This week's issue of PEOPLE pays tribute to people whose lives were cut short by COVID-19
Dorielis Reyes-Paula
Credit: Courtesy Family

Feisty fourth grader Dorielis Reyes-Paula spent the last three months of her life fighting COVID-19 complications, including brain inflammation and body paralysis, before losing her battle on Aug. 19.

“She was a happy kid, always talking and dancing,” mom Doranny M. Paula Escolastico, 31, tells PEOPLE. "She wanted to learn piano."

The 9-year-old, of Middletown, Ohio, had big dreams.

“She told me, 'I want to be a preacher, I want to touch a lot of hearts,'" Escolastico recalls.

Through her grueling ordeal, the unflappable Dorielis continued to be upbeat.

“She always faced everything with a big smile, and that’s why we miss her,” Escolastico says. “It makes me feel better because I know she never was negative, always positive. I was so blessed for having her.”

On Mother’s Day, Escolastico thought her daughter had fallen down while playing with other children because she wasn’t walking well. When Dorielis continued to have trouble walking, Escolastico took her to the hospital, where the doctors were baffled by her symptoms, including seizures.

Dorielis’ only complaint, Escolastico says, was that she had a headache the day before.

“They told me maybe it was like she was growing and her muscle hurt,” Escolastico says. “Then they sent me to the children’s hospital to check her immune system.”

That’s when they tested Dorielis for COVID-19. The test came back positive.

“It was a surprise to me because I wasn’t expecting that she would have COVID,” Escolastico says. “She had muscle pain, but she didn’t have anything else. I just gave her Tylenol.”

The pandemic has taken the lives of more than 300,000 Americans. "As the year ends, we wanted to pause and remember the loved ones who have died,” writes PEOPLE Editor in Chief Dan Wakeford in this week's issue. “There is no magazine that has enough pages to pay tribute to all the people whose lives were cut short; so instead we have told the story of one person from each state in America.” For more Lost to COVID tributes, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Dorielis’ mom says the doctors treated her for COVID and took her to get an MRI, fearing she might have had a stroke.

“They discovered she had brain inflammation, so they were treating her for a lot of things,” Escolastico says. “I didn’t know what was going on and it was very scary.”

Dorielis spent her 9th birthday on June 5 at the hospital, where she was well enough to get dressed up and let her mom braid her hair. The medications had begun to take a toll on Dorielis’ body, with her face getting puffy. That didn’t faze the young girl at all.

“She would say, ‘I am beautiful,’" recalls Escolastico, who gives a little laugh.

Concerns, however, were growing. Dorielis started asking her mom about what would happen if she died.

“She said, 'I want to go with Jesus,' and I told her, ‘You are too young for that.’ I didn’t want to think about it,’’ Escolastico says.

Dorielis was one of the first pediatric cases on record. (The first pediatric COVID-19 case in the U.S. was reported to the Center for Disease Control on March 2.)

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“I don’t know if this was because of the COVID or she had something else and got COVID," Escolastico says. “But I know that her COVID complicated everything."

Thinking she would do better at home, her doctors sent Dorielis home as an outpatient on July 14.

“She was always talking. When I brought her home, she was quiet except when she was screaming [in pain] like she was losing her mind,” Escolastico says. “She wanted to play with her sisters, but she couldn't. She had a wheelchair then. She wanted to run, but she couldn't.”

The severe seizures started shortly after her return home.

“She went back into the intensive care unit,” Escolastico says. “I remember that she’s always shaking and shaking, and they are giving her morphine, valium because she’s in so much pain.”

Escolastico was told Dorielis was dying and there wasn’t anything more the doctors could do for her. COVID-19 was new to the doctors at that time, and having someone so young was an even more unique experience. Escolastico said they sought out more information from doctors in Italy. Unfortunately, they were too consumed with Italian cases to return calls from the Cincinnati doctors.

At the end, Dorielis told her mom that she didn’t want her to cry, and only wanted her to be happy.

"She told me, 'When you are happy then I am happy,'" Escolastico says.

Today the single mom struggles to maintain a positive home life for her other children: daughters Danelis, 8, and Ester, 4 and twins Debora and Ezequiel, almost 2. Danelis in particular feels a profound loss of the sister who was almost like her twin.

Danelis talks about how her sister loved math and reading, and that their favorite book to read together was the Bible.

“She brought the Bible to school and read the Bible to me,” Danelis says, whispering that she thinks her sister did it without their mom knowing. “She was always preaching. She’s with Jesus now.”

Doctors are still working on her autopsy because she was one of the first children who died of COVID-19 complications.

“Now it’s December. I just called pathology. They still aren’t done with her,” Escolastico says. “They want to study her brain to help other kids.”

That’s something her mom says Dorielis would have wanted.

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