A Second Case of COVID Gave Franco Aragon a Second Chance

Evan Semón
Surrounded by tubes and wires, Franco Aragon writhed on the hospital bed. The 45-year-old had been put in a medically induced coma while on a ventilator for what seemed almost certain to be a fatal case of COVID — his second bout with the disease. His partner, 44-year-old Leticia Aragon, watched anxiously from the other side of a Zoom call.

“Baby, baby,” she said in the most reassuring voice possible for someone in that situation, trying to calm the unconscious man as he struggled. The doctor told her that Franco wouldn’t be able to hear her, but she kept talking.

When Franco finally came out of the coma, he immediately asked to talk with Leticia, despite being barely able to speak.

“He screams out — and it was so muffled, but I could hear it — ‘I love you,’” Leticia remembers. “And I just started crying.”

“I could recall everything she told me,” Franco says now. “When I came out of the hospital, I told her, ‘I remembered when you called. I could hear your voice telling me, “Baby, baby.”’ I just recalled everything she told me.”

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Franco Aragon's second case of COVID landed him in the hospital.
Courtesy of the Aragon Family
Franco Aragon’s life was tough from the start. When he was two, his father died after being shot in a bar. His mother soon remarried, and he liked his stepfather, but as he grew up at 52nd Avenue and Alcott Street, Franco got involved with gangs and drugs, both doing and dealing them. He was in and out of violent situations, and has one scar on his back from a ricocheting bullet, another from a stabbing.

He wound up “hooked on opiates for twelve years,” he says, calling himself a “functioning addict.”

Leticia Aragon’s early life was no walk in the park, either. She grew up in the same neighborhood as Franco, at 40th Avenue and Kalamath Street.

She remembers family trips and doing homework with her father, Robert Castillo — and when she was ten, she witnessed him murder her mother, Martha Castillo, during her brother’s eighth birthday party.

“There was a lot of good, but then there was that bad, of course, after losing them,” says Leticia, whose father is still in prison.

After her mother’s murder, Leticia’s life became chaotic. Her grandparents initially took her in, but she didn’t want to go to school. “I would hide under my grandma’s bed,” she remembers. She moved around from place to place, relative to relative, and sometimes ran away.

“When I was thirteen, I actually went to the Denver Children’s Home,” Leticia says. At first she was in the short-term program, then in the long-term one.

“From there, I went to live with my cousin Tish’s parents — my Uncle Arthur and my Auntie Lorraine — for about a year, year and a half,” she continues. “And I ran away, and I ended up back at my grandparents’. I got married at seventeen, and my grandma begged me not to get married.” She had her first son when she was 21, then two more boys.

“I look back on the way I grew up, and I missed out on so much,” Leticia says.

“I look back on the way I grew up, and I missed out on so much."

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She and Franco ran in the same circles, but never really met. Franco was friends with Leticia’s brother.

“My family knew him for years,” Leticia says. “What was crazy was we went to the same high school. He says he remembers me, and he said he had always been drawn to my yearbook picture.” She and Franco both attended Ranum High School, since replaced by Westminster High.

Like Leticia, Franco had kids early. When he was nineteen, he fathered twin girls with a woman who essentially abandoned them when they were toddlers.

“She didn’t want the twins, so she put them on the corner of the street and I grabbed them,” says Franco, who describes picking up the girls in a blizzard and taking them to the home of his mother and stepfather. “They were small enough to fit inside the sleeves of my leather coat.”

After that, his mother and stepfather helped him raise the twins. “It was cool watching them play, because they play together and become best friends and then they hate each other, then they love each other,” Franco remembers. “Typical sisters.”

Meanwhile, Leticia was in an unhappy marriage marred by mental abuse and infidelity, she says. When her eldest child was ten, she finally filed for divorce.

She’d been divorced for four months when she was invited to a family barbecue in September 2007. Leticia almost didn’t go, but decided to make an appearance at the last minute.

Franco was there.

The children at the barbecue played little matchmakers: One of Leticia’s sons threw crab apples at Franco, and one of Leticia’s little cousins came up to Franco and said, “My cousin loves you.”

“I would try to avoid him, but I was drawn to him,” Leticia admits.

After Leticia put her sons to bed, she and Franco “sat outside, and we talked the whole night about our lives,” she remembers. “And I had a few crazy cousins, so I said, ‘Okay, first of all, have you ever dated any of my cousins?’ And he said no. But it was just so weird to hear that we were in the same scene all those years and had really just never met.”

"Okay, first of all, have you ever dated any of my cousins?"

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Soon after they did finally meet, Leticia was in a car accident. “I was headed to work in home health care, and I was at a stoplight, and there was a car in front of me,” she recalls. “I saw the guy coming up really fast, and there was nowhere for me to go. So I braced myself, and he hit me from behind. He happened to be an attorney, so he was trying to take off, and I was like, ‘You should know better than to leave the scene of an accident.’ The lady in front of me tried to say that I hit her, and I was like, ‘No, I was hit from behind.’” Leticia tried to go to work to take care of her clients, but wound up at the hospital instead because she was in so much pain.

