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Vietnam vet and wife, married 46 years, die of coronavirus one week apart

Illustration of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19. (CDC/TNS)

Their love story began more than 46 years ago.

Sonia Ivelisse Goveo, funny and bright with a clever sense of humor, was a secretary at City Hall in Bayamón, a city near San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Rubén Merced took a job in the city’s planning department. The Army veteran, just back from the Vietnam War, was quiet and a bit lonely at the time.

The two quickly became attracted to each other. They started dating and then married. They raised their children in a small house on a hill just outside of Bayamon, before moving to Seminole County about five years ago.

The Oviedo couple, who loved cooking together and holding large family gatherings, died this month exactly one week apart from COVID-19.

Their son was also hospitalized on April 1 with COVID-19 in serious condition. At one point, he was breathing through a ventilator.

“The world, as our family knows it, will be changed forever,” said Yaromil Ralph, a niece. “This is just so tragic and heartbreaking for us.”

Sonia Ivelisse Goveo, known as Ivelisse or Ivy (pronounced ee-vee) by nearly everyone, died April 9 of complications from COVID-19 at AdventHealth in Winter Park. She would have celebrated her 69th birthday last Wednesday.

Rubén Merced died April 16 of complications from COVID-19 at the Orlando Veterans Administration Medical Center in Lake Nona, Orlando. He was 72.

Their son David Merced Goveo, 45, of Orlando, has improved and was released from AdventHealth Orlando on Wednesday. He is now diagnosed as COVID negative, but he faces weeks of self isolation, his family said.

It was a family tradition. On Saturdays, brothers, sisters and cousins would come together. The gatherings were started in their home in Puerto Rico, and continued after they moved to Central Florida. The dinner table was spread with foods that Sonia and Rubén made together in the kitchen. She was famous for her ensalada de papas — or potato salad — and he would make his arroz con gandules — or yellow rice with pigeonpeas and pork.

“My father, he was the one who liked to cook,” said daughter Elisabet Merced Goveo. “He would sometimes make jokes, but she was more of the the extrovert. … We were very much of a close Hispanic family.”

Ralph recalled the family get-togethers.

“There was a lot of conversation,” Ralph said. “There was so much talk about the siblings, the cousins, the church. There was talk about what was happening. And she was just really the glue to our family.”

Born in Bayamón, Sonia Goveo was a member and Bible school teacher of the Disciples of Christ church in her hometown. She and her husband also were youth counselors at their church.

Rubén Merced was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico. At 15, he moved to New York City, where he later worked as a messenger at the Ed Sullivan Theater and saw the Beatles make their famous debut performance in 1964.

When Rubén Merced returned home in the early 1970s from the Vietnam War — for which he was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star — he was having a tough time making friends. But he quickly bonded with the outgoing Sonia Goveo.

“She was a smiling and bright person,” Ralph said. “So I think that was very attractive to him. … He liked that she would do all the talking.”

Rubén Merced then took on a job with the U.S. Postal Service in Puerto Rico, where he worked for 33 years.

About five years ago, the couple moved to Casselberry and then later to Oviedo as more of their family members moved to Florida.

They soon became involved in their church, Iglesia Cristiana Hispana Discipulos de Criston Del Norte de Orlando, in Casselberry.

The Rev. Hector Santiago remembered visiting Sonia Goveo and Rubén Merced at their home years ago, and he was immediately taken by how friendly and warm the couple were.

“From the very beginning, they made you feel comfortable,” he said. “You could tell that they were very family oriented. … And they were very committed to their church.”

At the end of March, Sonia Goveo began feeling ill with stomach pains. It was about the same time that her son, David Merced Goveo, also fell ill.

She was admitted into the hospital on April 3 and diagnosed with COVID-19. That would be the last day Rubén Merced saw his wife.

“The illness moved very quickly and very seriously,” Ralph said.

After her mother was diagnosed with the virus, Elisabet Merced, who lived with her parents, along with the couple’s 18-year-old grandson, David Merced Jr., quickly made sure her father and nephew were isolated in their rooms. Sonia and Rubén raised their grandson since he was boy.

The couple’s son, David Sr., who lives in Orlando, had visited his parents only once in the past couple of months because of the outbreak of the virus. Elisabet would often wipe everything down in her parents home, Ralph said.

“They did everything right,” Ralph said.

Because they were unable to visit her, family members began recording video messages for Sonia. And the nurses at AdventHealth would play them back to her.

Just hours before Sonia Goveo died, Elisabet was allowed into the hospital. She was suited with a protective mask and outfit and let inside her mother’s room.

Elisabet Merced sat by her mother’s bed and held her hand, squeezing it, for the last time. She was not able to do that with her father and was too heartbroken to talk about it.

The day his wife was brought to the hospital, Rubén developed chest and stomach pains. He had a history of heart trouble, and family members thought it was the stress of Sonia being admitted into the hospital.

Elisabet took him to the veterans hospital on April 7, four days after his wife was admitted to a separate hospital, and his condition quickly became more severe. He tested positive for COVID-19 that day and intubated to help him breathe with mechanical ventilation. But his organs quickly started failing because they could not take in enough oxygen.

Ralph is angry that federal and state officials didn’t act sooner against the spread of the coronavirus. If the state of Florida had ordered a statewide lock down or stay-at-home order weeks earlier, it’s likely that her aunt, uncle and cousin would not have contracted the virus, she said.

“Folks that are sitting at home and think that their life has been interrupted by economic shutdown have no clue at how quickly their life can change by this virus,” Ralph said. “This was preventable, if we had had stronger leadership at both the federal and state levels. … People who were sitting ducks for this, would have had a better chance.”

She also said she couldn’t understand why Elisabet Merced and David Merced Jr. were not immediately tested for the virus by the hospitals or the Florida Department of Health since they had been exposed.

At Elisabet’s initiative, she and David Merced Jr. were both tested at a site set up at the University of Central Florida on April 13 and didn’t receive the test results until April 17, family members said. They both tested negative.

Elisabet Merced warns people to take the virus seriously.

“We are a very tight family,” she said. “I understand you want to be with your parents or grandparents. But don’t. Stay away. Don’t visit them. Because you can be carrying the virus and not know it.”

Sonia Ivelisse Goveo and Rubén Merced were buried side by side on Tuesday at Cape Canaveral National Cemetery in Mims.


© 2020 The Orlando Sentinel