Stephanie Kessel was a popular teacher at Merryhill Preschool in Modesto. She was easy to approach, fun, selfless and had a knack for making parents feel comfortable, her co-workers said.
Kessel went on family leave in January to give birth to the baby she wanted so dearly. Four days before she was set to return to work, severe complications with asthma claimed her life on April 27.
"Some parents are still in tears when they walk in," co-worker Erica Denise Barrera said. They ask how staff members are holding up and one parent organized a donation drive providing diapers, clothing and gift cards for Kessel's 2-month-old baby, Emilie.
Kessel, 35, had worked almost 12 years for Merryhill and was an infant-care teacher for children from 6 weeks to 18 months old. She helped the toddlers in her class work with colors and shapes and created a safe, nurturing environment so parents felt secure leaving their kids at the school, fellow employees said.
“Every single morning she greeted those kids with a smile and warmth and kindness," said Amy Lipomi, who led the donation drive. “She was my son’s teacher when he was an infant. This was not just a job for her. It seemed like she had a great heart and loved those children.”
Kessel had struggled with chronic asthma for years and last month was having trouble keeping it under control.
She visited her twin sister's home that Friday evening for dinner and treated herself for a minor breathing problem with the nebulizer she kept in her car, her sister Stacie Kessel said.
After returning home, Stephanie decided to drive to the hospital for treatment, but first prepared bottles to make sure her boyfriend, Izzy Iniguez, had everything needed for the baby. Going for a hospital treatment was not unusual for someone who had dealt with asthma for years, family members said.
Stephanie sent a text to Izzy at 10:52 p.m. He replied but never heard back from her. Family members said Stephanie went into a medical crisis soon after entering the emergency department at Kaiser Modesto Medical Center on Dale Road. "They tried to put a tube in her airways but she kept throwing up," Izzy said.
Kessel died at 11:37 p.m. The family is awaiting the results of an autopsy to know the cause of death.
"She was such an amazing person," Stacie Kessel said. "She was always thinking about others before thinking about herself."
Asthma is a chronic disease caused by inflammation of the airways, resulting in episodes of chest tightness, coughing, wheezing and trouble breathing. It affects an estimated 18.4 million adults and 6.2 million children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Asthma-related fatalities are more common than people think — about 4,000 a year nationwide or more than 10 per day. The Central Valley has some of the highest asthma rates in the country, which is mainly attributed to particles and pollutants in the air, said Jay Herbrand, secretary of the Merced-Mariposa County Asthma Coalition.
Women are more prone to suffering a fatal asthma attack, as are African-American adults. With allergens and pollutants in the air, conditions in the spring can irritate the lining of air passages and trigger bronchial spasms, squeezing the airways to prevent bad air from getting into the lungs, said Shyamsunder Subramanian, a Sutter Health lung specialist in Tracy.
Intensified bronchial spasms occur with the most severe attacks, causing airways to totally collapse. "These patients need to be intubated right away and placed on a ventilator for respiratory support," the physician said. "They can die within minutes."
Stephanie's grieving family came to a ceremony at the preschool Tuesday where Merryhill Principal Sheila Yarbrough shared some thoughts about the teacher, and then butterflies were released.
Barrera said the cocoons at the preschool began hatching the day her co-worker passed away.
Merryhill's parent company is assisting the family with a scholarship that provides free childcare for Emilie until she is 13 years old. The girl with dark hair held by a yellow bow attended her first day of preschool Thursday.
It means staff members will help nurture the daughter of a co-worker who meant so much to them. "No one will miss out on teaching Emilie and watching her grow," employee Monica Orozco said.
Stacie Kessel said she shared a close bond with her twin sister since their childhood years and talked with Stephanie several times a day. When they were kids, she always knew she wouldn't be alone in attending a new school.
Stephanie was a loving aunt to Stacie's daughter, Baylee. She tried for 10 years to have her own child and there were some difficulties with her pregnancy with Emilie, who was born a month premature on Feb. 19. The newborn was 7 pounds, 7 ounces.
The twin sisters were thrilled about the prospect of birthday parties and watching their daughters grow up together. But they also shared a struggle with asthma after coming down with the symptoms in their mid-20s.
Stacie said she has not told her daughter about her sister's passing. "She is 2 years old. What do you tell her?"
Along with relatives on the father's side of the family, Stephanie's mother and two sisters will help out with raising Emilie. The teacher is also survived by two brothers.
Izzy said Friday he didn't know what he would do without the family support and the generosity of people at Merryhill school.
"She was the most honest person I knew," Izzy said. "She would not even tell a white lie. It has been really hard. I would never have thought in a million years she would leave so soon."