"One of the last things his subconscious got to hear was people singing him 'Happy Birthday,'" Rudy Reitz said of his stepson, Thomas Martins

By Ashley Boucher
April 14, 2020 11:48 PM
Credit: GoFundMe

A day that should have been filled with balloons, birthday cake, and joy was instead a day of despair for a New Jersey family ravaged by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Nine days after his mother died of the contagious respiratory virus, Thomas Martins died, too — on his 30th birthday.

“They were each other’s whole world,” Thomas’ stepfather, Rudy Reitz, told Buzzfeed News of the mother-son pair. “Her entire life revolved around making sure that Thomas was healthy, loved, and stayed active.”

Thomas had Down syndrome, his godmother Joni Forte-Lewin wrote in a GoFundMe campaign set up to raise money for funeral services, burials, and medical bills for both Thomas and his mother, Carolyn Martins-Reitz, 55, who was described as the “kindest and strongest wife, mother, and friend imaginable.”

“This family has been devastated by the coronavirus,” Forte-Lewin wrote on the GoFundMe page. “Their world has been turned upside down.”

Forte-Lewin said in the GoFundMe campaign that before Thomas died, he had been placed on a ventilator in the ICU at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, New Jersey and that he seemed to have been “responding to treatment” as of March 30.

Sharon Reitz, Carolyn Martins-Reitz, Rudy Reitz, Thomas Martins
| Credit: GoFundMe

Before falling ill, Thomas was looking forward to celebrating his milestone birthday on April 6, Rudy told Buzzfeed.

“Even when I was with him in the hospital, he was asking about his birthday, and I told him, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll fix you up. We’ll get out of here and you’ll have your birthday,” he recalled telling his stepson.

While Thomas would never step outside the hospital again, he was honored with a celebration, thanks to officials from the Felician School, where he was enrolled in their program for those 21 years and older with special needs.

Thomas was sent pizza and cake to share with the hospital staff and a video call with 20 of his friends was set up to wish him a happy day.

“He passed away not long after that,” Rudy said. “So one of the last things his subconscious got to hear was people singing him ‘Happy Birthday.'”

Carolyn was hospitalized on March 23 after her symptoms prompted Rudy to call an ambulance, he told NJ.com. She died just five days later, on March 28.

“The speed that the disease developed was mind-blowing,” Rudy told the outlet. “Everybody always says exactly the same thing. They all say, ‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through.’ And ironically enough, neither can I. It’s indescribable.”

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Rudy said that Carolyn’s hospitalization was difficult for Thomas, who ended up in the hospital days after his mother.

“I could see that he was hurting, and I would ask him, and he would say, ‘I fine, I fine,’” Rudy told NJ.com.

“That broke my heart,” he said.

Even more heart-wrenching, Rudy said that Carolyn was so sick that she never knew Thomas ended up in the hospital too, “and he was never aware that his mother passed away.”

Forte-Lewin, a childhood friend of Carolyn’s, told Buzzfeed News that “everyone loved” the pair of Carolyn and Thomas, who she described as “lovely, lovely people.”

“Thomas was a big, bright light, just like his mother,” she said.

Now, the family is now not only the emotional toll of Carolyn and Thomas’ deaths but also is facing health battles of their own with both Rudy and his daughter Sharon Reitz testing positive for COVID-19, NJ.com reported, though they have not gotten sick and are quarantining together at home.

Rudy told Buzzfeed that he is “picking up my emotional pieces” and bonding with Sharon, 22.

Sharon told NJ.com that the death of her mother and half-brother “doesn’t feel real.”

“Especially since I have never seen them since they went to the hospital,” she said. “So, it doesn’t even feel like they’re gone. There’s not even the closure of getting to see them before they have to be put to rest.”

As of Tuesday, the GoFundMe campaign has raised $26,791 of a $50,000 goal.

As of Tuesday, New Jersey has at least 68,824 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 2,805 deaths related to the illness. Nationwide, there are at least 606,800 and 25,922 related deaths.

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. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.