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Las Vegas teacher who died of TB was dedicated to daughter

Updated August 9, 2017 - 6:26 pm

Days before Maria Alvarez succumbed to tuberculosis, she awoke from sedation and asked for her daughter.

“She asked why her daughter was with her mom,” her uncle, Steven Sojo, recalled this week. “She didn’t want that.”

Sojo said that was typical of Alvarez, a teacher at Fremont Middle School, who still didn’t put her own health first even as she lay dying in Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center.

Alvarez, 33, was initially diagnosed with pneumonia in April at an undisclosed hospital, but powered through the illness so she could care for her 3-year-old daughter, Arianna, and finish out the school year at the middle school at 1100 E. St. Louis Ave., her aunt, Sughey Sojo, said.

That effort led to her rehospitalization in June and finally, around 1 a.m. on July 16, her death.

Public health officials say they have screened more than 100 students and health-care workers who came in contact with a Fremont school employee before her death from TB. They have not identified Alvarez as that employee, but a school district official who spoke with the Review-Journal on condition of anonymity confirmed she was the victim of the highly contagious disease.

Public health workers have not screened everyone who came in contact with Alvarez. A co-worker at the school said Wednesday he has not yet been tested, just days before classes are to resume.

Quietly dedicated

Family and friends describe Alvarez as a quiet woman who was dedicated to her education and her lifelong goal of helping others.

Though friends and family say Alvarez was driven to succeed, her life was full of challenges. The special education teacher who grew up in California was a single mom and had an unhealthy, on-again, off-again relationship with the girl’s father, according to a fellow Fremont school employee who became close friends with Alvarez.

The employee, who asked to remain anonymous because she was not authorized by the Clark County School District to discuss the case, said that while Alvarez was cautious about whom she got close to, “when she let people in, she was 100 percent.”

Determined to provide the best for Arianna, Alvarez sometimes worked an extra job on top of teaching.

Alvarez also took her 59-year-old mother into her home, though friends and family say the two didn’t get along. Because her mother doesn’t speak English or drive, the friend from Fremont said, Alvarez would work extra to pay her bills and provide groceries.

“She liked to give to people she cared about,” said Sughey Sojo, Alvarez’s 39-year-old aunt, adding that she and Alvarez grew up playing with dolls and hanging out at the beaches of California together and were inseparable in recent years. “For her, it was family first, and then herself.”

That might explain why Alvarez checked herself out of the hospital in April to go home to Arianna, according to her close friend. At the time, Alvarez’s mother, also named Maria, was refusing to look after the little girl, the friend said.

“Up until the last day, she thought about her daughter,” the friend said.

Family wages custody battle

Arianna, with black ringlet curls and an ear-to-ear grin, celebrated her third birthday and her mother’s 33rd with family in early June, Sojo said. The child is currently living under the care of the Sojos, her godparents, who say they are in a legal battle for the permanent custody with Alvarez’s mother.

Alvarez’s sister, who answered the phone and spoke on behalf of her mother because she does not speak English, declined to comment.

Alvarez’s giving personality carried over to her teaching job. Sojo said she once helped her niece carry boxes of juice and Rice Krispies treats to the students, a donation Alvarez made to bring the kids joy.

Alvarez attended UNLV, earning a bachelor’s in education after seeing room for improvement for special education students at her own Los Angeles high school.

She dreamed of becoming a department head for special needs children to push for disability-friendly policies in the state, Sojo said.

She would’ve graduated with a master’s in education from UNLV in December, Sojo said.

Then, finally, Alvarez planned to take care of herself. As a graduation present, she planned to join Sojo and her husband on a Costa Rican vacation, her aunt said.

The disease

Tuberculosis, a respiratory illness, can cause a cough lasting three or more weeks and chest pain. A person with tuberculosis might cough up blood and experience fever and weight loss, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bacteria can also affect the kidney, spine and brain if they spread, according to the CDC.

Alvarez’s aunt insists her niece died from pneumonia, not tuberculosis.

Joseph Iser, head of the health district, would not comment on the specifics of Alvarez’s case due to privacy laws, but he said active tuberculosis commonly can lead to pneumonia.

“Pneumonia can be caused by a number of things,” Iser said. “Just as with an influenza … it might say the cause of death is pneumonia, but the reason they got pneumonia was because they had influenza that was pretty severe.”

Though TB is uncommon in the United States, people who recently visited a country where tuberculosis is present, or who come in contact with an infected person who recently traveled, might be at risk of contracting the bacteria.

Hospital’s precautions

Jennifer Sanguinet, director of infection prevention at Sunrise Hospital, said that in accordance with hospital protocol, all patients exhibiting respiratory illness are masked when entering the emergency room.

“Tuberculosis is a time and space disease, so the longer you’re in a closed environment, the more likely you are to be exposed to it,” she said.

The hospital errs on the side of caution, Sanguinet said. A patient who exhibits symptoms of tuberculosis is placed in an isolated room where the air is filtered outdoors instead of throughout hospital vents, even though tests confirming the bacteria’s presence may take up to eight weeks to process.

Hospital workers and anyone else who may have been exposed to tuberculosis are screened for the infection, too, she said.

The Alvarez family has all tested negative, including 3-year-old Arianna, Sojo said.

Alvarez’s friend also tested negative.

Another Fremont co-worker, who worked in special education with Alvarez and also spoke with the Las Vegas Review-Journal on condition of anonymity, said he has yet to undergo testing.

“School starts (Thursday)” for the teachers, he added, “and it’s going to definitely be what we talk about.”

Contact Jessie Bekker at jbekker@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4563. Follow @jessiebekks on Twitter.

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