A beloved teacher from the Navajo Nation wore an oxygen mask for virtual lessons before losing her battle with Covid-19

“I know he wanted to go home and teach. He wanted to be with the kids he was teaching,” Phillip Belone said. “In fact, she was delivering oxygen when she was in the hospital, but her condition reached the point where she could not breathe physically.”

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

But on December 11, the 44-year-old died at Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque. She leaves behind three children and a grandson, as well as her parents, brother and sister.

The Navajo nation is facing devastating losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic

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

It is a community that has been severely affected 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 infection rate per capita.
The Navajo Department of Health reported 20,095 cases and 731 deaths as of Wednesday. It has a population of 173,667, according to the US Census.

He wanted each student to feel special

Philamena Belone enjoyed dressing up and celebrating with her students.

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

“The most difficult students were given to my sister,” Belone said with a laugh. “She taught the children to give up everyone 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 the classroom and her laughter was heard in the hallways,” said principal Eric North. “She always had a kind word for others who came her way, whether in the cafe, on the buses or at the playground. Her energy and sense of humor were contagious.”

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

As a result, Belone said his sister would drive for two hours each week and leave school supplies for her students.

This teacher was delighted to return to class.  But then the pandemic reality set in

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

“It provided arts and crafts, small personal notes and memories specific to each child,” Belone said. “He went beyond teaching his children through phone calls, through the internet when he was available and built children on all classes for the week.”

Belone estimates that his sister worked 70 hours a week. She did it because she loved the students and wanted to make everyone feel special, her brother said.

“Many of the children she worked with did not have the best education, so she would always go to another personal level to work with them and be a big sister or aunt to them,” he said.

“My sister also had difficult circumstances in her life, so she had a special connection with children with behavior problems,” 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 (left) smiles with her brothers, Phillip and Phillana Belone.

Philamena Belone began to feel unwell on 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.

The doctors gave her oxygen and she stayed there for three days, but her desire to return to teaching was strong, her brother said.

She went home with an oxygen tank and a mask, pushing her to continue teaching until the end of the school year, her brother said. Her youngest son had lived with his mother, but he left home while his mother was in quarantine.

In two weeks, she had gotten worse and was taken back to Albuquerque Hospital.

Philamena Belone was a runner and someone who liked to move. Her brother found it unbelievable that she had to be placed on a fan on Dec. 6, he said.

The family also understood what the fan meant – Belone lost her aunt and uncle to the virus after they were both on fans, he said.

They thought Philamena Belone would be fine. “Before that, she was a healthy, vibrant, good soul that we never expected her to be in this situation,” Belone said.

Married couple, both teachers, die of Covid-19 while holding hands with their children

He continued to fight and reassure his family that he would be fine, he said. Philamena Belone never wanted anyone to “stir” about her and was a very private person, he said.

“I didn’t know she had reached such a dramatic situation until she was physically hospitalized a second time,” Belone said. “I had the impression that she would still be fine and the symptoms were not so bad. She hid all this very well from all of us.”

The family said doctors found blood clots in his lungs and found he had a collapsed lung. He also went into kidney failure and needed dialysis.

“I saw her at the worst possible time, but I understood that she was struggling with her heart and that she was ready to rest,” he said. Eventually, her family decided to take her out of the fan.

“After I made the decision … I was literally numb,” Belone said. “I had no feelings in my body. I didn’t know if I was dreaming or I didn’t know what was real.”

He had a “contagious and vibrant smile”

Philamena Belone enjoyed the holidays and spending time with her three children.

When she was not in class, Philamena Belone enjoyed horseback riding, hunting, crafts, and traveling. She also enjoyed dancing, spending time teaching her students a few moves, her brother said.

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

Philamena Belone was a devoted and loving mother of three.

“Her children are absolutely devastated by the loss of their precious sweet mother,” Belone said.

Mekaile Belone, 27, Quionna, 22, and Dion Dotson, 19, now lack the love and support of their mother. He also left behind a 4-year-old niece, Mila.

The family created a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the costs of Philamena Belone’s funeral. They met their fundraising goal in 48 hours, her brother said.
Covid-19 now kills more than 1 American every minute.  And the rate continues to accelerate, as the death toll exceeds 300,000

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

“Everyone will miss her contagious and vibrant smile. Everyone will miss her laugh,” he said. “What I will miss most about her is her willingness to make people happy at any cost.”

Belone said he knew he was not the only one in the loss he and his family had suffered because of the pandemic.

“Philamena’s story is not unique,” Belone said. “We should focus on all the stories, all the hundreds of thousands of people, all the millions of people in our country who have been affected by this.”

In any case, Belone hopes that people can learn from her sister’s life of service and dedication.

“He wanted everyone to love each other and not judge each other, to see what’s best in everyone and to do everything they could to make the world a better place,” he said. “That was her legacy.”

CNN’s Hollie Silverman contributed to this report.