More grief for family of first Mexico fatality

By the time she reached the hospital, Adela Gutierrez was gasping for breath, the tips of her fingers blue.

She had been sick for several days, had seen a couple of neighborhood doctors, but by the Thursday before Easter her condition was grave.

Gutierrez was admitted into intensive care at Oaxaca’s main state-run hospital, but four days later she died. She would eventually be identified as the first fatality in Mexico of the unique strain of swine flu now being found across the globe.

“Her character was very strong,” Gutierrez’s husband, Luis Ramirez, said Thursday in an interview with a small group of journalists. “She was always in good health. That’s what has been such a shock.”


A door-to-door census-taker for the federal tax bureau, Gutierrez, 39, continued to work after becoming ill, until the Easter break came and all government employees went on vacation.

Gutierrez’s job took her all over the city and into the countryside, her family said, and she enjoyed meeting the people and small-business owners whom she was dispatched to survey.

Her husband and their three daughters received reporters in their modest two-story home on St. Valentine street in Oaxaca, a picturesque city in southern Mexico. The facade of the home is a small convenience store usually managed by Ramirez’s mother.

In their grief, the family was struggling with questions about why she died, and with a community that is shunning them. They said government officials instructed them not to speak to the media, but they decided to anyway.

They worry that Gutierrez will be portrayed as a medical pariah, saddled with the ignominy of being the carrier of an epidemic. No one comes around anymore to pay condolences, as they normally would continue to do.

“Before [the flu diagnosis] people came every day,” daughter Dulce, 20, said. “Not anymore.”

When Gutierrez fell ill, doctors first diagnosed her with a throat infection. When her breathing became painfully labored, her family took her to the hospital, driving her themselves when an ambulance was too slow in coming. Then they waited three hours in the emergency room; there were no beds, then no ventilator, Ramirez said.

He said he hoped her death would serve to dramatize the woeful state of public medicine, especially in southern Mexico. But he said he also understood that his wife’s illness was a scientific rarity.

In her last weeks, Gutierrez had contact with 120 people, according to the federal Health Ministry, some of whom have developed flu symptoms. None has tested positive for the deadly strain, the ministry said.

The Gutierrez case is what sounded the alarm in Mexico, officials say. Doctors testing samples from her saw an unusual viral strain and initially thought she might have SARS -- Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

The samples were sent to a laboratory in Canada with more sophisticated genetic-reading equipment, and on April 23 Mexican officials received notice that Gutierrez had the unique swine flu strain.

At Gutierrez’s home, the family wrestles with uncertainties.

A wooden cross is planted on the roof, and pictures of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe adorn the yellow-washed walls of the living room.

A portrait of Adela Gutierrez looks down on the room from the second floor. Her long dark hair is pulled back from her oval face.

She is smiling and she stands amid the flowered Oaxacan landscape.

“Like an angel,” Dulce, her daughter, says.