First leukemia struck, then the swine flu

EVERETT — Rochelle Strong checked into a Southern California hospital with a cough in July.

Tuesday the Everett native became one of a handful of people from Snohomish County to die from the swine flu.

Friends and family here and in California are mourning the death of a young woman they called upbeat, loving and outgoing.

“It was so quick, so sudden,” said her brother, Stanley Harris of Palmdale, Calif. “It’s unbelievable.”

Strong, 22, leaves behind a 3-month-old boy, Jerome, and two daughters, Zoe’a, 1, and Naydia, 5. She had moved to California last summer to be closer to family.

Her death came one day after a report that said swine flu could lead to as many as 1.8 million U.S. hospital admissions this fall and winter. The council warned that the sickest patients could place enormous stress on intensive-care units across the country.

The head of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later said projections didn’t appear to be that dire.

So far, two deaths in Snohomish County have been connected to the swine flu, according to the Snohomish Health District.

Strong had been fighting leukemia before contracting the H1N1 virus.

She had been receiving radiation treatments at City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, Calif. A representative at the hospital wouldn’t discuss the details of her case, citing hospital policy.

Family members said Strong felt good and was at home on break from treatment enjoying time with her children just before she contracted the flu. She made a few routine trips to the store and the park but went nowhere else, said Wess Harris, her sister-in-law.

She went back to the hospital when the cough cropped up to get it checked out. Three days later, doctors placed Strong on life support and told her family she probably wouldn’t make it, Harris said.

Family members were told Strong had an increased risk to contract the flu because her immune system had been compromised by cancer treatments.

Her sister-in-law Wess Harris said the family is surprised by how little support is available for the loved ones of patients killed by swine flu. She searched for resources and found nothing for low-income families.

“We’ve been seeing so many things on CNN about a possible pandemic, so I assume the U.S. would have something in place for families,” she said. “There is nothing in place.”

Harris even contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency and was told the federal government was concentrating its resources on vaccines. Even a support group for surviving family members might be helpful, she said.

Rochelle Strong was born in Alabama and moved to Everett as a baby when her mother took a job at Boeing. She was the youngest in a large family that included three older brothers and a sister. She attended PROVE High, an alternative school in Lake Stevens. Later she worked at a local day care and served as a caregiver for developmentally disabled adults.

Friends and family say Strong had gone through some rough patches as a teen, but she was turning her life around. She had dreams of becoming a nurse or doing outreach work with troubled teenagers.

“She was very outgoing, very loving,” said Amy Sass of Everett. “She always cared about people and their feelings.”

Another friend, Trista Hampton of Lake Stevens, said many here in Snohomish County are mourning her death.

Stanley Harris said his sister had planned to take a job with his recording studio and was engaged to be married. She also was finishing her GED.

“We always say, ‘Not me, not my family,’” Stanley Harris said. “But if it’s hit my home just like this, it’s hitting other homes.”

Rochelle Strong’s mother, Roslyn Strong, plans to raise her daughter’s children. Thursday she was struggling to come to terms with her daughter’s death.

Rochelle “was really loved,” she said. “She was the best daughter I could have had. She was my best friend. She was so excited she finally got her baby boy and she didn’t get a chance to be the mom she wanted to be for him.”

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