Franco was working twelve-hour shifts in Colorado Springs, doing home remodeling, and his schedule made it impossible to connect with Leticia in person. They would talk on the phone together, and even fall asleep together over the phone. But Leticia soon lost patience with the arrangement.

“Whenever we made plans to meet, he’d always have to work late,” she says. “So at that point, we had given up. I think I was more like, ‘Okay, I’m tired of this.’”

They finally managed to schedule a first date. Franco borrowed his boss’s car and drove to Denver to meet Leticia. “We went to see I Am Legend. He was snoring in the movie theater,” Leticia says.

Franco still hates that movie; Leticia loves it. But they agreed to pursue a relationship, moving in together with their children. In 2010, Leticia gave birth to their daughter, Adaya.
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Leticia and Frano Aragon with baby Adaya.
Courtesy of the Aragon Family
Life continued to throw challenges their way.

In March 2013, the house where the family was living was ordered condemned because of the landlord’s neglect. By now, Franco’s twins were living on their own, but the couple still had children to care for. “We were basically homeless with our four kids, staying in motels,” says Leticia.

One day, Adaya asked Franco, “Dad, when am I going to have a house to lay my head?”

“I grabbed her and I said, ‘Tomorrow. As soon as I can,’” Franco recalls. “And it was exactly a month from when she asked me — it was just amazing how fast we came up with money and how fast we got help and were in a place.”

The help came from Joshua Station, a faith-based temporary shelter, which was able to set up the family with Section 8 housing while they got back on their feet. Franco worked for Sears for a while, fixing and building motors.

But he knew he needed to do more to be a good parent. So six years ago, he quit drugs cold turkey — and he hasn’t touched the stuff since. He got a job as a fire safety inspector and installer, work he enjoyed before he had to go on workers’ comp in 2018 because of an injury.

Three years ago, tragedy struck again. This time, it was the highly publicized death of Franco’s brother, Jerome Coronado, who got hooked on drugs around the same time that Franco was coming off them. Coronado and his wife, Nicole Boston, were homeless when they were murdered, along with another man, by a drug dealer notorious for collecting debts with violence. The murders shook up Denver’s homeless community (“Hitting Home,” September 13, 2018).

Leticia and Franco continued to push forward, building their life together.

In April 2020, Franco started to experience symptoms typical of the pneumonia he’d suffered for several years around the same time of year. But as his symptoms worsened, making it difficult to breathe, he learned that he had COVID.

"And then, after I got home, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t do nothing."

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“I wasn’t bad when I first got diagnosed; they were like, ‘You’ll be okay at home.’ And then, after I got home, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t do nothing,” Franco remembers.

Leticia says that she and her kids “nursed him back to health” with the help of an oxygen machine. But Franco’s health still wasn’t good, and he couldn’t work.

Then his health got really bad. He was admitted to St. Luke’s Presbyterian Hospital on March 5, 2021, diagnosed with the Beta variant of COVID. “Everything was failing on him: his kidneys, his lungs, his heart,” Leticia recalls.

Although he doesn’t remember much of his hospital stay, Franco has vivid memories of the hallucinogenic journeys that his mind took during his coma.

Much of the time he was dreaming nonsense, like a stoner Goldie Hawn pregnant with Santa Claus’s child, or mushroom people called “bum people” because they praised Jesus by bouncing on their butts. But he also has clear memories of feeling that he was about to die.

Franco says he felt himself almost die three times, a number later confirmed by his doctor; he remembers hearing nurses and doctors standing above him, discussing the severity of his situation. He says he met Christ as he stood between the living and the dead: “Jesus looked at me and told me in Spanish, ‘It’s not your time to be here; what are you doing here?’”

"It’s not your time to be here; what are you doing here?"

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Franco dreamt of family: his father, his grandfather, Adaya, twin boys that Leticia had lost in a miscarriage. He dreamt of a spiritual journey, during which he fought off demons and accompanied Christ to lush green meadows.

Franco’s best friend had died from cardiac arrest caused by a fentanyl overdose just before Franco went into the hospital. He dreamt about him, too.

“I could hear my friend telling me, ‘It’s okay to die now. There’s nothing they’re going to do for you. Don’t be scared, because once you go over the part of not breathing, it’s so easy.’ So I said, ‘Screw it,’” Franco recalls.
“And I stopped breathing, and I could hear the doctors, and I could feel something, just a little pressure. And we’re just sitting there, and I’m giving up — and all of a sudden, I feel this breeze coming, and it’s really warm, and I’m not breathing, and all of a sudden it forces its way into my lungs. And I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ And Jesus is in the background, and he just looks at me. It just wasn’t my time.”

While Leticia and Franco have had their ups and downs, they’ve always stayed in contact. “We’ve gone through separations for days here and there,” Leticia says. Franco’s hospital stay was the longest she’d ever gone without talking to him.

