LOS ANGELES - When coronavirus cases began to tick up in the spring, Saludacion "Sally" Solon Fontanilla, a nurse at St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, Calif., took some time off. As a diabetic with a history of asthma, she worried she could contract the virus from a patient.
But the veteran nurse couldn't stay away long. Her professional calling was too great, and her patients needed her, so she returned to work in July.
Sally worked the night shift in the telemetry unit, where patients are often in critical condition and need constant monitoring. Her team was the first at St. Mary assigned to care for COVID-19 patients, and Sally piled on layers of personal protective equipment before doling out medication, food and other care to infected patients.
But she soon came home from work feeling ill.
"It just went down from there," said Sally's husband, Ebenezer "Ben" Fontanilla, who also works as a nurse at St. Mary.
Tethered to a ventilator for almost two months, the 51-year-old died of COVID-19 on Oct. 5 at the same hospital where she had worked for 23 years.
Sally was born Oct. 19, 1968, in Tupi in the Philippines and began her nursing career soon after moving to the U.S. in 1993. She returned to her hometown every year, spending about a month each time reuniting with family and friends - including her high school buddy, Ben. The two sat a couple of desks apart in class. They went to the movies and bowled together.
As they each neared 30, mutual friends started nudging them: "Hey guys, you're getting older, what do you think?" Ben recalled with a laugh. The pair married in 2000, at a wedding their friends arranged in the Filipino city of General Santos.
After three years in a long-distance marriage, Ben finally joined Sally in Victorville. Though she'd been in the U.S. for a decade, she waited for him to arrive so they could decide together which house and car to purchase.
Trained as a lawyer, Ben went back to school for nursing and soon landed a job at St. Mary with his wife. They adjusted easily to their new life together, making friends and developing a work family.