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A Mother & Her Newborn Separated by COVID-19

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SHRUTI GUPTA, MD: Zully’s case, was very unique for us because this was one of our first few cases with a mom who was extremely sick and COVID-positive.

Was the baby going to be extremely sick and infected as a result of COVID, too? We did not know that at that time, there was not a lot of data there.

 

RANEY ARONSON: In Love, Life, & The Virus, a new FRONTLINE documentary premiering tonight on PBS, filmmaker Oscar Guerra tells the story of how coronavirus separated a mother from her  newborn baby, and her struggle to survive - and get her son back.

 

I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE, and this is The FRONTLINE Dispatch.

 

FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation committed to excellence in journalism. And by the WGBH Catalyst Fund. Support for The FRONTLINE Dispatch also comes from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Early detection is key to catching and treating many cancers. You can learn more about the innovative programs at mass-general-dot-org-slash-cancer. Mass General Cancer Center: everyday amazing.

 

ARONSON: Oscar, it's so great to talk to you after all this hard work on your film.

 

OSCAR GUERRA: It's, it's it's really good to be here. So thank you so much for having me.

 

ARONSON: Yeah, I mean, we're so excited. I know this is your first FRONTLINE. So congratulations on making it over the finish line with us together.

 

GUERRA: It feels really good. To be honest I'm also a viewer and a big fan. So it's, it's a real pleasure to be working with such a talented group of people.

 

ARONSON: Thank you. So I was hoping you could set the scene a little bit for us. This is an immigrant family from Guatemala, and the mother Zully is really close to giving birth to her second child when she's hospitalized with the virus. So what happens next? 

 

GUERRA: So it's April 1 and Zully was eight months pregnant and COVID-positive. So doctors determined that she had to be intubated to perform an emergency C-section. Baby Neysel was born on April 2, baby was COVID-negative. The real problem here was that his father Marvin, and his seven year old brother, Junior, were also COVID-positive. So there was no way he could go back to that environment. That was a real problem. So before being intubated Zully was able to call Ms. Luciana Lira. Luciana Lira is Junior's elementary school teacher and she said, help my son, help my husband, and my baby.

 

LUCIANA LIRA: I said, ‘Listen Marvin, I am willing to help 100 percent.’ I really did not know this family. I mean, Zully just came to the United States, I think a year ago and Marvin has been here for six years and Junior is my bilingual student. And that’s how I met them. When we were able to test Marvin and Junior, they were both COVID-19 positive. This baby would have not stand a chance if he went home with his father with COVID-19 and Junior. He’s just a preemie baby.

 

GUERRA: I think that that tells you so much about Ms. Lira’s character and her personality for you to receive a phone call like that: ‘I really need you to take care of my son, my husband and my baby.’ And she did. I mean, can you imagine if you received that phone call? She thought that it was a joke - that it was a prank.

 

ARONSON:  I mean, what's amazing is actually that was the first footage of your documentary that we saw, this really, truly remarkable scene with Ms. Lira and the baby. And, you know, she's holding the baby and she's telling you this incredible story about why she took all of this on. 

 

GUERRA: To be honest, I'm not even sure how I was able to get that access because she was not letting anyone in her house and she told me, ‘Hey, not not even my sister is allowed to be in here.’ And I'm like, ‘Well, I'm gonna try to be, you know, it’s just gonna be me, I'm gonna have a camera. Ms. Lira, trust me, I'm gonna try to be, you know, as cautious as I can be. I think it's just important that you share that story.’ And I think she wanted to share this story. Otherwise, it wouldn't have been possible at all.

 

LIRA: I went to the hospital with Marvin… Oh, my god. Hi, baby… It wasn’t easy because, you know, he saw his son for the first time and he couldn’t even go near him… Mira tu papa. Mira tu papa Look at your papa… And it really broke my heart. After going through such a big trauma, not even knowing if your wife was going to make it… Tu papa tambien te quiere mucho, bebe. Tu mama te va estar esperando… And I took the baby home. Right baby?

 

ARONSON: It was amazing seeing those early scenes that you had filmed. You know, obviously, you guys didn't know how this was gonna turn out. And I remember talking to you some time before Mother's Day, and you were telling us that maybe Zully would get her baby back. I mean, you certainly didn't think it was gonna go on for as long as it did. It was actually five and a half weeks. So tell me about the emotional journey that Zully and Marvin, her husband, were on.

 

GUERRA: You know, I think that the story was so unexpected, and it had so many twists, that I think nobody was expecting it. Ms. Lira thought that she was going to keep the baby for maybe two or three days. It was very emotional to witness the lives of Zully and Marvin. All of them were positive at that time. And the pediatrician said, ‘If the baby's going to go back home, everyone in that house needs to test negative otherwise it can’t happen.’ So you can imagine that the minutes felt like hours, you know, and the hours felt like days to them. It was really difficult for Zully. It was very, very difficult for her because she was going through a lot. You know, she said that she had nightmares pretty much every single night and that she was not able to get any rest at all. You know, it's not easy. Imagine that, she said, ‘I didn't have a chance to look at my son, you know, and I just have like a faded picture of him. And that's the only thing I know.’ They would do a lot of video conferences, so to say through WhatsApp, that was their main way of communication. And Ms. Lira you know, she was sending them videos every day, calling them you know, just to make sure that that bond was still there, kind of like a virtual bond at that moment. But it's the love of Mom, there was this very powerful connection. And you can see it when you see in the scene when she's holding the baby for the first time. I mean, it's just an electrifying moment.

