Broken hearts, broken dreams

The Baltimore Sun

The first was Fe Bolado, a 26-year-old beauty with long, shiny hair who couldn't carry a tune in karaoke. She left her family in the Philippines to teach math in Baltimore, where she hid her sadness behind a constant smile.

Her friends knew she was heartbroken that her marriage, less than a year old, was falling apart. They did not know the extent of the despair. Before dawn last May 25, Bolado hanged herself in her Mount Vernon apartment.

And then, between the night of Nov. 6 and the morning of Nov. 8, a second Filipino teacher in Baltimore took her life the same way.

Irenea Conato Apao, 41, taught high school algebra and geometry while her son and daughter, now 10 and 17, stayed with her sister in the Philippines. Known as Irene, Apao had been separated from her husband for several years. In the months before her death, she struggled with financial problems and felt troubled by the unwanted attentions of a one-time boyfriend.

Coming less than six months apart, the suicides have stunned Baltimore's community of more than 400 Filipino teachers, a close-knit group that has bonded over the struggles of living and working half a world away from home.

Much links Bolado and Apao: bright young women from the same western Pacific country recruited by the city school system to fill vacancies. They were both bubbly and outgoing and left behind families and sterling academic records. But their most telling similarity might be the unwillingness of each to put her faith in mental health services at a time of severe emotional turmoil.

Bolado's friends say they do not believe she had sought any mental health care before her death. Apao had been prescribed antidepressants and was hospitalized for nearly a week after a suicide attempt in early October, but she resisted suggestions that she get into counseling.

In their apparent aversion to seeking professional help, Bolado and Apao reflected a cultural bias of their homeland, where, many Filipinos living in Baltimore agree, there is little regard for psychiatry and psychology.

"In the American perspective, there's nothing wrong with [mental illness] because, medically, it's a condition," said Alona Nu?ez, an English teacher at West Baltimore Middle School who's in the same recruiting program that Bolado and Apao were.

"For Filipinos, it could destroy your reputation. It would create a scandal."

Living in the United States, both Bolado and Apao had extensive support from friends and colleagues. It wasn't enough.

High hopes

As far as is known, neither woman left behind a note to reveal why she felt suicide was the only option. What is certain is that both arrived in this country with expectations for brighter futures.

Economics impelled them to leave their families, bound, eventually, for Baltimore. They enlisted in international programs that recruit "highly qualified" teachers into American school districts with shortages.

With its high poverty and a surplus of English-speaking teachers, the Philippines is fertile ground for recruits.

Bolado was in the first crop of 58 Filipino teachers brought to Baltimore in the summer of 2005. Since then, their numbers have grown every year.

Bolado was the baby of her group, just 24 at the time she arrived, an honors graduate of the University of the Philippines.

Her mother had been working in Hong Kong as a domestic helper to support the family. She was able to return home when Bolado, striking for her drive and desire to excel, accepted a high-paying job in the United States.

During that first school year, at least, she was very much a part of Baltimore's community for Filipino teachers.

She lived alongside dozens of her countrymen at the Symphony Center apartment building near the Meyerhoff, sharing a fifth-floor unit with three Filipino roommates. She liked to dance and to shop at Old Navy.

She was also selected to be followed by a Filipino-American documentary maker chronicling the experiences of Filipino teachers in Baltimore.

Troubled marriage

Bolado worked at Thurgood Marshall Middle, a challenging Northeast Baltimore school that she and the other Filipino teachers there jokingly called "Thurbest."

Despite the culture shock of encountering insubordinate children, she thrived professionally and was beloved by her students, according to colleagues and school administrators. In addition to her regular load of math classes, she taught a weekly science class for gifted students, lugging loads of materials to school for projects such as making ice cream.

"Fe was amazing," said George Duque, the school system's director of staffing and certification. "I remember her saying, 'Adding and subtracting is not math. Thinking is math.'"

Outside school, much of Bolado's life revolved around a troubled relationship with a boyfriend back in the Philippines whom her family never liked, her friends said.

