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Wounded Iraq War veteran who inspired his hometown, Joel Gomez, dies

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Former army sergeant.Joel Gomez died Tuesday in a story that prompted his hometown to stand by him From complications related to devastating injuries he sustained in the Iraq War.

Gomez, 42, from Wheaton, had kidney problems after being diagnosed with pneumonia in his left lung earlier this month. He had been a quadriplegic since he fractured his spine in two places during a combat mission almost 20 years earlier.

He joins more than 4,400 U.S. military members who have died from wounds received during the war, reflecting a death toll that continues to rise more than 11 years after the official end of operations. More recently, strife with the government bureaucracy made his final weeks unnecessarily difficult.

Gomez had been forced to move into a nursing home just over a month before his death because his longtime caretaker, Elba Quaqueenzi, was stranded in Mexico dealing with immigration issues. developed pneumonia within weeks of arriving at the facility and was so frightened by the level of care he received that he called a friend to call 911 and ask them to take him to a nearby emergency room.

Army Sergeant Joel Gomez before being deployed to Iraq in 2003.

He was admitted to Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park on November 8 and was diagnosed with pneumonia. He died in the hospital’s intensive care unit, surrounded by his sister, nieces, nephews and best friends.

Heartbreaking and infuriating for his supporters, Gomez’s final days were spent seeking Quackentzi and dreaming of returning to the accessible home built especially for him by the Wheaton community.

“Joel is an American hero, but his injury highlights the flaws in the system,” said friend Michelle Senatore, who led the effort to build accessible homes after Gomez returned from Iraq. . “it was not supposed to be like this”

Gomez was devastatingly injured on March 17, 2004 when the armored vehicle he was riding in fell into the Tigris River during a mission to capture enemy soldiers who were firing at his base. It is unclear if the explosive device was the cause, or if the weight of Bradley Fighting his vehicle caused the road to collapse.

He awoke a week later in a German army hospital, unable to move his limbs. He never again walked, ate, or breathed without a tracheostomy tube.

“The hardest part is not being able to hold my family,” he said. “Everyone in my family hugs me, but the hardest part is not giving back hugs and not being able to scratch my nose with my hands.”

Gomez grew up in the wealthy suburb of Wheaton, where his family lived in a subsidized apartment complex that was owned by Sister Francis at the time. The family home was too small to accommodate Gomez’s medical equipment, and his parents, who came to the United States in 1975 and spoke little English, were quickly overwhelmed by the situation.

The Wheaton community rallied in their support, raising funds and interest to build a fully accessible 2,100-square-foot home on the southeast side of town. Individual donors raised approximately $300,000 for the home, with 52 contractors, subcontractors, and workers contributing a total of approximately $375,000 in materials and time. Gomez said he moved into the house in September 2005, more than a year after his injury.

Manny Favela, then CFO of McDonald’s Latin America division, was involved in financing the house and was aware that Gomez’s parents were struggling beyond housing issues. Favela didn’t know the family before building the house, but he offered to sort out Gomez’s finances and ensure that his many bills were all paid.

“We have lost an American hero who sacrificed his life for this country and fought like a warrior to stay alive for 17 years,” said Favela, who was with Gomez when he died. “He was given little or no chance to survive long and proved everyone wrong. I received a lot of gratitude and encouragement from everyone for helping him, but I hope people will continue to serve Joel, learn from him, and be his friend. I don’t realize that is one of the greatest joys of my life.”

Since 2005, co-founder of Burrito Parrilla Mexicana, Favela has held Gomez’s power of attorney and has been his healthcare advocate. However, his business career did not allow him to handle the daily needs of wounded soldiers.

That responsibility has rested on Quaquenzzi since 2007, long before Gomez’s parents passed away.

Cuahquentzi took care of Gomez and was responsible for everything from cleaning the tracheal tube to bowel care, dressing and daily bathing. She clipped his fingernails, shaved him clean, and cooked him his favorite meals. She maintained his strict COVID protocols, requiring a mask and aggressive hand washing before anyone entered his bedroom, and took pride in the fact that he had never tested positive. .

Gomez’s sister, a single mother of three children who works outside the home, lived with him and took care of night shifts after Quaqenzi left for the day. However, when medical emergencies occurred in the middle of the night, she often called on Quaquenzi for help. If he had to go to the hospital, Cuahquentzi also went to the hospital and, as Gomez’s on-site advocate, provided doctors with his medical history and detailed the many medications he had taken.

But Quaquenzi returned to his native Mexico last month to correct his immigration status after crossing the border without permission in 2005. She had been ordered to fly to her Juárez in Ciudad for an interview with the US consulate. According to documents reviewed by the Tribune, the consulate found that she had been in the United States illegally, but she could reapply for an immigrant visa.

Joel Gomez speaks with the Wheaton Warrenville South national team before a game on October 8, 2004.

Her attorney said the paperwork could take up to two years to be approved.

Unable to care for him with Cuahquentzi, Gomez was moved to a retirement home in the western suburbs. That’s because the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says he’s only paid for caregivers two days a week since his injury. His disability income was not enough to cover full-time medical care, which Cuahquentzi provided at a low cost.

During his brief stay at the nursing home, he was hospitalized twice for respiratory illness. After his second hospitalization, the VA approved care for him at his home for up to 12 hours a day upon his discharge.

Gomez never recovered enough to see his home again. He spent most of his time asleep at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital as his kidneys slowly failed and his organs began to fail.

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“We all knew — even Joel knew — he wouldn’t get the minute-by-minute care he received from Elba in a nursing home,” the senator said. “And he died a month after she left.

As Gómez’s condition worsened, Quaquenzi, who is staying with his mother in Tlaxcala until the immigration issue was resolved, spent days on the phone with friends and nurses trying to understand the situation. Favela called her on Tuesday and put her phone near her Gomez’s ear so she could say goodbye.

She blamed herself for his condition, believing he would still be alive had he not gone to the nursing home and received one-on-one care instead.

“I love him like he is my son,” she told the Tribune before his death. I said I had to. Now I believe I did something wrong. It was a mistake to break up with him.”

Friends are now hoping Quakenzzi will be cleared to return to the country for her funeral.

“I consider her an American hero for the way she took care of Joel,” the senator said. “She needs to be here.”

sstclair@chicagoribune.com

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Written by Natalia Chi

Chicago Popular; Chicago breaking news, weather and live video. Covering local politics, health, traffic and sports for Chicago, the suburbs and northwest Indiana.

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