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After Months-Long Coma, This Latino Immigrant Worker Is Still Fighting Mysterious Long COVID Symptoms

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A middle-aged Latino man with a hat sits on a bus.
Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar, 46, rides the bus back home in San Francisco on Feb. 26, 2024.  (Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)

This story was produced by El Tecolote, a bilingual publication that documents and amplifies the voices of San Francisco’s Latinx communities.

Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar rarely worried about his health. As a construction worker, he had enough gigs to earn more than $500 a week under the table, allowing him to rent a studio for $600 a month with two other Latinx construction workers in San Francisco’s Mission District. Despite working nearly full-time, he was barely able to make ends meet. So, when the pandemic hit, Varilla-Aguilar continued working. He got critically sick in December 2020. To this day, Varilla-Aguilar still wonders whether he got COVID-19 on the job or at the grocery store.

Either way, it landed him in a coma — for more than three months.

“It was such a difficult time,” said his sister, Araceli Aguilar-Perez. “To see him like that, it affected me a lot,” Aguilar-Perez said the doctors recommended disconnecting Varilla-Aguilar from the ventilator after two months. The family refused. Hoping for a miracle, Aguilar-Perez talked to her unconscious brother through a hospital monitor via Zoom calls every week. Then, in March 2021, Varilla-Aguilar woke up. “When I opened my eyes, it felt like a few days [had passed],” Varilla-Aguilar said. “But they told me it had been three months … It was a shock.”

A middle-aged Latino man puts on an oxygen mask at home.
Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar, 46, puts on the oxygen ventilator he uses every night in San Francisco on Feb. 26, 2024. (Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)

Today, more than three years after he was discharged from the hospital, Varilla-Aguilar still depends on the oxygen respirator next to his bed. He has since moved out from his shared Mission District studio and lives in Sunnydale in a shared home with other Latinx workers.

He and his housemates are among the community that COVID-19 hit the hardest in San Francisco: immigrants, especially those working unprotected essential jobs. As the devastating impact of COVID-19 in Latinx communities in the Mission District and Bayview is increasingly documented, the lingering, and sometimes extreme, symptoms of infection are much less understood.

Weeks after being discharged from the hospital, Varilla-Aguilar noticed his vision was going blurry while waiting at a bus stop. Within four hours, his left eye went permanently blind.

A middle-aged Latinx couple, a woman seated and a man standing with his right arm around her as they both look at the camera in their home kitchen with a refrigerator behind them.
Siblings Araceli Aguilar-Perez (left) and Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar inside Aguilar-Perez’s home in San Francisco on April 25, 2024. (Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)

“[COVID] can cause many things, one of them being thrombosis,” said Dr. Hector Bonilla, a clinical infectious disease expert and associate professor at Stanford University. According to medical research, critically ill COVID-19 patients like Varilla-Aguilar are especially at risk for severe health outcomes like thrombosis or blood clots. “It can happen any place [in the body],” Bonilla said. “Maybe this can explain what happened in the eye.”

Combined with his deteriorated eyesight, Varilla-Aguilar also endures fatigue, brain fog and depression, which are among the more common symptoms cited by people who experience long COVID. He said he also never fully recovered the strength he lost during his monthslong coma despite a year in physical therapy.


“I don’t have the strength that I used to, and I run out of breath when I try,” Varilla-Aguilar said. “So it’s hard finding steady work.” Despite his physical weaknesses, he continues to take on physically demanding jobs like landscaping and, on occasion, roofing gigs. “I have no choice. I need to pay the rent. If I don’t do it, who else is going to help me?”

According to the 46-year-old, doctors have not been able to determine why COVID-19 took an extreme toll on his health. Instead, doctors have prescribed him several prescription pills to help reduce some of his ongoing symptoms. Still, he believes this hasn’t been enough and that the cost of medication is expensive. His experience is one faced by millions of long COVID patients across the country as researchers continue to look for the underlying causes of the mysterious symptoms.

A middle-aged Latino man gestures during a presentation as he talks into a microphone.
Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar, 46, shares his experience with mysterious symptoms during a ‘Somos Remedios’ event inside the Latino Task Force building in the Mission District in San Francisco on Jan. 13, 2024. (Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)
Left: (From left) Rosario Ortegón, Martin Rodríguez, and Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar bag fresh produce during a ‘Somos Remedios’ event at the Latino Task Force building in the Mission District in San Francisco on Jan. 13, 2024. Right: Herbs and remedies on display at a ‘Somos Remedios’ event. (Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)

Amid medical uncertainty, Varilla-Aguilar, like other sufferers of long COVID, has turned elsewhere for solutions. Previously skeptical of alternative medicine, Varilla-Aguilar agreed to his sister’s “baño de pies” after months of coping with numbness in his feet. The foot bath was infused with herbs like Santa Maria, rue, rose buds and eucalyptus, which his sister blended into a bucket of hot water. The effort was meant to reduce stress and inflammation. After a few treatments, he said he was shocked to have gained back sensations in his feet.

Since then, Varilla-Aguilar has used and advocated for natural remedies rooted in Indigenous practice, including the consumption of teas, herbs, and whole foods. He is also a member of “Somos Remedios,” a Mission-based grassroots research group that documents Latinx solutions to treating long COVID.

Though Varilla-Aguilar now prioritizes his health, he admits that he will never be the same again. “Every day, there is an effort to live, to work, and to have enough money to eat,” Varilla-Aguilar said. “I found [strength] within myself, [when] there was nowhere else to find it.”

A middle-aged Latino man outside of his house, photographed from inside the house, with a car parked on the street outside his house.
Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar, 46, steps outside of his sister’s home in San Francisco on April 25, 2024. (Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)

El Tecolote’s original version of the story can be found here.

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