Returning home the summer after her first school year away, she married him without her parents' knowledge.

Back in Baltimore for a second school year, Bolado and four other teachers left Symphony Center for the Horizon House apartments on Calvert Street. Her husband followed her here that winter and moved in with her and her two roommates.

But problems in their relationship continued.

On May 21, according to a later police report, he left her for another woman. A few days later, wearing boxer shorts and a sleeveless shirt, Bolado tried to slit her left wrist before hanging herself in the closet with an extension cord.

In her final moments, she taped signs to her bedroom wall instructing her roommates not to contact her husband.

Happy facade

If Bolado despaired over a fractured romance, Apao's situation appeared more complicated. Interviews and documents suggest a stretch of time in which she was losing control, in her personal life, in her professional life, in her finances.

Like Bolado, Apao often appeared happy. And like Bolado, she had been professionally successful in the Philippines, having been singled out for national recognition by the country's education department.

She left home in 2005 for a teaching job in Spotsylvania, Va.

After a year there, Apao arrived in Baltimore, telling administrators she was looking for a more lively environment. She impressed them in her interview at a job fair for a position at Baltimore Talent Development High, a well-regarded school in Harlem Park run in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University.

She wanted to teach physics, in which she had a master's degree, but with no science openings, she settled on math.

Colleagues say she struggled with the behavior of her students and by midway through the school year, she was frequently showing up to work late or calling in sick.

Because Apao didn't come directly to Baltimore from the Philippines, she did not have many of the strong relationships that usually go with being in the program.

At first she lived in an apartment on West Lombard Street with two colleagues, one the former principal of her school in the Philippines.

Then last fall, she moved by herself into a basement apartment across the street.

Cheryl Curtis, the school system's coordinator of international teachers, urged Apao to move into an apartment building where she'd be surrounded by other Filipino teachers. She did not.

Nonetheless, her social life was active. She sang in the Filipino choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and she was involved in numerous Washington-based Filipino community organizations, particularly the Migrant Heritage Commission, which provides legal advice, health care and cultural activities.

A short, slightly chubby woman with wavy dark hair, Apao loved a good party. For her birthday in August, she played hostess to dozens of people and had a roasted pig brought in from New York.

She also loved fashion. She became fast friends last summer with Jennifer Hong, a jewelry saleswoman she met on a bus (Apao didn't have an American driver's license), and with Hong's friend Michele Blanchard, a dress designer.

She talked about going into business with them, but she told them she was having financial difficulties, and the plans never materialized.

At the time of her death, she had in her possession several of Blanchard's mannequins and clothes, which she was trying to sell for a commission.

'I am alone here'

At a party in December 2006, Apao hit it off with a pizza deliveryman, a native of India who spoke limited English. They dated for two months, at which point Apao tried to break off the relationship, she wrote in court documents.

Last April, she filed papers in Baltimore District Court seeking a peace order against the man, who she claimed had sexually assaulted her and threatened to kill her. She appeared in court five times, before several different judges. Tape recordings of the proceedings do not indicate that any of them asked her about her assault allegation.

In the courtroom on May 11, Apao broke down in tears after learning that the hearing was being postponed for the third time. She said she could not continue to miss school to come to court.

"Look at my eyes," she can be heard telling the judge in the recording. "I'm not sleeping well because I'm scared. I am alone here. I don't have any family."

Later that month, she finally obtained the order, effective for six months. It was due to expire 10 days after she was found dead.

In June, she found a new companion in Manny Lopez, 44, a Filipino engineer raised in Guam who was the official photographer at the Migrant Heritage Commission's annual ball. Lopez, who lives in Prince George's County, said they met when Apao - wearing an elegant maroon gown - asked him to take her picture with her friends.

By the fall, Apao was talking about moving to Prince George's County to live closer to Lopez, and about bringing her children over from the Philippines to live with her.

But her daughter, who recently started nursing school, didn't want to move away, friends and family said. Apao talked often about missing her kids, whom she hadn't seen since she returned for her father's funeral a year earlier. Lopez said that Apao's general practitioner had prescribed antidepressants and sleeping pills.

