A medical technician at the San Diego VA died from COVID-19 Wednesday night, marking the first death of a local VA employee due to the virus.

John Paul Martinez, 62, worked with ventilators and other biomedical equipment at the VA hospital in La Jolla.

Why this matters

About 2,100 employees at VA facilities around the country have been infected with COVID-19. VA workers, locally and nationally, have fought for better working conditions during the pandemic to prevent themselves — and their patients — from contracting the virus.

Martinez was planning to retire later this year before he became sick, his son Josh said. During his weeks in the hospital, healthcare workers resuscitated him three times.

“The whole VA doctor and nursing staff gave their all, 110%,” Josh Martinez said. “They kept me notified, they let me know what was happening even if it was bad information. We have very much love for the hard work and dedication of their staff.”

Martinez’s sister, Bernice Villanueva, said she believes he contracted the virus at the hospital.

“To him, that was his life,” she said. “And that also ended his life.”

Most of Martinez’s family wasn’t able to speak with the father of two after he was admitted to the hospital. His brother Joe said he had been hospitalized for a couple weeks and was on a ventilator when he died.

“To me, he was the world,” Joe Martinez said. “I hate that he left like that. I don’t think he deserved to die.”

Martinez loved barbecuing and going to the beach with his two adult sons, John Jr. and Josh, and his granddaughter, Leila. When he left San Diego for a vacation about two years ago, he returned home without staying a single night because he missed his children too much, his sister said.

John Paul Martinez, right, is the first San Diego VA employee to die from COVID-19. He is shown in this undated family photo. (Courtesy of Bernice Villanueva)

Martinez grew up with 13 siblings in Pearland, Texas. He served in the Army and Navy before going to work at the San Diego VA. He was known for his bubbly personality, always joking and laughing with his family and friends.

“He was loved by many,” Joe Martinez said. “I don’t have the words right now. All I have is pain.”

When Joe Martinez was about 16, he bought himself a Christmas gift — a bike he had purchased with money he saved by working in agriculture fields. John, about 13 years old at the time, was so excited to see that Santa Claus had bought him a bike that Joe let his brother keep it.

“I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was mine,” Joe Martinez said. “It made me feel good that he liked the bike. I got to do something in his life for him he didn’t expect. He was the one who was always helping people. He would give away the last $100 in his pocket.”

At least five other veterans have died from COVID-19 while receiving care in the San Diego VA Healthcare System, which provides healthcare to 86,000 veterans in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Federal statistics show there have been at least 174 patients in the San Diego system with known or likely cases of COVID-19, including at least 10 employees. As of Monday, 54 of those cases are active.

inewsource has reported on unsafe working conditions that contributed to a COVID-19 outbreak among staff at a San Diego VA counseling center, as well an equipment malfunction during a power outage that may have pumped virus-filled air into the hospital’s ICU.

Healthcare workers at the La Jolla hospital have protested against the administration for restricting the use of medical equipment including goggles, masks and gowns during the pandemic. They have also called out hospital leadership for failing to quickly notify staff if they’ve been exposed to the virus.

San Diego VA Director Robert Smith emailed staff on Friday afternoon announcing that Martinez had died.

In a statement on Monday, VA spokesperson Cindy Butler told inewsource the medical center is mourning his loss.

“John was a valued friend and colleague,” Butler said. “We send our deepest condolences to his family and friends. We are grateful to the entire San Diego VAMC (VA medical center) workforce for their service during this important time.”

Martinez is survived by four brothers, three sisters, two sons and a granddaughter.

Martinez’s son created a GoFundMe page to cover funeral costs. You can donate here.

Correction and update: 11:40 a.m., June 30, 2020
An earlier version of this story had a family member saying John Martinez had retired from the San Diego VA last year. In fact, his son said his father planned to retire this year. The story has been corrected and comments from his son added.

Jill Castellano is an investigative data reporter for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club. Jill...