After a long and uncertain wait, Leticia was finally able to make a Zoom call to Franco. She watched him struggle, incoherent.

“Baby, baby,” she said to him.

He came back to her.
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Franco Aragon on the road to recovery.
Courtesy of the Aragon Family

As Franco recovered, Leticia finally got to
talk with him. “The first thing he said was, ‘Baby, please marry me.’ And I said okay,” she says.

Franco and Leticia, who were already in a common-law marriage, planned to officially wed on June 12 at Boettcher Mansion on Lookout Mountain.

“[Franco] planned it all. He paid for everything with the help of my cousin Tish,” Leticia says. Tish Maes was also set to officiate.

But as with much of their lives, both together and apart, the path to the wedding of Franco and Leticia was not smooth. The place where Franco had ordered tuxedos, an Al’s Formal Wear location, went out of business, but not before sending the wedding party’s tuxedos — all in the wrong sizes. Five days before the ceremony, the couple realized they’d forgotten to get the marriage license; Maes helped out with that. Franco decided that Leticia needed a different wedding gown, which led to the couple going last-minute dress shopping at Altar Bridal the day before the wedding. The original photographer canceled, and Maes brought in Evan Semón, a Westword freelancer, to shoot the ceremony. Then, an hour before the wedding, the DJ backed out, claiming he had double-booked; Maes brought a speaker as a substitute. She’d already made candles for the ceremony, each one representing a different loved one the couple had lost.

Everyone was half an hour late to the wedding. And then, at the venue, a child managed to pull the fire alarm, which created a bit of a hubbub.

And yet none of that mattered. “It was just perfect,” Leticia says of the intimate ceremony in a gazebo on the Boettcher property.

“Lookout, to us, has always been meaningful. Every time we’ve had issues, that’s where we’d drive,” Leticia explains. “We’d go up there, and we’d drive all the way to the top and find a spot and either get out or just talk in the car. … Good or bad conversations, that’s where we’d go. Or if we were going through some sort of heartache.”

Getting married there was meaningful. Being able to get married at all was amazing. “I didn’t think it would [feel different], but it honestly does,” Leticia says.
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Evan Semón
Franco looks tough; he’s tall and broad, covered in scars and tattoos, and works out for hours each day. But there are cracks in his facade.

His vulnerability shows in the moments when he occasionally forgets what he’s saying because of the COVID brain fog, turning to Leticia to fill in the gaps. Sometimes he wakes up with severe headaches, and the right side of his body has less muscle mass than his left. He still experiences an altered sense of taste and smell. On the bright side, he thinks his type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure have improved.

But these developments pale compared to how his personality has shifted since he came out of the coma.
He doesn’t take time for granted anymore, says Leticia.

He’s “become a better man, more peaceful,” Franco says. “I used to be real [short-tempered]; now I’m getting better. I’m a lot better about everything I do. I even tell [Leticia], ‘Oh, I said a wrong word!’ And she’ll catch me and tell me. And I do a lot more with my kids and my daughter. I’m more patient. It changed me; I’m not the same.”

"I do a lot more with my kids and my daughter. I'm more patient. It changed me."

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He’s continuing the journey he started when he gave up hard drugs, dropping alcohol and weed, too. “I went in with my demons and faced them all,” he explains.

Franco particularly values his family these days. His twins are now 25; he considers Leticia’s boys — 19, 20 and 23 — his sons, and works out with at least one of them twice a day. The couple dotes on their two grandchildren. And then there’s Adaya.

When Leticia finally brought Franco home from the hospital, he surprised Adaya. “She walked in the door and she saw him, and she’s like, ‘Daddy!’ And the tears were just pouring down,” Leticia says. “She would not let go of him.”

Adaya stays close to her father as we talk about the family’s story at a Starbucks at West 26th Avenue and Federal Boulevard, near their house. She climbs on her parents and kisses their cheeks, occasionally offering details neither can remember. Now eleven, she’s old enough to get into the gym, and often goes there with her father and brother and rides a bike machine. Her favorite things to do with Franco, though, are “going to eat sushi and fishing.”

And on what Leticia calls “daddy-daughter dates.” At least once a month, Adaya gets dressed up, and Franco takes her out to demonstrate how she deserves to be treated by men.

Franco prays regularly. He was raised a devout Catholic, dropped out of traditional church activities, and now believes that organized religion doesn’t matter. He just wants to honor Christ.

“To truly not judge somebody is the way He wants us to be,” Franco says. “Love, love, love, is all He ever tells me.”

Franco is thinking about writing a book about his experience with COVID, and he and Leticia are also considering leaving Colorado for a while, just to experience new things.

“I love Colorado — born and raised here,” Franco says. “It’ll be hard, but I want to see something different. Wherever God sends me is where I want to go.”
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Gabrielle Bye, a former editorial fellow at Westword, writes about news, politics and food. In her spare time, she loves to enjoy nature and eat locally.
Contact: Gabrielle Bye