"She just always said she missed her family so much," said Blanchard, the dress designer.

Her frustration at school was also mounting. Despite trying to arrange a job over the summer at Frederick Douglass High, she returned to Talent Development, where she found herself working as a substitute for the first few weeks of school.

She was supposed to start a permanent assignment teaching math in small groups to struggling students, but because of her frequent absences, colleagues said, those classes never got off the ground.

"She didn't have anything to do," Lopez said. "She kept asking, 'Where are my students, where are my students?' She wanted to teach."

Suicide attempt

On Oct. 9, Apao tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills in her apartment. A friend found her and called the police. The responding officer wrote in a report that she was unable to stop crying.

She was hospitalized for nearly a week at Sheppard Pratt Health System and then sent home to rest. Lopez said he'd check to see that she was taking her antidepressants.

At the school system, Curtis said she encouraged Apao to take advantage of a free employee assistance program that provides counseling. She took the information and politely thanked Curtis, as she had several months earlier when a Talent Development administrator made the same recommendation.

Curtis and Duque arranged for Apao to transfer from Talent Development to a co-teaching position at Booker T. Washington Middle School, to lighten her load and give her a fresh start.

She reported to Booker T. Washington for only one day, Monday, Nov. 5. She complained that night to a friend that the students weren't as well behaved as those at Talent Development. Schools were closed that Tuesday for Election Day, and on Wednesday, she didn't show up.

Lopez, unable to reach Apao since 5 p.m. Tuesday, was in a panic by Thursday morning and called the landlord. That afternoon, the landlord found her body.

Nilo Narciso, a Filipino special education teacher at Talent Development, saw Apao the Friday before her death, when he helped her empty her desk at the school. He called her a cab and carried her boxes to the curb. As they waited for the taxi, he said, she promised him that despite her previous suicide attempt, she would never actually go through with killing herself. "I will make this life a better one," she told him.

Apao had made the same promise to numerous relatives and friends on both sides of the globe, and many had trouble believing that her death was really a suicide.

"I could not expect she would easily give up on her kids," said a cousin of Apao's husband, Michelle Albor-Basabe, who teaches third-grade at Patapsco Elementary and who handled her affairs after her death. "Sometimes you give up on your dreams, but not on your kids."

Circle of support

Part of what makes Bolado and Apao's deaths puzzling to their colleagues is that a strong support network exists for the city's Filipino teachers, literally from the moment they arrive at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Congregants at area Filipino churches rush to bring the teachers everything from food to furniture.

Two school system administrators, Curtis and Duque, check up on them constantly and intervene whenever there's a job-related problem. They are so involved in the teachers' lives that they've earned the nicknames "Mom" and "Dad."

Most of the teachers live together, renting adjacent apartments in four buildings around the city. They carpool together. They pray together. They've developed their own governance structure with elected leaders, including an overall coordinator, coordinators for each group arriving from the Philippines, even coordinators on every floor at the Symphony Center apartment building.

As school systems around the country increasingly turn to the Philippines and elsewhere abroad to find teachers, Baltimore has become a model for the support it provides. Its foreign teacher retention rate is higher than that in many other cities.

Yet the suicides were here.

Ligaya Avenida, a recruiter who has been sending Filipino teachers to American schools for nearly a decade and referred about half the teachers now in Baltimore, said Bolado's was the first suicide she'd seen.

Officials at Amity Institute, which sponsors visas for international teachers, said Bolado was the first participant to die in their 45 years in business.

No one is suggesting that a deficiency in the Baltimore program resulted in the deaths. If anything, some say, what the suicides reveal is the deeply stigmatizing nature of mental illness among Filipinos, even among those who come to this country.

The Philippines is a deeply religious Roman Catholic society, with a close-knit family structure that takes care of its own. Many Filipinos say that, in their culture, it's generally accepted that in times of personal turmoil, people turn to their families and the church.

