Updated 7:40 p.m.: This story was updated to include comments from Anna ISD’s superintendent.
Iris Meda had big plans for retirement after more than three decades as a nurse.
Meda was going to go on trips to visit her siblings in South Carolina. She was going to team up with her daughter to write a book. She was going to ride — top down — in a convertible for the first time.
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, just weeks into her retirement, she put her plans on hold. She signed up to teach at Collin College, wanting to use her nursing experience to train the next generation of essential health care workers.
It was while teaching, her family believes, that 70-year-old Meda contracted COVID-19. She died of complications from the disease on Nov. 14.
Meda weighed the risk of going to school each day against the reward of helping to bolster the nursing ranks, said Selene Meda-Schlamel, her daughter.
“I think it was not only because she believed in what she was doing, but she was so happy to be there and so happy to be educating students,” Meda-Schlamel said. “She was always serving someone.”
Meda was born in South Carolina in 1950 and grew up watching over her younger brothers and sisters from an early age, igniting a passion for caretaking. Her family was so poor, her daughter recalled, that Meda didn’t realize until she got married that people were supposed to use their own towel.
After dropping out of high school, Meda later went back to earn her GED in New York, followed by an associate’s degree from Bronx Community College and later a nursing degree.
She deployed her skills in hospitals, nursing homes and correctional facilities. The family story goes that Meda was so kind to the inmates at Rikers Island that they clapped her out when she left her job there to move to Texas in 1992.
“To come so far in her career and to now be an educator was, to her, just the epitome of the American dream,” Meda-Schlamel said.
Meda thought, at first, that she would be teaching all of her students online. So it was a surprise when she was expected to report to work in person this fall.
She wore her glasses and N95 mask, and tried to spread out from students in her classroom, her daughter said. Despite the added pressure, she loved teaching them the basics of nursing and making them laugh during class. She kept an eye on the ones who appeared to be struggling.
“She was looking out for the students who needed that extra help because she had been that student at one time,” her daughter said.
She also paid close attention to how her students were feeling. On Oct. 2, she took note of a dual credit student at Anna High School who was sneezing and coughing. She learned that student tested positive for the virus a week later, according to an email sent by the college president.
Meda started feeling sick, too, and so she began a detailed log of how she felt each day. Fever, body aches, chills.
A test confirmed the family’s fears: Meda had the virus.
Meda’s death has ignited anger and fear among some Collin College faculty and staff.
They have, for weeks, questioned why the school doesn’t have a public COVID-19 dashboard like other colleges and universities to track cases in the community.
Some have also criticized district President H. Neil Matkin for being dismissive of the virus and for the way he announced Meda’s death.
He sent an email to college trustees in August — days before Meda returned to the workforce — stating that the “effects of this pandemic have been blown utterly out of proportion across our nation and reported with unfortunate sensationalism.”
And after Meda died, Inside Higher Ed reported, Matkin announced the news in the 22nd paragraph of an email with the subject line, “College Update & Happy Thanksgiving!” He did not include Meda’s name, later saying that was because he did not yet have the family’s permission to do so.
The initial email landed in professors’ inboxes while several dozen were logged onto Zoom for a faculty council meeting. Immediately, they started trying to figure out which one of their colleagues had died.
“It was frightening and jarring just to be, in this offhand way, told a faculty member has passed,” history professor Lora Burnett said.
A student who attended Collin College’s campus in Allen died last month after getting sick with the virus, KERA News reported.
A college spokesman did not respond to a list of questions about how the virus has been handled on Collin’s campuses.
He provided a statement on behalf of Matkin saying he extends his condolences to the Meda family and that the college is “sincerely grateful for her service to our students.”
It was hard for Meda to speak from her hospital bed, so instead, she texted back and forth with her daughter.
One thing she worried about: Were other students in her class quarantining? Did they also get sick?
Anna ISD Superintendent Michael Comeaux said the school monitored Meda’s class and that no other students displayed symptoms. They did not send students home, he said, other than the initial teenager who tested positive.
The others, Comeaux said, “weren’t deemed to be in close contact because they were wearing masks.” The class members were at times closer than 6 feet apart because of the work involved in the lesson.
Meda texted her daughter about other things, too. At first, she wrote to say she was bored sitting in the hospital bed all day. So Meda-Schlamel sent her podcast recommendations.
Later, she texted to make sure Meda-Schlamel remembered to thank the health care workers taking care of her. Days before Meda was intubated, she was reminding her daughter to pick up a “thank you” card for her nurse.
As Meda-Schlamel reflects on her mother’s life, what’s most evident is how much she cared for others. Before she died, she left her daughter a card and a blank check.
“You … will have a wonderful life to come,” Meda wrote to her daughter.
Now, as Meda-Schlamel goes through her mother’s paperwork, she’s finding more evidence of that spirit. It turns out, she said, that Meda had been taking care of a friend’s car payments as they weathered the pandemic’s economic toll.
“I just want everyone to know that her legacy will live past her,” Meda-Schlamel said. “This legacy of helping each other, of teaching each other, of just unconditional love and forgiveness.”
Shortly before she died, Meda and a friend recorded a video of themselves singing and dancing along to Sam Cooke. Meda smiles into the camera and laughs.
“Now I look at it and cry,” said her friend Rehna Troutt.
Troutt is one of the people behind a GoFundMe page to raise money for the family’s hospital bills and funeral expenses. It’s already raised more than $18,000.
Any leftover funds will be used to start a scholarship in Meda’s honor.
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