A few weeks after Jess Margarito, the first Latino mayor of San Fernando, California, died from COVID-19 in January, his family received an unexpected gift in the mail: a portrait of him reimagined as an Aztec eagle warrior. The tribute had been created by UCLA student Elizabeth White ‘21, a volunteer in UCLA Health’s 3 Wishes palliative care initiative.

Yolanda Montoya, Margarito’s daughter, says the image captures the complexity of her father. He was a yo-yo champion, high school quarterback, a proud U.S. Army soldier and an activist who marched with Cesar Chavez in the 1960s.

The painting arrived “at the depth of our grief, helping us start to recover,” recalls Montoya. “We displayed it at my father’s memorial service in March, and now it is in my mother’s memory box.”

White, who paints as a hobby, wanted to offer comfort to COVID victims’ families who were unable to visit their loved ones in the hospital, so she produced pictures inspired by the lives of those who died.

“I never met Jess Margarito, but I read his “eagle warrior” obituary and wanted to help his family celebrate his life,” says White, who has turned out 12 such tributes to COVID fatalities.

The pictures are part of the UCLA 3 Wishes Program, co-founded in 2017 by Thanh Neville M.D. ’05, M.S. ’12. The program has helped more than 840 people who are facing terminal illnesses fulfill final wishes. Requests range from spending their last moments outdoors on a terrace in the company of a pet to having a taste of their favorite food. “Something intimate to ease their last days,” says Neville, associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine at UCLA.

Clinicians collect biographical details from the patient or their family — stories of pursuits or travels — which a 3 Wishes volunteer then translates into colorful artwork on a canvas embedded with the patient’s fingerprints. “The paintings came out of COVID,” says Neville, “but I think they are here to stay.” 

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s October 2021 issue.