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.
Haley Lampman, a nurse who worked alongside Sally, said she was always "super happy."
"Even at the end of her shift, even at the end of 12 hours, she was always joyful," Lampman said. "Her patients always felt that."
It was at the end of one of those shifts that the nurse with nearly three decades of experience began to feel sick. She came home with a low-grade fever and cough. Ben took her the next day to St. Mary's emergency room, where she was tested for COVID-19.
Ben thinks his wife was infected by a patient at work and then brought the virus home, where he also fell ill.
"When you go into work, you will always have a COVID patient. That's a given," Ben said.
Both husband and wife were hospitalized, and the two texted each other from separate rooms in St. Mary. Ben ultimately returned home after five days, but Sally was transferred to the intensive care unit when she began having difficulty breathing. The texting stopped when she was put on a ventilator.
"With COVID, you're drowning. You're drowning; you cannot breathe," Ben said. "It's awful, the severity of the effects of the COVID virus in your lungs."
Ben was allowed to visit Sally in the ICU as doctors struggled to bolster her weakened lungs. Ultimately, she stopped responding to treatments.
"These cases of COVID are real for front-line workers like us," Ben said.
Experts have criticized the federal government for not publishing a comprehensive tally of healthcare workers who have contracted the disease.
National Nurses United, the largest group of registered nurses in the U.S., has been tracking infections and deaths among healthcare workers. Last month, the union released a report saying that more than 1,700 had died, including at least 213 nurses. The group lambasted government officials for insufficient tracking and a lack of personal protective equipment.
In California, several hospitals have been fined for not keeping workers safe from the virus, including Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, where a 61-year-old charge nurse rushed in to administer life-saving chest compressions to a dying COVID-19 patient in April. She was wearing only a thin surgical mask, rather than a more protective N95 mask because of a lack of PPE at the hospital. She contracted the virus and died two weeks later.
"These deaths were avoidable and unnecessary due to government and employer willful inaction. Nurses and healthcare workers were forced to work without personal protective equipment they needed to do their job safely," National Nurses United President Zenei Cortez said in a statement.
"It is immoral and unconscionable that they lost their lives. Our state and federal governments must require hospitals and other healthcare employers to publicly report infection rates and deaths of their workers."
On Saturday, co-workers in Sally's tight-knit work community gathered to release a bouquet of colorful balloons, etched with heartfelt messages: Miss you forever. Love you always. We will never forget you. We will remember you every single day.
"Sally was a beloved nurse at St. Mary Medical Center, and we are devastated by her tragic passing. Not only did she exemplify what it means to be a compassionate nurse, but more so what it meant to be a compassionate person," Patricia Aidem, a spokeswoman for Providence hospitals, which includes St. Mary, said in an emailed statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and our staff who are in mourning."
The longtime nurse will be buried Friday in Victorville, and the hospital where she worked nearly half of her life - and where she died - plans to hold memorial services in her honor.
"I guess you don't realize how tight you are with your work family until you experience something like this, and I think everybody kind of came together at the end and realized how much we mean to each other," Lampman said.
That extended work family continues to embrace Ben, who would have celebrated his 20-year anniversary with Sally in December. As a married couple, the two took trips almost every spring and autumn, including visits to see the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., and the leaves change in New York. They had planned an Alaskan cruise this spring, before the pandemic shut everything down.
Ben, who continues to work at St. Mary, is transitioning into another new life, this one without Sally.
"I have friends, close friends that are supporting me. Sometimes they come in and bring me some food, stuff like that," Ben said. "Basically, I'm all alone in the house because there (was) just two of us."
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