The country has only one state psychiatric hospital, which is overcrowded, understaffed and resembles an asylum, according to Filipino-Americans working in the mental health field. Only patients with extreme cases, such as psychosis, are eligible for admission.

The only other mental health care is at private facilities, not covered by insurance, and treatment is far beyond the financial means of most Filipinos.

"Those that are going to psychiatrists in the Philippines, first of all, they're rich people," said Jose Arturo "Art" Maga, a special education teacher at William S. Baer School. "The best thing is to have counsel with a priest, a pastor, without paying anything."

Officially, the Philippines has one of the lowest suicide rates in the world. But some say that suicide, considered a sin by the Catholic Church, often goes unreported.

"In the Philippines, they will make up other reasons for the official cause of death," said Annalisa V. Enrile, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's School of Social Work. A Filipino herself, her research centers on the Filipino-American community.

Someone who has offered to help the teachers in Baltimore is Dr. Benedicto Borja, a Filipino who is associate director of the psychiatric residency training program at Sheppard Pratt and University of Maryland Medical Center. He previously headed the university medical center's psychiatric emergency services.

Borja and his wife, also a psychiatrist, moved to the United States in 1994 after medical school because there were virtually no opportunities to do a residency in psychiatry in the Philippines.

He was following in the footsteps of his father, who became a psychiatrist after watching two sisters struggle with mental illness. Both eventually committed suicide. But even then, Borja recalls that when one of his aunts died, his parents ordered him never to speak of the cause.

His father, who had done his residency in Ohio before returning to the Philippines, couldn't handle working in the state hospital for long because he thought the conditions were deplorable. In private practice, though, business was so slow that he worked on the side in real estate to make a living.

"If the stigma here is bad, it's worse in the Philippines," Borja said. "The slightest hint of depression, you're a nut case."

Seeking mental health care is "a sign of weakness in our culture," he said. "It's unthinkable. The thinking in the Philippines is, 'Snap out of it, you've got your whole family.'"

Enrile added that, even if someone in the Philippines did want professional help, it typically is not available. "Even if there wasn't stigma involved, there aren't resources either," she said. "All of that sets up a situation where, when there are resources available, you wouldn't even think to look at them."

In Baltimore, Bolado relied on her friends for support. The week of her death, she spent hours confiding in them about her marital problems, but she never mentioned thoughts of suicide.

In any case, saving Bolado by that point may well have been beyond the capacity of her friends. As Borja said, "if there's truly a chemical imbalance, social support is not enough."

After her October suicide attempt, Apao appeared to return to her spunky self. School officials perceived that she seemed embarrassed by what she'd done. At the same time, she did not return repeated phone calls from her friend the jewelry saleswoman, Jennifer Hong, who was urging her to get counseling.

"I feel so guilty," said Hong, a nursing student. "I tried because I knew she needed professional help, but if she doesn't receive my phone call, if she doesn't want my help ... "

In the aftermath of the suicides, groups such as the Baltimore Teachers Union and the Philippine Embassy have reached out to the city's Filipino teachers. School system administrators started doing more to promote the free counseling program that's offered.

Aileen Mercado, who was profiled in The Sun during the 2005-2006 school year and who has been elected the overall coordinator of Baltimore's Filipino teachers, started a support committee within her organization.

Borja has extended an open invitation to work with teachers in Baltimore to overcome their reluctance so that those in need of help can get it.

"We can't just ignore the fact that two people have lost their lives," he said. "We have to, I wouldn't say, change the culture, but I would say, enlighten the culture."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

Where to go for help

If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, these hot lines offer assistance.

National Hopeline Network: 1-800-SUICIDE and 1-800-442-HOPE.

Baltimore Crisis Response Inc: 410-433-5175 and 410-752-2272.

Employees of the Baltimore City Public School System and their dependents can also access a free assistance program that provides counseling by calling 1-888-454-7545

A photo caption accompanying an article in Sunday's editions about the suicides of two Filipino teachers misidentified the source of the photo. All photos of Irenea Apao were taken by Manny Lopez.The Sun regrets the error.
Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
64°