The family of a 20-year-old mother who died just one day after being diagnosed with the flu says she was “always healthy” before she became ill over Thanksgiving weekend.
Alani “Joie” Murrieta and many of her family members experienced cold-like symptoms after celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday together in Phoenix, Arizona. While everyone eventually recovered, Murrieta worsened, and just days later, she would succumb to her illness, leaving behind her two boys—2-year-old A.J. and 6-month-old Jr.
“She was a beautiful person, she was caring and loving and always there for others,” Vanessa Flores-Aguirre, Murrieta’s friend, tells PEOPLE. “She was just a really good person.”
While at her warehouse job the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Murrieta was sent home due to her symptoms, and was then taken to an urgent care clinic by her sister the following day. She was then diagnosed with the flu and given medication.
Doctors at the clinic gave Murrieta a treatment called Tamiflu, an antiviral medication. Murrieta returned home to rest, but her health continued to deteriorate. By the next morning, after spending much of the night coughing, she was having trouble breathing and spitting up a small amount of blood. Her family took her to Banner Estrella Medical Center where doctors ran tests and discovered her oxygen levels were dangerously low, and a scan that morning revealed Murrieta had developed pneumonia, an infection of the lungs.
Doctors quickly gave her a dosage of intravenous antibiotics, but Murrieta passed out as fluid built up in her lungs. As staff tried to transport her to the ICU, Murrieta’s heart stopped, but doctors were able to resuscitate her. Just a short time later, her heart stopped for a second time as staff tried to place her on a ventilator.
“We just thought they’d give her antibiotics, she would be fine, and we would tell her how crazy it all was later on. My sister and I just thought she would pull through and get better,” Stephanie Gonzales, Murrieta’s aunt, tells PEOPLE. “As they tried to resuscitate her for the second time, we kept telling her to be strong, to fight, fight for the boys and just come back to us.”
After doctors tried unsuccessfully to revive her, the family was informed there was nothing more they could do, and Murrieta passed away at 3:25 p.m. on November 28, just one day after being diagnosed with the flu.
“It was really hard for me. I spoke to her sister and she told me it was true, that she was gone,” Flores-Aguirre says. “I broke down, it felt so unreal. I can’t describe how close we were. We used to be together every single day.”
Gonzales says the family is still recovering from the shock of losing their beloved Murrieta, and it all feels “unreal.”
“It gets harder every day for me. She’ll never walk in through my door again, or call me auntie,” she says through tears. “I’ll never have that again and it breaks my heart.”
The Center for Disease Control estimates that the flu has resulted in between nine million and 35 million illnesses each year in the U.S. since 2010. About 7,000 cases of influenza have been confirmed in the country so far for the season, which is more than double than in 2016. While it is difficult to know how many people have died from the disease, the CDC estimates that influenza-associated deaths ranged from a low of 12,000 in 2011 to 2012 to a high of 56,000 in 2012 to 2013. Professor Robert Lamb, a Northwestern University biochemist who studies the influenza virus, says it is uncommon for someone so young to die from the illness.
“To die of influence as a 20-year-old is very unusual,” Professor Lamb, who has no connection to Murrieta’s case, tells PEOPLE. “When it comes to a 70-year-old, they probably had some underlying secondary condition, but for a 20-year-old, it’s very unusual.”
Lamb emphasizes the importance of getting a flu vaccination.
“The best advice you can give anybody is to tell them to get vaccinated,” he says.
The family has set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for burial expenses. Further donations will be used to create a fund for Murrieta’s two young sons.
“Alani was a great mother, daughter, sister, niece and friend,” Gonzales says, adding that Murrieta was hard-working and would do anything for her children. “She was loud, energetic and always ready for an adventure. We’re devastated she is gone but we’re amazed by the number of people who loved her as much as we do.”
Flores-Aguirre says she will always remember the kindness of her best friend.
“Joie was a beautiful person and she had a beautiful soul,” she says. “She was the type of person that if anyone else needed help, she would be the person to help out and be there for others.”