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'Take it seriously,' widower of former Webster Groves preschool teacher says of COVID-19

'Take it seriously,' widower of former Webster Groves preschool teacher says of COVID-19


WEBSTER GROVES — A Webster Groves man said his wife, a former preschool teacher, had a cough dismissed as a sinus problem and was told to take an antihistamine. Her condition deteriorated quickly and she died Saturday, two days after testing positive for COVID-19, he said.

Juanita Eason Graham, 55, died at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital, where she had been taken by paramedics on Wednesday, according to her husband, Dennis Graham.

“I’m a witness to this COVID-19. Take it seriously,” he told the Post-Dispatch on Monday.

Dennis Graham said his wife had diabetes, high blood pressure and other health concerns. He said he wonders if she was exposed to the coronavirus when they traveled to Indianapolis for a friend’s birthday party and visited with relatives March 8.

Juanita Graham

Juanita Graham, in a Webster Groves School District photo posted to Facebook in February 2018, worked at the Ambrose Family Center Preschool.

Dennis Graham said he was diagnosed with pneumonia after they returned to St. Louis, and his wife was caring for him. She had a cough and, at a regular doctor visit March 16, was told it was a sinus issue and to take Zyrtec, he said. Last week, Juanita Graham started feeling more ill, he said. She wasn’t eating and wanted to do nothing but sleep, he said.

“She was incoherent,” he said. “Saying things that didn’t make sense. She had no balance.”

Dennis Graham said his wife last Tuesday admonished him. “Don’t you be calling 911 on me.”

“So I let it go for a day,” he said.

The next day, he called paramedics and she was admitted to the hospital. Dennis Graham said a nurse called him Thursday to say she had tested positive for COVID-19. That’s the same day his niece from Indianapolis called to say that a friend at the family gathering, a woman Juanita had been sitting next to, also had COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says symptoms might appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Dennis Graham said he was notified by hospital staff Saturday morning that his wife had died. He said he is still battling pneumonia and will likely be tested for the coronavirus, too.

His wife will be cremated because the local funeral home handling arrangements isn’t embalming COVID-19 victims for fear of exposure.

Neither the hospital nor St. Louis County health officials confirmed the husband’s account that she died of complications from COVID-19. The St. Louis County Department of Public Health has not added Graham’s death to the two COVID-19 deaths recorded by the county so far. A hospital spokeswoman said federal privacy laws prevent her from releasing information on a specific patient, but she said every positive diagnosis and death related to COVID-19 is shared with county health officials immediately.

Juanita Graham lived in the same Webster Groves house her whole life. She and Dennis had been married 17 years and had no children. Teaching preschool was her passion, Dennis Graham said.

“Her kids were her life. That was her calling, to be a teacher,” he said. She taught until June 2018.

Juanita Graham taught at the Walter Ambrose Family Center Preschool, 222 West Cedar Avenue, for nearly two decades.

“Ms. Juanita touched the lives of hundreds of children in her 19 years as a teacher in the preschool,” the school announced on its Facebook page. “She loved all children with her heart and soul. If you knew her, you loved her, and if she knew you, you were loved.”

The school’s announcement said she died “due to complications from the COVID-19 virus.”

On Saturday, John Simpson, superintendent of schools, wrote on Twitter that Graham was a warm, wise and “deeply loved and respected teacher.”

In a February 2018 Facebook post by the Webster Groves School District, Graham said the best part of her day with her 3- to 5-year-old pupils was listening to their conversations. After noticing children playing with dolls and talking about caring for babies, she led a service project through which her class collected baby items to donate to Nurses for Newborns.

Jesse Bogan of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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