Yasmin Peña had artistic talents in abundance: She danced, she drew, she sang, she sculpted.
But the bubbly high school student’s heart was in fashion design, which she wanted to pursue professionally. A senior at Waterbury Arts Magnet School in Waterbury, Conn. she had even designed her own prom dress: a high hem in the front, low in the back, and purple, her favorite color.
Yasmin, 18, died from COVID-19 on April 12, a rare young victim of the novel coronavirus. As of April 20, only two deaths have been recorded among children and youth ages 10 to 19 in Connecticut since the pandemic reached the United States.
But Yasmin had a vulnerability to the coronavirus she didn’t know about: Only when she was in the hospital, after weeks of illness, did her family learn she had lupus, a disease caused by an overactive immune system. People with autoimmune disorders are at higher risk of severe complications from the coronavirus. Eczema—linked in many cases to an overactive immune system—runs in the family, and Yasmin had it as well, said her older sister, Madeline Peña. But otherwise, Yasmin was “the youngest, healthiest, most outgoing of all of us,” she said. In addition to Madeline, Yasmin had another sister and two brothers.
“I know a lot of kids around her age or maybe younger are not concerned when it comes to the virus,” said Madeline Peña, 21, who is a student at Naugatuck Valley Community College. Yasmin planned to follow her sister there, and then continue to a four-year university.
“But you have to be concerned. It’s a virus that doesn’t ask what age you are—it infects you no matter what you are,” Peña said.
‘Missing Out on That Hug’
Yasmin’s death is a sorrowful addition to an already disrupted school year for students at her school, which has been closed to in-person classes since mid-March. After learning the news, the school system started reaching out to faculty and students on Monday. Counselors have also followed up with additional phone calls to students, said Nicholas Albini, the principal of Waterbury Arts Magnet.
“Unfortunately, everything becomes a little bit more impersonalized than it was when we were in direct contact,” Albini said. “Everybody’s alone. That’s just an unfortunate product of this disease. We’re missing out on that hug we’d like to give, but this is what we have.”
Edwin Cortes, a high school senior at the magnet school who called Yasmin his “sister,” said that he learned of her death from a school psychologist.
“Yasmin had a care for people like no other, she always had a smile like no other,” Cortes said. “She would give me a smile every day.”
“Yasmin wasn’t someone who deserved to go out the way she did,” Cortes said. “I think there was a fate better for her. This was not her fate.”
Yasmin first started experiencing chest pains in late January, her sister said, but after a checkup, she was told it was linked to anxiety.
“She still wanted to go to school. She didn’t want to drop everything just because of some chest pains,” Peña said.
And she also wanted to push through and participate in the senior theatrical showcase in late February, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” where she was an ensemble member.
Marianna Vagnini Dadamo, a teacher who had taught Yasmin in chamber choir during her freshman and sophomore years, marveled at how the shy student had blossomed over the years.
“She was the quietest, mousiest, barely could open her mouth [student],” Vagnini Dadamo said, “but so sensitive to what we were after and what we were trying to achieve as a choir.”
And truly kind, Vagnini Dadamo said: “She would ask me how I was. And that’s not an unusual question, but it’s an unusual question when a student asks a teacher, and you really get a sense that they really want to know. She had that kind of kindness.”
Vagnini Dadamo said that Yasmin is not the first student she has lost. Because of that, she said, she always tries to leave students with a positive message, which is what she did with Yasmin.
“I told her how fantastic she was, how funny she was in the show. And I’m grateful that was my last interaction with her,” she said.
After the show, Yasmin grew more ill, with a cough and fever. Her family decided she should stay at home to recuperate. In mid-March, however, her mother saw her sitting at the kitchen table, holding her head in her hands. Yasmin told her mother she couldn’t breathe, her sister said.
They took her to the hospital and she was admitted that day. Around the same time, Connecticut schools were shutting down school buildings.
Yasmin’s time in the hospital was a rollercoaster, Peña said. At times, she said, her younger sister was responsive to her family during video chats. At other times, her blood pressure dipped and doctors explained that her condition was grave.
On April 12—Easter Sunday—Peña said the family was told Yasmin was off the ventilator.
“We were so happy, on Easter, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. It was like a sign from God,” she said.
But a few hours later, during dialysis, Yasmin died.
“If there’s one thing I would want everyone who reads this to know, it would be don’t leave anything for tomorrow, you know? This is a virus that is trying to separate everyone. This is a virus that is trying to destroy families,” Peña said.
The district is hoping to remember Yasmin at what would have been her high school graduation, though it has still not decided how it will hold the ceremony. Schools are currently closed until May 20th. In a normal year, graduation would be in June. Waterbury Arts Magnet has 110 seniors expected to graduate this year.
“We have our sights on recognizing Yasmin at graduation,” Albini said. “We just don’t know the venue yet, whether it will be totally digital or totally remote, but certainly she will be remembered.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2020 edition of Education Week as Remembering 18-Year-Old Who Died From Coronavirus