There may be no greater pain in this world than losing a child. Atty. Peaches M. Aranas shares the pain, the denial, the anguish, the grief, and the slow but gradual healing she and her whole family felt when they lost their only daughter due to dengue. They hope that with their advocacy, they could make other parents more aware and conscious about how to prevent this mosquito-borne infection, and hopefully save a child’s life
A graduate of Ateneo De Manila University, Atty. Ma Louella “Peaches” M. Aranas never thought this tragedy would ever come to her family like a thief in the night. It’s been five years, but the pain is still there and it seems like everything happened only yesterday.
Who can ever forget Sandy? Sandy was her only daughter and the youngest of her three children with Atty. Jesus Clint Aranas, the newly appointed Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) Deputy Commissioner, whom she met in law school. A 10-year-old lively girl who’s well-loved by her classmates, teachers, and her family, Sandy’s life was cut short by dengue.
Sandy was born small, with big beautiful eyes, but was full of life and active. She was very affectionate, always happy.
Sandy went to Mahatma Gandhi International School in Merville and her teachers would often describe her as the type of student who liked to be the life of the party – the liveliest and the most entertaining in every school plays. In fact, she auditioned in every play; wanted to be a singer, dancer, model, entertainer, lawyer, or a doctor. She was a champion archer a year before she passed away.
On the day she died, the whole eight floor of St. Luke’s in Bonifacio Global City was full of people who showed sympathy to the family; and every night during her wake at Heritage Park Chapels and Crematory, the arrival of flowers were non-stop, filling the area such that they had to be transferred to a bigger chapel.
“So many people loved her. So many people loved our family,” says Atty. Peaches in a very emotional interview with H&L.
During the wake, one of Sandy’s teachers shared how her daughter would always say “Hi” to everyone and would act as “ate” (older sister) around younger kids. “She would go to the classroom of Kinder students, and they would eat together. She received so many letters from them. She’s well-loved,” shares Atty. Peaches.
One time, when Sandy saw a schoolmate sitting alone waiting for her sundo (someone to pick her up), she sat beside the kid and waited with her.
Every year since Sandy passed away (except during her third year) the school conducted a program for her, even planting a cherry tree in her honor. She really made an impact on everyone. “Everybody loved Sandy because Sandy loved everybody. She was friendly, that’s how she was as a student and schoolmate,” Atty. Peaches fondly says.
That fateful day
One Sunday afternoon in February 2013, Sandy was slightly feverish. In the Aranas household, it has been a standard practice that whenever any of the kids are sick (be it a simple cold, loose bowel movement, or fever), the kids are promptly brought to their pediatricians for the needed tests, including a dengue test, to make sure.
“In our family, my husband’s the type who’s obsessive compulsive. Every time any of our children would have fever, we would immediately test for dengue. It’s SOP (standard operational procedure) in the family,” explains Atty. Peaches.
That day, she brought Sandy to St. Luke’s Global for a dengue test. While waiting for the results, the mother and daughter went to S&R Membership Shopping, which was adjacent to the hospital, to buy some groceries. When they were about to pay the groceries, Atty. Peaches received a text from the doctor.
“Peaches, it’s positive. Come back here,” the text said.
They dropped their unpaid groceries and hurried back to the hospital. When they reached the hospital, one doctor initially told them it was false positive – “It’s not dengue, it is measles. It’s a virus infection or some sort” so they were advised to go home.
But the other doctor who happened to be a family friend insisted to confine Sandy in the hospital. After learning she might have dengue, Sandy asked her doctor, “Am I going to die?” And she immediately replied, ‘Of course not Sandy, you’re not going to die.”
Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne viral infection causing a flu-like illness. Majority will recover and get well with just supportive treatment, especially adequate hydration and nutrition. A small percentage of patients, however, can have serious or potentially lethal complications, such as a full blown dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF).
With the Aedes aegypti mosquito as its vector, the dengue virus comes in four serotypes; namely, DEN-1, DEN-2, DEN-3 and DEN-4. Lab tests showed that the fourth strain was the one that infected Sandy.
Deceiving clinical course
What may start out as a benign self-limiting viral infection may suddenly make a turn for the worse in some cases of DHF. The progression towards DHF or dengue shock syndrome (DSS) usually occurs after three to five days of fever. Ironically, the fever has already subsided in many instances at this point; and this may mislead many to believe that the patient is heading towards recovery. On the contrary, this is the critical period that requires high vigilance from caregivers. When the fever disappears, the dengue patient has to be closely watched in the next 24–48 hours.
