Lt. Mariano Elias Jr. tells PEOPLE that "helping others is our gift" but he worries they might get the virus

By Susan Young
June 10, 2020 04:26 PM
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Courtesy Mariano Elias

As both a first responder and the father of a hospital nurse, San Francisco firefighter/EMT Lt. Mariano Elias Jr. knows the dangers of being on the front lines of COVID-19.

“My daughter is worried about working and dealing with COVID-19 patients,” Elias, 45, tells PEOPLE. “I told her that I have dealt with patients with HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis B and tuberculosis which are all airborne, but I have never dealt with anything that has been this serious, where you really want to make sure you are all buttoned up with your protective clothing.”

Kayla Elias, 25, is a nurse at California Pacific Medical Center and knows first hand the horror of being on a ventilator. After a mysterious illness a few years ago, she was placed on a ventilator for a week.

Mariano tries to comfort his daughter, who is fearful that she could become infected with COVID-19 and be placed on a ventilator again.

Mariano Elias
Courtesy mariano elias Jr.

“I told her God gave her another chance after being a patient in the ICU before nursing school, and that this was her turn to help others,” the proud dad says. “And she needed to trust her equipment and make sure she wore it correctly every time.”

Prior to his recent promotion as a lieutenant in the San Francisco Fire Department, where he coordinates the engine crews at his stations and accompanies them on calls, he worked on the engine crew for about six years.

But when he was first hired, Mariano worked 14 years for the San Francisco Fire Department in the Mission District, where he grew up, as one of the few Spanish speaking paramedics tasked with telling family members about the death or dire circumstances of their loved ones.

“I thought that was hard, but this is worse,” Mariano says of COVID-19 protocol that does not allow loved ones to travel with their family members to the hospital or even to be with them at the hospital to comfort them.

Mariano Elias
Courtesy Lester Lesavoy

“We are often their last call, and when they see us they have hope,” he says of calls ranging from life-threatening heart attacks to COVID-19 patients. “Now we have to limit our time, only one person [from the team] can go in at a time and we have to get [the patient] out quickly and to the hospital. We have to deal with this knowing there could be some bad results, so there’s a lot of emotions.”

Mariano says he’s been in service for 20 years and never experienced anything like this before.

“It’s an eerie feeling now of the unknown, but I’m still here to serve the public in San Francisco,” he says.

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His wife worries he might get the virus, and fears for both him and their young children.

San Francisco Fire Department firefighter/EMT Lt. Mariano Elias and his children Natalie, 18, Mariano III, 17, Angelina, 15, Izabella, 13, and Kayla, 25
Courtesy Mariano Elias

"I have four kids at home," Mariano says, "and that was a real eye-opener."

Looking ahead to Father's Day amid coronavirus, Mariano says the pandemic has shown that "family is the most important thing" in his life.

"While I do love my job and I am blessed with the opportunity to work with great people and help others during their most trying times, my family is the only one I have and losing any one of them or me passing would break our bond," he adds. "With my daughter as a nurse and myself a firefighter in San Francisco, helping others is our gift but risking our health by not abiding by CDC guidelines would only jeopardize my family.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.