Former Army Sgt. Joel Gomez, whose story inspired his hometown to rally behind him, died Tuesday from complications related to the catastrophic injuries he suffered in the Iraq War.
Gomez, a 42-year-old Wheaton native, experienced kidney trouble after being diagnosed with pneumonia in his left lung earlier this month. He had been living with quadriplegia since breaking his spine in two places while on a combat mission nearly two decades ago.
He joins the more than 4,400 U.S. military members who have died from injuries suffered during the war, reflecting a death toll that continues to climb more than 11 years after the operation’s official end. More recently, the fight was with government bureaucracy that made his final weeks unnecessarily difficult.
Gomez had been forced to move into a nursing home a little more than a month before his death because his longtime caretaker, Elva Cuahquentzi, was stuck in Mexico dealing with an immigration issue. He developed pneumonia within a few weeks of arriving at the facility and was so frightened by the level of care, he asked a friend to call 911 and have him taken to a nearby emergency room.
He was admitted to Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park on Nov. 8 and diagnosed with pneumonia. He died in the hospital intensive care unit surrounded by his sister, niece, nephew and a close friend.
Equal parts heartbreaking and infuriating for his supporters, Gomez spent his last conscious days asking for Cuahquentzi and dreaming about returning to the accessible home built specifically for him by the Wheaton community.
“Joel is an American hero, but his injuries highlight the flaws in the system,” said his friend Michelle Senatore, who led efforts to build an accessible home for Gomez after he returned from Iraq. “It didn’t need to be like this.”
Gomez suffered his devastating injuries March 17, 2004, when the armored vehicle he was riding in toppled into the Tigris River while on a mission to capture enemy soldiers who had been firing on his base. It’s unknown whether an explosive device was the cause or if the road crumbled under the Bradley Fighting Vehicle’s massive weight.
He woke up a week later at an Army hospital in Germany, unable to move his arms or legs. He would never walk, feed himself or breathe without a tracheotomy tube again.
“The hardest thing is not being able to hug my family,” he said. “My whole family can give me hugs, but what hurts the most is not being able to give it back — and not being able to use my hand to scratch my nose.”
Gomez had grown up in Wheaton, an affluent suburb where his family lived in a subsidized apartment complex then-owned by Franciscan nuns. The family’s home was too small to accommodate Gomez’s medical equipment, and the situation quickly overwhelmed his parents, immigrants who had come to the United States in 1975 and spoke limited English.
The Wheaton community rallied behind them, raising money and interest to build a fully accessible, 2,100-square-foot house on the southeast side of town. Private donors collected about $300,000 for the home, while 52 contractors, subcontractors and laborers donated materials and time totaling about $375,000. Gomez moved into the home in September 2005, more than a year after being injured.
Manny Favela, then the CFO of McDonald’s Latin America division, had been involved in fundraising for the home and recognized Gomez’s parents were struggling with more than just housing concerns. Favela didn’t know the family before efforts to build the home, but he offered to help keep Gomez’s finances in order and make sure all his many bills were being paid.
“We 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 he proved everyone wrong. I was honored and it was a privilege to serve him in helping him manage his affairs in an effort to make his life a bit easier. I got a lot of thanks and encouragement from everyone for helping him out, but people don’t realize that serving, learning from Joel, and being his friend was one of the greatest joys in my life.”
Since 2005, Favela, co-founder of Burrito Parrilla Mexicana, held Gomez’s power of attorney and had been his health care advocate. The businessman’s career, however, never allowed for him to handle the wounded soldier’s day-to-day needs.
That responsibility had fallen upon Cuahquentzi since 2007, long before both of Gomez’s parents died.
Cuahquentzi cared for Gomez, handling everything from clearing his trachea tube and managing his bowel care to dressing and bathing him each day. She clipped his nails, kept him clean shaven and made his favorite meals. She maintained strict COVID protocols, requiring masks and vigorous hand washing before anyone entered his bedroom, and took pride in the fact that he never tested positive.
Gomez’s sister, a single mother of three who works outside the home, lived with him and handled nighttime duties after Cuahquentzi left for the day. When medical emergencies arose in the middle of the night, however, she often called Cuahquentzi for help. And if he had to go to the hospital, Cuahquentzi went too, serving as Gomez’s on-site advocate as she provided the doctors with his medical history and detailed the many medications he took.
Cuahquentzi, however, returned to her native Mexico last month in an attempt to rectify her immigration status after crossing the border without permission in 2005. She had been ordered to fly to Ciudad Juárez for an interview with the U.S. consulate. According to documents reviewed by the Tribune, the consulate found she had been in the United States illegally but could reapply for an immigrant visa.
Her attorney said it could take up to two years for that paperwork to be approved.
Without Cuahquentzi to care for him, Gomez was moved to a nursing home in the west suburbs because the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had only paid for a caregiver two days a week since his injury and his disability income wasn’t enough to pay for the full-time medical care Cuahquentzi provided at a low price.
He was hospitalized with respiratory illnesses twice during his brief stay at the nursing home. After the second hospitalization, the VA approved up to 12 hours a day of nursing care at his home upon release.
Gomez would never recover enough to see his home again. He spent most of his time asleep at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital , as his kidneys slowly shut down and his organs began to fail.
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“We all knew — even Joel knew — he wouldn’t get the kind of minute-by-minute care in the nursing home that he received from Elva,” Senatore said. “And then he died a month after she left. A month. It’s so heartbreaking.”
As Gomez’s condition worsened, Cuahquentzi — who is staying with her mother in Tlaxcala until the immigration matter is settled — spent her days on the telephone speaking with his friends and nurses to understand the situation. Favela called her Tuesday and held the phone near Gomez’s ear so she could say goodbye.
She blamed herself for his condition, believing he would still be alive if he hadn’t gone to the nursing home and instead received one-on-one care.
“I love him like he is my own son,” she told the Tribune before his death. “He begged me not to go, and I told him I had to do the right thing. Now I believe I did the wrong thing. It was wrong to leave him.”
Friends are now hoping Cuahquentzi will be allowed back in the country for the funeral. Arrangements were still pending Tuesday, but they can’t imagine her not having a final goodbye.
“I consider her an American hero for the way she took care of Joel,” Senatore said. “She needs to be here.”