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'Kind of hero:' Calgary care aide who died of COVID-19 passionate about his job

CALGARY — Ephraim Tiangha says there's been a painful absence in his home since his best friend, a health-care aide at a long-term care centre, died from COVID-19.
Joe Marie Corral is shown in this undated handout image provided by his friend Ephraim Tiangha. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ephraim Tiangha

CALGARY — Ephraim Tiangha says there's been a painful absence in his home since his best friend, a health-care aide at a long-term care centre, died from COVID-19.

Tiangha dreads another void that awaits him when he returns to work later this month at Calgary's Bethany Riverview, where he worked alongside Joe Marie (Jing) Corral in the same dementia unit. 

"There is emptiness in the house," he said. "In the workplace, there will be emptiness because we work together as a team."

Tiangha and Corral, whose families are from the same area of the Philippines, became friends in 2014 through work.  

Two years later, Corral moved into the basement of the house where Tiangha lives with his wife and two daughters. 

Despite the age difference — Corral was 61 and Tiangha is 45 — the two men became best friends. Tiangha said he feels like he has lost a family member.

The province said earlier this week that Corral was the first Alberta health-care worker to die from COVID-19. And the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said the Workers' Compensation Board of Alberta had confirmed that Corral acquired the virus from work.

Corral leaves behind a daughter in British Columbia and a son in Edmonton. A GoFundMe page has been set up to support his family and, as of Friday afternoon, it had raised more than $10,000. 

Tiangha said his friend was quiet, but his jokes could unleash torrents of laughter. And when he gave love, it was unconditional.

"He was a genuine kind of friend."

Corral was also passionate about his job and took the time to get to know each resident so he could tailor his care, said Tiangha.

When the novel coronavirus spread in his unit, Corral was undeterred. 

"Even though he was scared, he didn't stop working and taking care of the residents," said Tiangha. "That's the kind of hero he is."

Tiangha said Corral tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 20 and for several days he was at home with mild symptoms. But within a week, he lost his sense of taste and had trouble breathing. 

Tiangha told Corral to let him know if he needed to go to the hospital, but his friend said he was managing.

Tiangha texted and knocked on Corral's door to check on him on Dec. 28. There was no response. 

Because his wife is on dialysis and is immunocompromised, Tiangha knew he could not enter Corral's room without wearing full personal protective equipment. He picked some up from a friend, got suited up and went inside.

Tiangha said he tried to wake his friend up, but Corral was unresponsive. Tiangha yelled to his wife to call 911 and the operator said to start chest compressions.

When paramedics arrived, they said Corral had been dead for hours.

"Every time I close my eyes, I remember the day I found him," said Tiangha. He said he has had trouble sleeping and his employer has offered counselling. 

"I'm trying to push myself to accept everything," said Tiangha, who expects to return to work Jan. 18. "I don't think he wants me to be like this, to feel depressed and to feel alone."

Tiangha and his immediate family did not catch the virus, but another tenant in the basement did. 

The province has said a second health-care worker also recently died of COVID-19 — a woman in her 50s, whose name and occupation have not been released.

On Thursday, the province said a physician in the Calgary zone had also died after contracting COVID-19, but he did not catch it at work.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2021. 

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press