“The Dengue Shock Syndrome (DSS) is characterized by bleeding that may appear as tiny spots of blood on the skin (petechiae) and larger patches of blood under the skin (ecchymoses). Minor injuries may cause bleeding. Shock may cause death within 12 to 24 hours. Patients can recover following appropriate medical treatment,” explains an article published in Dengue Virus Net.
According to Atty. Peaches, Sandy was not even exposed to any dirty environment. She didn’t have any symptoms apart from fever. So the doctors could not fully explain where she had gotten the virus. None of her classmates had dengue either.
Sandy was confined in the hospital and experienced fever for the first two days. When the fever disappeared on the third day, Atty. Peaches thought Sandy was getting better, but her platelet count indicated otherwise. Her platelets and blood pressure dropped perilously.
“I’m a sucker for positive things, positive thinking. Everything will be okay. But that night, everyone was freaking out already. Even the machines started beeping non-stop, so Sandy had to be transferred to the ICU. We were awake the whole night,” she recalls.
At the ICU, Atty. Peaches patiently waited for 48 hours. Her doctors advised that during this period, dengue would resolve by itself. The whole family hoped it was just a nightmare, and that their family would soon wake up from the nightmare. But Sandy’s heart was getting weaker.
The doctors’ dilemma was which medicine to give to Sandy to balance her dropping blood pressure and markedly tachycardic heart rate. They opted to manage her hypotension with potent inotropic agents that can increase the blood pressure but further increase the heart rate.
Unfortunately, the virus infected the muscles of Sandy’s heart, causing inflammation and swelling in the myocardium leading to acute myocarditis. Myocardial inflammation may occasionally be a complication of viral infections like dengue fever. Her young heart weakened and went into congestive failure. Everyone was hoping against hope that it would only be transient; and Sandy would soon be on the way to recovery. But the odds turned against Sandy.
The 48 hours came to pass quickly. Atty. Peaches thought Sandy was getting better so she even bought pizza for everybody and had managed to sneak a quick dinner with her husband out of the hospital, for the first time since Sandy was hospitalized.
When they got back, she was advised that Sandy would be transferred to a regular room. But at around 11 pm, Sandy woke up experiencing difficulty in breathing feeling like she was drowning. Her monitors beeped continuously. She remained in respiratory distress; and medicines didn’t seem to relieve her. They had to intubate her and hook her to a mechanical ventilator.
Atty. Peaches remembered earlier telling God in one of her prayers, “Lord kung kukunin mo na si Sandy, ‘wag mo na s’yang pahirapan. (Lord, if You need to take Sandy, please don’t make her suffer.) But she was alive [then], no one’s saying she was critical.”
That night she told her daughter, “Sandy tomorrow morning, it’s going to end. You won’t feel your pain. You just hang on. Tomorrow, when the sun rises, you won’t feel anything. God will take the pain away.”
Sandy was silent. But Atty. Peaches remained steadfast in her faith that when her daughter woke up the following morning, she won’t be suffering anymore.
It was a long night, or so it seemed to Atty. Peaches and her family. Sandy suffered non-stop cardiac arrest the whole night, only interrupted by epinephrine injections through Sandy’s tiny veins.
At around 11 a.m. the following day, Sandy’s weakening heart stopped again. They gave her another dose of epinephrine and revived her by pumping her chest. It seemed like eternity. It went on for hours, with everyone feverishly trying to pump life back into her arrested heart.
Four more epinephrine shots, and not even a feeble response from her young heart that had taken so much beating already.
That was it. Time to let go. And Sandy joined the Creator that day.
A test of faith
Sandy’s onset of sickness to the time of her death only took a week. For Atty. Peaches and her family, it was the longest, grueling week in their entire life. For a month after Sandy’s death, Atty. Peaches studied everything about dengue—from the medicines down to the last treatment given to Sandy to make sure there was really no lapse in treatment.
“I ruled out any lapse in the medical treatment. That’s the grief stage, you have bargaining. You’re in denial! So I’m thinking, maybe there’s something the doctors didn’t do. I had to make sure they’d given the right treatment and medication. I have to be at peace,” says Atty. Peaches.
Toll on family
She admitted that her daughter’s death really took a toll on their family, causing some strain in their marriage; their kids also felt distraught and somewhat disoriented by the experience. JC, her eldest son, quit school. Her second son, Paco, who was the Palarong Pambansa Champion in Archery in 2014, also quit the sport when Sandy died.
Of all families and couples, Atty. Peaches never thought this tragedy would happen to them as they had a seemingly perfect family, a beautiful marriage; and successful, high-profile careers as lawyers, managing their own law firm. “Our marriage was beautiful. Our family was solid. We spoke in church. We counseled different marriages,” she says. It seemed Sandy’s death turned everything upside down.
