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31 and sturdy, until coronavirus hit: Youngest Massachusetts victim to date succumbs

Friends and family aren’t sure where Riley Rumrill contracted the virus that killed him.

Riley Rumrill died March 29th at Boston Medical Center. He is the youngest known Massachusetts resident to die of the coronavirus to date.
Riley Rumrill died March 29th at Boston Medical Center. He is the youngest known Massachusetts resident to die of the coronavirus to date.Photo provided by Robert Rumrill

Of the four Rumrill brothers, Riley was always the extrovert.

The 31-year-old Alabama native loved surrounding himself with people. Thursday nights were for bowling, and Sundays were for family, as he’d whip up a meal at his brother’s Cambridge home. In addition to his work as a human resources generalist for Transdev in Boston, his family said, he occasionally drove for Uber, largely because it offered a chance to meet new people.

“The best way to describe him is if you meet him one time, you’re family,” said his brother, Rob Rumrill, 34.

So it was a cruel twist that, in a room at Boston Medical Center on Sunday, Riley Rumrill died alone.

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At 31 years old, Riley is believed to be the youngest Massachusetts resident to date to die from a coronavirus infection — and the first in the state under the age of 50.

He is one of 122 people in Massachusetts whose deaths have been attributed to COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The vast majority of those who have died have been far older, typically in their 80s and above.

Riley, who suffered from asthma, arrived in Boston from Alabama in 2016 and quickly took a liking to the city. He was a regular at Wild Rover, a karaoke bar at Faneuil Hall, where he’d belt out “Sweet Home Alabama” on nights out with friends, and at Patriots games — though, like any self-respecting non-native, he maintained a healthy distaste for the team.

He had a penchant for making friends everywhere he went, and after striking up a conversation -- and friendship -- with a Colombia native one night at a bar, he found himself fascinated with the idea of visiting the country.

In late February, Riley joined his brother, Rob, and two friends for a nine-day trip through the South American country, where they took in the sites and scenery during a trip centered on Riley’s March 2 birthday.

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“He’s really kind of the glue that brings everybody together,” said Steve Ciulla, who attended the Colombia trip.

The four men returned to Boston healthy in early March. But about three weeks later, in what is now known to be an ominous prelude, Riley began experiencing flu-like symptoms — fever, fatigue, difficulty breathing.

Still, having only recently celebrated his 31st birthday, Riley was young and sturdy. And even after Riley checked himself into Boston Medical Center with a high fever, Rob wasn’t overly worried.

“We played the numbers just like everybody else,” Rob said. “We knew he needed some extra attention because he had a little bit of asthma. . . . But he was a young guy, and young guys are supposed to bounce back quicker.”

Two days later, though, Riley was moved into the hospital’s intensive care unit, where he was put on a ventilator. From there, things continued to deteriorate.

On two different occasions over the next five days, doctors called Rob to alert him that his brother might not make it much longer.

Both times, Rob rushed over, only to find that the staff had managed to get Riley stabilized.

Then, early Sunday morning, the hospital called again. Riley’s ventilator had become dislodged, and the situation was dire.

Soon after, Rob and his wife were in the car on the way to the hospital when the phone rang.

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Riley hadn’t made it.

Since the death, meanwhile, the family has done its mourning in that brutal, all-too-modern way. This weekend, they’ll hold a virtual memorial over Zoom; later in the year, when the pandemic’s grip has loosened, they’ll arrange for an in-person celebration of Riley’s life.

The hardest part about it all, Rob says, has been the distance.

Because of their age, it was deemed unsafe for the brothers’ parents to travel to Boston from their home in Alabama, even as Riley’s state worsened. As the situation progressed, one younger brother flew in from Atlanta, and did get to see Riley in the days before his death – though Riley was unconscious at the time.

“Nobody can see each other,” Rob said in a phone interview Wednesday night. “The only thing I want to do is hug my dad, because he’s crushed. My father lost his kid. Imagine if you lost a [family member], and they said, ‘Oh, by the way, you have to wait 90 days to grieve…’”

He paused.

“That’s the world we live in right now.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.