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Remembering our teammate, Monica Echeverri Casarez

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Monica Casarez

Monica Echeverri Casarez, HFC Surgical Technologist program alumna and instructor, died Sunday, April 12, from complications due to COVID-19. She was 49. Her story was chronicled in The Detroit News by columnist Neal Rubin. The online news site Latino also published a substantial account of her life.

“The HFC community grieves the loss of our caring colleague and health care professional, Monica Casarez. Her service to the sick during the coronavirus pandemic went well beyond the call of duty. She placed herself in harm’s way so she could help others. All of us at Henry Ford College send our deepest condolences and sympathy to her family and friends who are suffering from this tragedy. She will be mourned, and she will be missed,” said HFC President Russell Kavalhuna.

A certified surgical technologist, Casarez worked for Southwest Solutions, a social services agency in southwest Detroit. Last month, as the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, she returned to the Detroit Medical Center, offering her assistance and medical expertise in one of the hot zones of the pandemic.

Embracing the risks

Casarez expressed reservations about being on the front lines. “Working a hospital provides some of the richest experiences, friendships with top quality people, and tons of true belly laughs. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a bit nervous to be there now," she shared on her Facebook page.

Knowing the risks, Casarez believed direct health care service was the right thing for her to do. Deeply committed to the wellbeing of the community, she went to work with the decency, compassion, and good humor for which she was well known among friends and coworkers.

“She felt she had an obligation to the people and the mission,” said her friend and coworker, Maureen Sheahan.

Less than a week after returning to direct health care, Casarez fell ill. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 and hospitalized. She was on a ventilator for a week before she died. Monica is survived by Jorge, her husband of eight years, who is currently recovering from COVID-19.

"All of us who knew Monica will forever treasure the memories of her passion for life, her selfless caring for others, her radiant smile and robust and infectious laughter and her love for everyone she knew, starting with Jorge," said former Southwest Solutions CEO John Van Camp. "Her spirit will always remain with us."

Camaraderie, independent thinking, supporting people’s strengths

Born in Canada, Casarez was an alumna of Canton High School. She graduated from HFC in 2006, earning her associate degree in surgical technology. She was a classmate of Keambra Pierson, current HFC Surgical Technologist program director and incoming Associate Dean of the HFC School of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Professional Development. The two went through the surgical tech program together and became close friends. In 2008, both earned their bachelor’s degrees in healthcare management from Siena Heights University.

Both became instructors in the HFC Surgical Technologist program. “Monica was the reason I applied to become director of the program. I was hesitant, and she encouraged me. We went back and forth, debating which one of us should apply,” recalled Pierson. “She said with my experience, I would have a better chance, and then we would be able to make the program all that we dreamed it could be. Behind every success and decision in the program, I had a conversation with her. She was a great supporter, completely selfless, and shared all that she had. She loved life, and she valued her relationships. This is a great loss.”

In 1995, Casarez began her career at Southwest Solutions, working in its early childhood program and later as its public relations manager. After a decade, she entered the medical field, working as a certified surgical technologist for Harper Hospital in Detroit. In 2012, she returned to work at Southwest Solutions, heading its wellness program for adults suffering from mental illness.

Besides being a surgical technologist, Casarez was a business coach and consultant. She founded her own company, Blue Order, LLC. She also used her bilingual skills to work as a Spanish interpreter, primarily in the healthcare field.

“Monica consistently demonstrated her high level of organizational skill, integrity, and a creative problem-solving mind. She described her belief that diversity produces the best outcomes in any situation. She believed that building camaraderie, encouraging independent thinking, and supporting personal strengths for every interaction was her responsibility as a leader and instructor,” said Debra Szymanski, Associate Dean, HFC School of Health and Human Services (HHS).

An artist with a scientific mind

Prior to coming to HFC, Casarez taught surgical technology at the Sanford-Brown College in Dearborn, and at Baker College in Allen Park, where she was the program director.

Pierson recruited Casarez to teach surgical technology at HFC in 2017. She also taught health career courses such as Medical Terminology and Computers in Health Care.

“Monica’s courses always filled up quickly,” said Szymanski. “Her students loved having her as their instructor as much as she loved being with them. She always arrived early. She never hesitated to find answers to questions as a new instructor. As we quickly switched our courses to a remote learning environment this spring, Monica sent a note for us to pass along to her current students. It came during her battle with the virus.”

In the note to her students, Casarez wrote: One of the screening questions I was asked upon admission to the hospital was: “Do you feel safe at home?” I answered, “Yes” with a smile and added, “And loved.” Honestly, could I ask for anything more? The most important thing I need is positivity! I promise to follow up with an update soon.

“That was the true spirit of Monica: Thinking of others first,” said Szymanski. “She will be truly missed by all her friends in HHS. Her time with us was too short.”

Casarez’ dedication to students was known beyond the campus. “Monica was an artist with a scientific brain, so she could solve problems in a unique and elegant way. She loved teaching and was very committed to making the classroom experience meaningful to her students. One of the last conversations we had was about adapting her lessons to an online format. She wanted to ensure that the student experience was valuable. She was very aware and respectful of different learning styles, and wanted her online lessons to reflect that. She was dedicated, a good person, and my best friend in the world,” said long-time friend Rebecca Wauldron.

In 2017, ProsperUS Detroit hired Casarez to provide training to aspiring small business entrepreneurs in southwest Detroit. She recently co-founded Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week, which was launched during Hispanic Heritage Month with a team of volunteers to celebrate the diversity of Latin American cuisine found in Detroit.

“We are saddened by the loss of our colleague and friend,” said Dr. Susan Shunkwiler, Dean, School of HHS. “Monica was larger than life. She always had a smile on her face and a willingness to roll up her sleeves to get the job done. She will be deeply missed."