 

ARONSON: One of the scenes that really sticks with me before they are reunited is, you know, when they're sitting on their couch and they're getting the results of their COVID tests and they're all positive. Tell me about that moment. 

 

GUERRA: It was just even just remembering it. It's hard, you know, because I was translating for them. That was also why I thought it was useful for me to be there, because I was translating for them. And I was trying to help them understand a little bit of, of what was going on, you know, because it's, it's not easy when you're, when you have the language barrier, and you have the cultural barrier is like, what's going on, we just want to have our baby here, what needs to happen? And you can only imagine you know what they were going through because you just want to hear that negative result because that's one step closer to your goal, you know of having that little baby with you. And you know that they called and they said that they both were positive. And that was really really hard for them. You know, you can see how Zully breaks in front of your eyes, pretty much. You know she just can't stand it at that moment and then she started, at that moment I haven't had an interview with Zully which she would open up and it's not that she wanted to open up or not. She was just venting out her frustrations at that moment. You know, she said that this is why I have those nightmares at night. Because I can't have my baby here with me. She's very, very frustrated at this moment.

 

ARONSON: We'll come back to my conversation with Oscar in just a moment.

 

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ARONSON: So let's go to the moment where they're reunited. It's literally one of my favorite film moments of all time, you know, as a mother too myself, I just, you know,  you can't watch that and not just melt. So it's five and a half weeks later, they're all testing negative for COVID and they're finally able to reunite with their baby. So tell me about that.

 

GUERRA: Oh, man, that was such an emotional day. You know, we were getting ready for it. And everyone was just so excited. I think that, you know, no one was as excited as Zully because you can see her, I asked her a question. I'm like, ‘How are you feeling?’ And she said you know, ‘My heart is just pumping like this.’ And that's such a beautiful moment in the film, you know, because it tells you, what do you feel? I mean, I have a two-year-old girl, you know, you know what it feels to hug your baby and imagine hugging your baby for the first time. I don't know. I think that moment was beautiful. Everyone was so excited. You could see everyone was, we were nervous. We were really, it was a bittersweet moment for Ms. Lira. You know what I had the chance to go and interview her that morning before everything. And it was a very emotional interview with her, you know, because she said, ‘You know, I knew from day one that he was not my baby. I knew that. But it's hard not to bond with a baby because in a way, I think that she felt that it was because of her that this baby survived and it was, you know, and it's really hard to separate the emotion with what your heart is telling you and what your brain is telling you. You know, so she knew what she had to do. But it was hard for her. 

 

LIRA: I know… This is so hard. And today’s going to be a very special day because you’re going to meet your mommy and your daddy, and your brother. I love when he does that… It’s like I was his mommy for the last five and a half weeks and I gave him as much love as I would give to my own son.

 

GUERRA: You know, she shared that, you know, she had twins and she lost one of the twins. And that happened right there at Stamford Hospital. And I said, ‘You think that’s what made you, that’s why you felt closer to Zully?’ And she said, ‘I don't know, maybe, maybe. Because I was in that emergency room when I was eight months pregnant as well. And she said, but I have a very different situation because I had my entire family. I have an entire network. She said, I don't know. Maybe that's that's why I felt that connection.’ So that morning was very emotional. 

 

LIRA: Oh my god. Look at tu hijo, Zully. Miralo. Mira tu hijo, Zully. Mira tu hijo. Junior. // Look at your son, Zully, Look at him. Look at your son, Junior. 

ZULLY: Gracias // Thank you. 

 

ARONSON: I know, it was really stunning. I really was impressed by the amount of support that Zully and her family had. We know that that's not the case and in most cases can you speak to that a little I mean, this is quite unusual how they were surrounded by this community.

 

GUERRA: You know what, I think that that's what makes this film unique. Because the film it's a contradiction on its own. You have a story that it's rare and it's one in a million, you know, this is not the reality of what happens to most Latino families. The sad reality is that most of the working class Latino families, and I want to make sure that I highlight that part, we need to understand that this is working class, Latino families. And I think that the film was able to capture almost like a case study of what can happen. And what should happen if everyone gets to work together. There were so many community partners that made this possible. You know, you have the hospital that said, ‘You know what, we're going to take care of her, we're going to take care of the baby.’ And the truth is that, you know, she's alive. And I asked her and you see that at the end of the film, I said, ‘Hey, what do you think would have happened if you were back in Guatemala?

And she said, ‘I think I would have died.’ You know, I was able to interview just a few people that were involved in her case, but she was there for a month, there were so many people that took care of her, you know that it's I think it's only fair to give credit to everyone that made that possible.

 

ARONSON: Thank you so much for joining the Dispatch and joining me in general just this film is so memorable and special, and thanks for bringing it to FRONTLINE.

 

GUERRA: It's been a real pleasure, so thank you

 

ARONSON: Love, Life, & The Virus is streaming in full at FRONTLINE DOT ORG, where you can watch, read, and listen to more of our reporting on the coronavirus pandemic. 

 

Our podcast producers are Max Green and James Edwards. 

 

Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan.

 

Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 

 

Our senior editors are Lauren Ezell and Sarah Childress. 

 

Thanks to Callie Wiser and Frank Koughan – senior producers on the film.

 

Andrew Metz is our managing editor.

 

I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 

 

Music by Stellwagen Symphonette. 

 

The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at WGBH and powered by PRX. 

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