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A beloved teacher wore an oxygen mask for virtual classes before she lost her battle with Covid-19

Phillip Belone shares memories with CNN's Alisyn Camerota about his sister, Philamena Belone, who recently died of Covid-19 after battling the virus for a month.

Posted: Dec 18, 2020 8:21 AM
Updated: Dec 18, 2020 8:21 AM

Even when she was hospitalized for Covid-19 and pneumonia for three days, Philamena Belone wanted to get home so she could resume doing what she loved most -- teaching.

Belone led Zoom classes for behaviorally challenged students during the day and worked with those who had no internet at night via phone, her brother Phillip Belone told CNN. After the hospitalization, the third-grade teacher taught while wearing an oxygen mask from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

"I know that she kept wanting to go home to teach. She wanted to be with the kids that she was teaching," Phillip Belone said. "She was actually on oxygen teaching when she would have been in the hospital, but her condition got to the point where she couldn't physically breathe."

Philamena Belone returned to the hospital almost two weeks later on November 28, her brother said. A week after that, she was put on a ventilator in a last-ditch effort to save her life.

But on December 11, the previously healthy 44-year-old passed away at the Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque. She leaves behind three children and one grandchild, as well as her parents, brother and sister.

The Belone family and many of the students the teacher served are part of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.

It's a community that's been hard hit by the virus. The Navajo Nation was a prominent hot spot for Covid-19 in the United States earlier this year. In May, it surpassed New York and New Jersey for the highest per capita infection rate.

The Navajo Department of Health reported 20,095 cases and 731 deaths as of Wednesday. It has a population of 173,667, according to US Census data.

She wanted each student to feel special

Philamena Belone gave her heart to her students and she did everything she could to meet them on their level, her brother said.

"The most difficult students were given to my sister," Belone said with a laugh. "She taught kids everyone gave up on but her. She never gave up on anyone."

Belone was a teacher at Wingate Elementary School in Fort Wingate, New Mexico, about two hours west of Albuquerque. Her school confirmed her death in a statement to CNN.

"Her smile radiated throughout her classroom and her laughter could be heard echoing down the hallways," Principal Eric North said. "She always had a kind word for others who came across her path, whether in the cafeteria, at the buses or on the playground. Her energy and sense of humor were contagious."

During the pandemic, Philamena Belone taught virtual classes, her brother said. However, many of her Navajo students did not have access to reliable internet, he said.

As a result, Belone said his sister would drive to two hours each way every week and leave class materials at the school for her students.

She customized the materials for each one, he said. She created paper copies for some students, while others had laptops but no internet, so she made them flash drives that contained the materials. Other students could get online only from their parents' phones at night, so she worked nights to meet their needs.

"She provided arts and crafts, little personal notes and mementos specific to each child," Belone said. "She went above and beyond in teaching her kids through either phone calls, internet when it was available, and building the hard copies for all of her coursework for the week."

Belone estimates his sister was working 70 hours a week. She did it because she loved the students and wanted to make each of them feel special, her brother said.

"A lot of the kids she worked with didn't have the best upbringing, so she would always go on another level personally to engage with them and be a big sister or an aunt to them," he said.

"My sister had some tough circumstances in her life also, so she had a special connection with behaviorally challenged kids," Belone said. "She would love to connect with the kids and make them happy. That was her reward."

She went from being healthy to fighting for her life

Philamena Belone started feeling unwell November 12, her brother said. The symptoms were minimal at first, but a persistent cough landed her in the emergency room. Doctors diagnosed her with Covid-19 and pneumonia.

Doctors gave her oxygen and she stayed there for three days, but her yearning to get back to teaching was strong, her brother said.

She went home with an oxygen tank and mask, pushing to keep teaching until the end of the school term, her brother said. Her youngest son had been living with his mother but he left the house while his mother was quarantining.

Within two weeks, she had gotten worse and was taken back to the Albuquerque hospital.

Philamena Belone was a runner and someone who loved to exercise. Her brother found it unbelievable that she had to be placed on a ventilator December 6, he said.

The family also understood what the ventilator meant -- Belone lost his aunt and uncle to the virus after both had been on ventilators, he said.

They thought Philamena Belone would be OK. "Prior to that she was a healthy and vibrant, good soul who we never expected would be in this situation," Belone said.

She kept fighting and reassuring her family she would be OK, he said. Philamena Belone never wanted anyone to "fuss" about her and was a very private person, he said.

"We didn't know that it came to such a dramatic circumstance until after she was physically admitted the second time," Belone said. "I was under the impression that she was still going to be fine and the symptoms weren't that bad. She hid all of that very well from all of us."

The family said doctors found blood clots in her lungs and discovered she had a collapsed lung. She also went into kidney failure and required dialysis.

"I saw her at her worst but understood that she fought her heart out and she was ready to rest," he said. Ultimately, her family made the heart-wrenching decision to remove her from the ventilator.

"After we made the decision ... I was literally numb," Belone said. "I had no feeling in my body. I didn't know if I was dreaming or I didn't know what was real."

She had a 'big vibrant contagious smile'

When she wasn't in the classroom, Philamena Belone enjoyed horseback riding, hunting, crafting and traveling. She also loved to dance, spending time to teach her students some moves, her brother said.

But most of all, "she loved children," her brother said.

Philamena Belone was a devoted, loving mother to three children.

"Her children are absolutely devastated by the loss of their precious sweet mom," Belone said.

Mekaile Belone, 27, Quionna, 22, and Dion Dotson, 19, are now missing their mother's love and support. She also left behind a 4-year-old granddaughter, Mila.

The family created a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the cost of Philamena Belone's funeral. They met their fundraising goal within 48 hours, her brother said.

But what Belone will miss most about his sister is her smile with her "beautiful dimple on her right cheek."

"Everyone's going to miss her big vibrant contagious smile. Everyone's going to miss her laugh," he said. "What I'm going to miss most about her is her willingness to make people happy at whatever cost it took."

Belone said he knows he's not alone in the loss he and his family have felt because of the pandemic.

"Philamena's story is not unique," Belone said. "We should be focusing on all the stories, all of the hundreds of thousands of people, all of the millions of people in our country who have been affected by this."

If anything, Belone hopes that people can learn from his sister's life of service and giving.

"She would have wanted everyone to love one another and not judge one another, to see the best in everyone and to do whatever they could to make the world a better place," he said. "That was her legacy."

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