Kailua preschool educator continues teaching while battling cancer in COVID world

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — COVID-19 affects many people in the hospital, not only those who are sick with the virus.

Many have put off in-person doctor visits over concerns of possible exposure, and for some, the delayed care has led to bigger health problems.

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Debbie Morrow is an award-winning preschool teacher at Kailua Elementary who also specializes in teaching kids with autism. In early 2020, she began showing symptoms of the return of her 2013 battle with cancer, but it was not diagnosed until December 2020.

“Just trying to do a lot of what they could do via telephone because they didn’t want me to come in because I did have COVID-like symptoms, and they were trying to treat me for asthma at that point,” Morrow said.

Her X-rays did not show anything until she began coughing up blood in December 2020, and scans found a mass in her lung.

“I think that possibly allowed it to go on further than it might have gone on,” Morrow added.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has even impacted the kind of chemotherapy she can undergo.

“One of the concerns the doctor had is the harder chemos are harder on your immune system, and it puts you too much at risk and with the delta variant, it’s not a safe time to be that much at risk,” Morrow said.

Morrow’s cancer has already aggressively spread to her liver and bones but she is still doing what she loves: teaching in person. With the help of a COVID vaccine booster shot and KN95 masks donated by a parent, Morrow feels safe enough to outweigh the possibility of infection.

“I’ve had to really think about trying to juggle quality of life, which is being here and enjoying my work and my time, and then also knowing that there might come a point with heavier chemotherapy, I won’t be able to do that and having to come to peace with that,” Morrow said.

Elizabeth Laloulu Espiritu has had three of her children go through Morrow’s classes.

“My eldest son Kalai, who is now seven, has moderate to severe autism, and before he started school at three years old, he had a lot of developmental and behavioral issues which included tantrums, meltdowns and self-harming behaviors,” Espiritu said.

Morrow helped Espiritu’s family understand autism and how to care for Kalai.

“Debbie’s calm demeanor, skillset, patience, helped Kalai which also helped me get through those challenges. She discovered his learning style and laid the foundation for him,” Espiritu added.

Morrow was recognized as the Windward District Teacher of the Year in 2018.

“Debbie’s love for teaching extended for all of her students, not only my three children. She has supported and nurtured children in Kailua for almost 20 years,” Espiritu said.

There is still hope. In fact, Morrow is hoping a trip to the City of Hope cancer hospital in California next week will help stop the spread.

“Maybe more trials, or maybe just somebody that can say you’re on the right path. Keep going. We’re hoping for a miracle,” Morrow said.

Espiritu and other supporters have come together to create a fundraiser for Morrow to help with medical bills, as the care will not be covered by medical insurance.

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“Debbie is in the fight of her life and Hawaii she needs our help,” Espiritu said. “Please donate to support Debbie, one of our precious gems. Her husband Pete and her four children — Jason, Aiden, Faith and Ashley. No donation is ever too small because a single dollar is one less dollar they would have to worry about.”

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