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A family left behind by the H1N1 virus

Virginia Romo was pregnant with her sixth child when she caught the swine flu. Her husband and children, raising the baby on their own, are still stunned at how swiftly the disease took her from them.

February 08, 2010|By Shari Roan
  • Cristian Romo at the altar that pays tribute to his mother, Virginia. Early on July 5, his father, Miguel, got a call from the hospital where Virginia was staying. She had gone into acute respiratory distress. The baby was delivered by emergency C-section, a few weeks premature but otherwise healthy. Over the next weeks, Virginia's condition worsened, and she died July 22.
Cristian Romo at the altar that pays tribute to his mother, Virginia. Early… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

On a rainy January day, Karen Romo, 15, feeds her five younger brothers and sisters an early dinner and tidies the kitchen while waiting for her father to return from work. One of the children vacuums the living room, maneuvering around a large box of diapers. Another sibling holds the baby.

When the father, Miguel, arrives home, he's carrying a couple of bags of groceries, enough for a day or two. He rubs his youngest son's head affectionately, and pulls the infant into his arms.

He seems bewildered by the turn his life has taken. "I miss my wife very much," says Miguel, a quiet man who speaks halting English. Looking around the cramped living room, he adds: "She was half my life."

Just inside the door of the two-bedroom, second-floor Santa Ana apartment sits a tabletop shrine crowded with devotional candles. The candles depict Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Sacred Heart of Jesus; dried roses droop in a vase. It pays forlorn but faithful tribute to Virginia Romo, the wife and mother who died in July at age 38.

The cause of death was pneumonia, believed to have been a complication of the H1N1 virus she caught last spring at the dawn of the outbreak. One of about 11,000 swine flu deaths nationwide, Romo's in many ways typifies the pandemic. She was young, poor, pregnant and Latina.

"She was always so healthy," says Miguel, 40, who is now raising six children -- ages 15 years to 7 months -- on his own. "I don't know what happened. I don't understand."

He gestures to the apartment's homey living room, decorated with elaborate draperies, framed paintings and religious icons. "Virginia did everything for us," he says. "She was always so happy."

As health officials begin to tally the score card from the 2009 pandemic, some facts are becoming clear. The virus was not as lethal as feared; most of the 55 million cases in the U.S. were mild. Nor did it primarily fell the elderly and infants, as most flu viruses do. Instead, swine flu targeted younger adults, with the majority of deaths among people ages 18 to 64.

It saved its worst for pregnant women.

They have been hospitalized at four times the rate of the general population and have died at six times the average rate, according to various estimates. In a study of 63 pregnant women in California who were hospitalized with H1N1 between April 23 and Aug. 11,61 were so sick they were placed in intensive care. Seventeen died.

"The deaths among pregnant women are devastating. This is supposed to be a great time in their lives. Then the mom dies and the baby survives," says Dr. Janice Louie, chief of the influenza and respiratory diseases section of the California Department of Public Health. She was author of a study, published in January in the New England Journal of Medicine, analyzing the effects of H1N1 on pregnant and postpartum women in California.

In many of the lethal cases in pregnant women, the illness struck swiftly, leaving families and widowed husbands in shock. Six months after his wife's death, Miguel still sees reminders of her everywhere. Her prenatal vitamins sit on the kitchen counter.

He manages to care for the children, though he works weekdays at a factory that makes tortilla machines and recently resumed three evening shifts a week as a busboy at a Newport Landing restaurant. A friend of Virginia's who lives with the family cares for the baby, the 5-year-old twins and her own two children until Karen comes home from school. When the friend leaves for her job, Karen is in charge until Miguel returns.

"I used to work five or six nights at the restaurant, but now I have to watch the babies," Miguel says as the twins pester him to go out for doughnuts. "My older daughters have to go to school, and they have homework to do."

It's been hard to explain to the twins what has happened, he says.

"At first, I told them their mother was in Mexico. Now, I'm trying to explain it to them, little by little. I tell them, she's with God in the sky. But they still say, 'Where's Mama?' "

A sticker on the door to the family's apartment reads, "Este Hogar es Catolico." This home is Catholic.This home is Catholic. Devoted to their faith, Miguel and Virginia welcomed every child as a gift from God.

They met as children in the village of San Miguel el Alto in Jalisco, Mexico. Karen was born there. The family moved to Santa Ana where Gabriela, 14; Cristian, 12; and 5-year-old twins Giovanni and Yareli were born. In late 2008, Virginia became pregnant again.

For most of her pregnancy, Virginia felt fine. Although she was overweight, she was healthy; she had even quit smoking. Then, in the late spring, she came down with what appeared to be a bad cold. In mid-June, her cough turned nasty. She complained of chest and back pain. She often lay in bed all day with the lights off instead of bustling around the apartment cleaning. Normally unfazed by the noise in a home with five kids, she asked Karen to keep the children quiet.

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