At 81, loving father and longtime Las Vegas OB-GYN Arthur Tayengco refused to retire, stopping only when the novel coronavirus stopped him.
His family believes he got sick shortly after members of his clinic’s front office staff fell ill. After two weeks of intubation, he died at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center on April 22.
A sole practitioner, Tayengco often worked long hours, delivering babies into the night for decades. His family estimates that he safely ushered enough children into the world to fill two high schools.
But even on a crazy day, in his younger years, his wife and two daughters always waited on him to return home, making a point to eat dinner together.
He also found a way to make it to each of his girls’ dance recitals, music recitals or school plays.
In his spare time, he taught aspiring doctors through the University of Nevada’s, and later UNLV’s, medical program. He also fiercely advocated for nurse practitioners, whom he believed were invaluable to any medical team; for years, he argued that the field should be more accessible.
“I think in the end, he would have never actually stopped practicing if COVID-19 hadn’t come along,” said his eldest daughter, Michele Tayengco, 52. “He would have died with his scrubs on.”
Born in Iloilo City, Philippines, Tayengco attended medical school in Manila, the capital, where he met his first wife, Encarnita Tinio. Together, they moved to the U.S. in the early 1960s for separate residency programs in New York, where they had two daughters.
The young family decided to move to Las Vegas in the early 1970s after Tayengco visited a family friend in the valley who presented him with an OB-GYN opportunity. Michele was 5 at the time, and younger daughter Stephanie Tayengco was 4.
At the time, he told his family he decided on Las Vegas because he liked the warm weather, but Tayengco later joked that if he had visited Las Vegas in July, it would have been a different story.
Each summer, they traveled to San Diego for deep-sea fishing, and each time, Tayengco sported a flashy windbreaker paired with white Converse high-tops, a flashback to his younger years playing basketball in the Philippines.
At home, while on family outings, Tayengco often ran into old patients.
“You could go anywhere and it was somebody greeting you, in the casino or somebody across the room serving tables, who would run up,” Stephanie, 51, said. “A lot of times, he would remember the kids’ names.”
He had a core group of friends with whom he hunted and gambled. Most recently, he enjoyed playing craps. But on his own, he could often be found reading a book, many by Tom Clancy, James Michener or Ernest Hemingway.
Sometimes he read to continue his education, other times to learn about a new subject.
“I’ve been cleaning out his library,” Michele said, sifting through the worlds he visited in books. “If he was interested, he would read about it.”
His first wife, the girls’ mother, died in 1986, something Michele said her father never really got over. He later married Delia Tayengco, but the two eventually separated. Still though, they remained close and lived together as of late, Michele said.
It was Delia who called 911 late April 5.
The last time Michele hung out with her father was during a shopping trip to Seafood City, a Filipino supermarket.
During the outing in late February, she remembers her father casually suggesting that Michele get her things in order amid the coming U.S. epidemic, as he predicted, and told her to stock up on certain items, including cold medicine.
About the same time, he called Stephanie, who lives in Washington state, and offered the same advice. As of Feb. 25, Washington was reporting 32 cases, according to state data. Nevada had reported none.
In the meantime, Tayengco continued to work. But in mid-March, at least two clinic employees apparently came down with COVID-19.
One was asymptomatic; the second began to show symptoms. Around March 17, Tayengco developed a cough. A test confirmed he was positive.
The doctor began to self-isolate at home, where his ex-wife Delia also became sick. But he hid his illness from his daughters, shrugging off coughs over phone calls as allergies. He sounded increasingly tired.
“My father felt like he had to protect us from everything,” Stephanie said. “Even from that.”
On April 4, though, Michele said her father stopped answering her calls or texts. On April 5, after continued silence, she showed up on his doorstep, concerned.
That time, he finally answered his phone, admitting that he had COVID-19 but refusing to come to the door so he couldn’t expose his daughter.
A few hours later, he turned to Delia and asked to go to the hospital. An ambulance took him to Sunrise, where he had worked over the years.
“He had a lot of friends there, and he knew he would be treated well,” Stephanie said.
Upon arrival, he was having trouble breathing, so staffers quickly intubated him. Doctors soon discovered that he had a pulmonary embolism, or a blockage in a lung artery.
After being treated, he spent several days in the ICU on blood thinners. When nurses called to say his breathing seemed to be improving, there was hope he would recover. But Tayengco never regained consciousness.
A CT scan of his head later showed that he had quietly suffered a massive stroke.
“So there you go,” Michele said through tears. “This is not the flu.”
His medical directive asked that he be removed from life support. Delia later recovered.
Like so many relatives, Michele and her sister were never able to visit their father in the hospital. A nurse helped arrange a video chat near the end “so we could speak to him and say goodbye,” Stephanie said.
They take comfort in the fact that throughout his hospitalization, Tayengco always had friends nearby. But it was no panacea for missing his last moments.
“I’m just so thankful for the essential workers in the hospitals — the nurses, the doctors,” Stephanie said.
“Thank God for all those people putting themselves in harm’s way because they love what they do,” she continued, thinking of her dad.
When Tayengco died, his daughters slowly worked to inform relatives of his death. With each call, though, they heard the same, surprising thing: “Oh, we just spoke to him.”
That’s because since late March, he had apparently been checking in with extended family for the first time in a while to say hello. His daughters believe it was his way of saying goodbye.
Stephanie’s last substantive talk with her father came in late March, too. She has been staying in a rural Washington lake house to better isolate herself from community spread, and unsurprisingly, their chat at the time was “all about fish,” she said with a small laugh.
She mentioned it was a good season for kokanee, a freshwater salmon he had never heard of.
Excited, he asked her to freeze a few to bring down for her next visit. Maybe in the summer, he said.