The first American with swine flu to die was a pregnant mother and teacher raised in South Texas who was beloved by her special education students in a small school district near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Judy Trunnell, 33, who was diagnosed with swine flu, died Tuesday after more than two weeks of hospitalization, during which she slipped into a coma and gave birth to a healthy baby girl, delivered by Cesarean section, officials and school supervisors said.
Health officials said Trunnell suffered from a chronic, underlying health condition that exacerbated the otherwise relatively mild effects of swine flu, but they declined to elaborate. Mercedes school Superintendent Walter Watson said a family member asked him not to discuss her health condition publicly.
State health department spokesman Doug McBride also declined to discuss Trunnell's other health problems, but noted that pregnant women should not be alarmed.
"There are a number of health conditions that put people in a higher risk group where they are more likely to develop serious complications should they get any type of influenza," he said. "Pregnancy is not a chronic condition."
Travis Elementary Principal Pearl Guerrero said she still pictures Trunnell sitting on the floor of a first-grade classroom motivating kids with waves of compliments and a captivating smile.
Trunnell was using flashcards, Guerrero remembered, and when a student called out the right answer she would say, "That's right! What else can you give me?"
"She was just one of those people, very bubbly, always with a big smile," Guerrero said. "The kids reacted to her."
On the door of Trunnell's small classroom kids' shaky handwriting covered a sheet of paper with messages like, "Your baby's cute" and "I love your baby."
When the school told students Tuesday that Trunnell would not be coming back, some of the older students had questions, Guerrero said. Some wanted to know about her baby. Others wanted to know about her 4-year-old daughter who some had met.
"She was a young lady who had everything to live for," Guerrero said of Trunnell, born and raised in Mercedes where she taught. "She was excited to have a new baby. She had so many things to look forward to and now she's gone."
Watson said it was like losing a family member when he was told early Tuesday that Trunnell had died after being taken off life support since her April 19 hospitalization.
"It brings tears to my eyes to know she won't be with our children or hers," he said. "She touched a lot of lives here."
"You just don't replace people like that," Watson said.
Guerrero and Watson both caught themselves speaking of Trunnell in the present tense Wednesday on a campus Watson ordered closed because so many children in the district were staying home sick. There are no other confirmed cases of swine flu at the school, and health officials have assured them that anyone who had contracted the virus from Trunnell would have shown symptoms by now. Trunnell had last been at school April 14, Watson said.
Watson was snapping photographs of crews cleaning Travis Elementary and other district schools Wednesday. He said they planned to reopen Monday.
Trunnell was first seen by a physician April 14 and was hospitalized five days later, said Leone Lope, Cameron County epidemiologist. Zamora said she had complained of difficulty breathing and was put on life support.
Doctors knew she had a flu when she came in, but did not know what kind, Lope said. The area is undergoing a Type A influenza epidemic right now, and swine flu is one variety of that, he said. She was confirmed to have swine flu shortly before she died, he said.
Trunnell's death came as life in the areas hardest hit by the outbreak began returning to normal. In Mexico, where the current strain is thought to have originated, stores, restaurants and factories were officially allowed to reopen Tuesday. And U.S. health officials withdrew their recommendation that schools with suspected swine flu cases shut down for two weeks.
The only other swine flu death in the U.S. was that of a Mexico City toddler who also had other health problems and had been visiting relatives in Brownsville, near Harlingen. He died last week at a Houston children's hospital.
Details on those conditions weren't immediately released.
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