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Jennifer Martinez: A Sparkling Spirit

Olga Khazan |
November 4, 2009 | 1:37 p.m. PST

Senior Editor

On her good days, 25-year-old Jennifer Martinez could do a lot, chasing after her infant son, baking for her family and teaching her niece and nephew to dance in their cozy West Covina home.

"Jennifer was always one step ahead of me," said Jennifer's mother, 47-year-old Maria Martinez, a widow and a stocker at a Glendora Wal-Mart.

"She was like my right hand. She would call me at work and say, 'Mom, I can get dinner started. I can get it halfway done before you get home.'"

But on bad days, Jennifer would call her mother and simply say she needed to stay in bed.

With a sparkling spirit and warm heart, Jennifer loved filling her days by doting on her family and tending to the bustling house she shared with her mother, son, two sisters and their children, 5-year-old Rylee and 3-year-old Gabriel.

Unfortunately, her body didn't always allow it.

At the age of 15, she was stricken with lupus, an autoimmune disorder that caused her debilitating pain, sometimes rendering her unable to move.

On those days, Martinez would rub her daughter's swollen joints with Bengay and wrap her aching limbs in bandages, providing temporary relief between the chemotherapy treatments Jennifer received several times a year.

Though her family describes her as a bubbling, jovial person, Jennifer's diagnosis was hard for her to bear. As a girl, she loved to swim, play sports and spend long sunny days in amusement parks with her sisters Tami and Angel.

She was an organized go-getter, and her large extended family would often call on her to plan parties or babysit young cousins for weeks on end.

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But lupus made it impossible for her to do many of the things she loved. She was pulled out of high school on doctors' orders and had to complete her coursework from home. The few odd jobs she held all ended promptly when doctors deemed the work to be too strenuous.

"She didn't like it because she knew it just meant it would take longer for her to accomplish what she wanted to be," Martinez said. "All she wanted was to do her education, get married and have kids."

To make matters worse, Jennifer had to avoid the sunny beach days she loved as a child.

"The sun would swell her," Martinez said. "We had to wait till dusk to go places. She would often question, 'Why me?'"

But Jennifer persevered, slowly working toward a degree in nursing at Citrus College. She also lovingly fulfilled her roles as a mother, daughter and sister.

"She would never forget to do something for my birthday," Tami Martinez said. "Not once. She always would bake my favorite cake - strawberry cake with sprinkles."

On July 10, Jennifer had an asthma attack that sent her to the emergency room. The attack was a minor one, and doctors stabilized Jennifer quickly and only kept her overnight.

The next day, Jennifer called home and told her mother that, though she was ready to be discharged, she thought she might stay and get her next regularly scheduled chemotherapy treatment taken care of while she was there.

Her mother agreed, and doctors performed the procedure. Jennifer recovered well, but she later began experiencing a sharp pain in her side, and her medical team decided to extract her gall bladder as a precaution. That operation, too, went off without a hitch.

But the following day, Jennifer began to have trouble breathing.

The doctors told Martinez that Jennifer had pneumonia. Days passed, but no amount of antibiotics could stave off the infection.

The chemotherapy that had kept Jennifer's lupus in check had essentially decimated her immune system.

On July 15, her father's birthday and just four days after she called her mother saying she was ready to be released, Jennifer was placed on life support.

The doctors strapped Jennifer to a special rotating bed to help drain her lungs of fluid. They paralyzed her limbs so that all her body's strength would go toward keeping her alive.

On July 24, hospital staff called her mother with the news.

"We had just left the hospital," Martinez said, "and they called and said, 'We need you and your immediate family to come back here right away.' That's when I knew."

By the time Martinez got back to the hospital, her daughter was dead.

Although the L.A. County health department later found that Jennifer's death was caused in part by swine flu, Jennifer's death certificate does not list it as a cause of death. Martinez was never told her daughter had swine flu, or how she might have acquired it.

"I'm upset," Martinez said. "I should have been more informed. If it was swine flu, and even if she tested negative, why wasn't I told?"

Jennifer is survived by those who infused her life with joy. Jennifer's son Aiden turned 1 on Oct. 30, and the Martinez living room was strewn with black and orange decorations for a combination Halloween/birthday party.

Aiden's father is a man named Felix Javalera, Jennifer's boyfriend from high school. The pregnancy came as a surprise to Jennifer's mother, who was both happy to have another baby in the house and worried about the stress giving birth would put on her daughter's frail health.

At the time, Jennifer said the pregnancy was unplanned. But now, her mother is beginning to think otherwise.

While Jennifer was in the hospital, doctors told Martinez that on top of her other health issues, over the past year Jennifer's kidneys had slowly begun to fail.

Jennifer had never mentioned the condition to her mother.

"Looking back, maybe she did want this, knowing everything that was wrong," Martinez said. "So that she could leave me something behind to make it easier on me."

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