She admitted she had to go through therapy to help her cope with the loss of her daughter and it was not an easy feat. The pain was unbearable. But the truth is, tragedy respects no family, marriage, and status in life. When someone undergoes a crisis, everybody acts like crazy and go through their own coping style.
Admittedly, Atty. Peaches almost lost herself in the process, but after going through therapy, she started picking herself up and she felt that the healing has already started, at least for herself. She discovered a lot of things about herself and learned to love herself first before loving other people – a concept one can only understand if he/has gone through a crisis.
“It’s true that when one experiences a crisis, life can go upside down. It can really happen. It’s not because they’re bad people. It’s because it hurts. Families can quarrel; children can rebel,” she laments. But she is grateful for the healing. “It’s slow, but I know we’re getting there. In fact, JC (now 18 years old) has already decided to go back to school.”
A few months after Sandy died, another tragedy beset Atty. Peaches’ family. Her father died of cancer in the United States. But if there’s one thing she has learned from everything that had happened was that one has to stay steadfast in one’s faith—it is a test of faith.
“Wag kang lumiko, wag kang bibitaw. (Don’t give up.) Trust, just pray to the Lord. He is the only person we can trust,” she shares. “There is power in believing in God.”
If before, she could not relate with the people with family problems and broken marriages, now she can fully understand how they felt.
“Before, I could never understand because my life was perfect. But I understand now. Back then, if someone had a problem with their husband, I have so many motherhood advices because I don’t know what else to say!” she says.
The Sandy Project
As part of her grieving process, Atty. Peaches founded The Sandy Project in 2013 to help people, parents, and especially the kids become more aware of dengue. She cannot bear to see another mother losing another Sandy in their lives.
“It’s not easy. I feel I have not yet surfaced from the experience of losing a child. I told myself, ‘I have to do something,’” she says with conviction.
The Sandy Project is a self-funded advocacy project of Atty. Peaches where she participates in outreach programs related to dengue. Once she helped a friend who went to Albay in Bicol by personally donating umbrellas and raincoats to kids. She actually wanted to tap the kids so they will be the one to remind or tell their parents. She wanted the awareness to start from the children.
“Imagine! One second was all it took. Just one bite from the mosquito. That’s how dangerous dengue is and we take it for granted. We don’t take it seriously,” she says.
The only problem is that she doesn’t have time to look for beneficiaries so she relies on friend’s recommendations. She doesn’t even know which foundation to support, but says she’s willing to help orphanages and support a child’s education, but her only request is they talk about dengue.
While she appreciates the Department of Health’s efforts to talk about dengue, she thinks that the message is not being taken or received seriously by the public. So she wants to personally let all parents know that they can lose a child like her Sandy if they don’t take it seriously and if they don’t clean up their place.
“If only, everybody is conscientious enough. Then we will prevent this from happening again. The problem is, we’re not serious about it,” she laments.
Through it all, Atty. Peaches just wants everyone to understand and see the face of a mother whose daughter died of dengue.
“Ito ang mukha ng nanay na nawalan ng anak. Ito ang mukha ng bata na namatay sa dengue. (This is the face of a mother who lost a child. This is the face of a child who died from dengue.) There’s a face. There are lives involved. It’s not just statistics. It’s Peaches, Clint, JC, Paco, and Sandy,” she says. “It’s been three years and five months and we’re not yet over. This is what dengue did to us – to my family. And it still hurts.”
“There’s a face. This is the face of a mother who lost a child. This is the face of a child who died from dengue. There are lives involved. It’s not just statistics. It’s Peaches, Clint, JC, Paco, and Sandy. It’s been three years and five months and we’re not yet over. This is what dengue did to us – to my family. And it still hurts”
Note: When I heard the howling of a mother who lost her child to dengue in a radio interview, I was very emotional. Tears fell down my cheeks. There may be no greater pain in this world than losing a child. As a mother, I didn’t know how that felt, but as an aunt, I know exactly how it felt because seven months ago today, I saw my niece (Rianna) took her last breath at the emergency room right before my own very eyes.
Rianna died after a two-year battle with encephalitis, pneumonia, and ovarian teratoma cyst. It hurts so much, how much more for my sister (Rianna’s mom) and all the mothers out there who lost their children to illnesses.
I re-posted this article I wrote in Health and Lifestyle magazine in 2016 in the light of series of deaths due to dengue and allegedly from “vaccine failure”.
To Atty. Peaches and family, thank you so much for sharing Sandy’s story. It is really sad losing our most precious loved ones, only God knows why, but I know, Sandy and Rianna are now happily playing in heaven. They will always be missed.