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39-year-old Durango man dies after weekslong illness

Family, friends say COVID-19 to blame; health department unable to confirm

Ernest “Ernie” Garcia, 39, of Durango was an avid runner who endured 100-kilometer races. He spent almost 50 days battling what started out as a cold and led to pneumonia and organ failure. Then he couldn’t go any further.

Garcia lost his battle and died Thursday.

Garcia, a fun-loving psychiatric nurse with Axis Health System, was admitted to Mercy Regional Medical Center in early August after starting to feel ill during the Fourth of July weekend. His fiance, Scott Johnson, said he had COVID-19, which led to pneumonia and multiple organ failure.

Friends organized a candlelight vigil for Garcia from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Friday at Chapman Hill Ice Arena and Ski Area in Durango. Attendees were advised to stay socially distant, wear masks and bring enclosed candles. More than 100 people planned to attend.

“He was just a little ball of chaotic energy, joy and love,” Johnson said. “He is that person that, no matter what kind of situation is going on and how bad you may think it is, he makes you smile, makes you laugh and keeps you motivated.”

Those who knew Ernest “Ernie” Garcia, 39, of Durango, gather Friday evening at Chapman Hill for a candlelight vigil.

Outside work, Garcia loved art, listened to a diverse array of music including heavy metal and Britney Spears, and ran ultramarathons.

“I like to run because it makes me feel healthy and happy,” he said in a 2015 Durango Herald article. “I have met the most wonderful people running and have had the most amazing times in my running shoes.”

In July, Garcia started feeling unusually short of breath while on a hike. He became tired, staying at home all day, and lost weight. He self-isolated and took two nasal-swab COVID-19 tests. Both came back negative. Doctors determined he had COVID-19 based on his symptoms, Johnson said.

The Herald was unable Friday to confirm cause of death. The La Plata County coroner was not involved with the death investigation, and Friday night, San Juan Basin Public Health reported that no one has died with COVID-19 since July 17. “Our numbers are updated daily,” the health department said, adding that it would not comment about specific cases, including Garcia’s.

Garcia didn’t want to go to the hospital, that’s not where he wanted to die, Johnson said. But when he started having vision symptoms, he knew it was time to go to the emergency room. When he arrived, Mercy doctors treated him immediately for multiple organ failure. The organ failure led to severe brain damage. He stayed in the hospital for weeks.

“The night nurse played Taylor Swift and Britney Spears all night for him so I’m sure he was showing off his horrible dance moves in his head lol,” Johnson wrote in a Facebook post Aug. 9. “Still looking like he may have a fast recovery and be making jokes with all of us about this soon.”

Friends and family organized the Fast Eddie 5K “Run for Life,” a virtual multi-sport 5K, from Aug. 11 to Aug. 16, and encouraged people to donate to Garcia’s care.

Garcia’s health took a turn for the worse Aug. 13. On Tuesday, the family moved Garcia into hospice care.

“We were promising him that we were going to give him every chance we could while he was still strong enough to do it,” Johnson said. “At that point, if we did what we could, we were going to stop making him fight for us ... and let him decide when he was ready to go.”

Garcia, who was from Arboles, attended Ignacio High School before graduating from Pagosa Springs High School. He went to college in Denver, where he earned a fine arts degree.

In his position at Axis, he worked with adults with severe mental health issues. He used to be a registered nurse for Axis’ first episode of psychosis program, working with teens and young adults, Johnson said.

Ernie Garcia of Durango died Thursday after a weekslong illness. He worked as a psychiatric nurse with Axis Health System in Durango and was an ultra-runner. Garcia’s fiance, Scott Johnson, said Garcia had COVID-19.

Dozens of people commented on Garcia’s Facebook page to share their condolences. Several people were angry and called on others to take the coronavirus seriously and to wear masks. Mostly, they just shared memories about Garcia.

“His large fan club is reeling with disbelief and sorrow. Our challenge is to live like Ernie. Live with wild abandon and absolute hilarity. Speak words of love and light,” said Leah Fein on social media.

“Please keep in mind, when we lose someone as wonderful as we did today, he is more than a number, more than a statistic, one who we thought would beat this ...,” said Annette Martinez in a post on social media.

“He just always really brightened up a room,” said Brian Welsh, a longtime friend of Garcia’s who organized the candlelight vigil. “He had this self-deprecating sarcasm that really made people smile. ... He was always ready to help anybody.”

Ernie Garcia with his fiance, Scott Johnson. Garcia died Thursday after a weekslong illness. Garcia’s fiance, Scott Johnson, said Garcia had COVID-19.

In his last days, Garcia did not show neurological response. His loved ones were able to visit him in person – which isn’t always possible for patients with the coronavirus because of potential viral transmission.

Johnson and Garcia had a whirlwind romance, getting engaged months after they started dating in March 2018. When Johnson said his goodbye to his fiance, he was angry, at first, that their time was cut short.

“In that moment, I started thinking ... it wasn’t that I only got three years. I got three of the most beautiful, amazing, fun-filled, fantastic years of my entire life,” he said. “I told him, whenever you’re ready, I am.

“I thanked him for every second. It was a gift and a blessing.”


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