goodbyes and it’s a tragedy,” Charlie Vallejo said.
Jessica Vallejo, the CBS4 news reporter, said the death of her grandfather and her uncle have been especially difficult because having reported on the coronavirus crisis herself, she hoped she would not have to directly experience the human toll of the pandemic.
“We just lost basically both of our anchors of our whole entire family,” said Jessica Vallejo, whose parents survived the virus. “In my eyes, [my grandfather] was the American Dream.”