The Story of Ashleigh's Last Week
The day was sunny and warm for late October, "indian summer" they called it in Indiana. Sarah (16) was working at her part time job at the little cafe a few miles away, and was not feeling well so she called her mother, Judy to come and pick her up. Judy and her youngest daughter Ashleigh drove to bring her home, barely making it in the driveway before Sarah is vomiting again. Poor Sarah is miserable all through the night, staying home from school the next day. Being a single mom, she has no choice but to go to work the next day, Ashleigh goes off to school, and her grandfather who lives close by, checks on Sarah throughout the day.
Her mother makes an appointment on Tuesday for Sarah to see their family doctor. She is diagnosed with a severe viral infection, and told to drink plenty of fluids, take tylenol for the fever, and "just ride it out". It's now Wednesday and after a long day Judy leaves work, hurriedly stopping to buy a few groceries, picks Ashleigh up from a friend's house, and heads on home. Worried about Sarah, still having grocery bags to carry inside, dinner to fix, and homework to help with, she wonders when this day will end...when Ashleigh complains that her knee hurts. Thinking that it's probably just "sympathy" pains because her sister is getting all the attention, she has Ashleigh take a warm bath after supper and gives her some tylenol before going to bed, hoping that she isn't coming down with it too.
The next morning Ashleigh wakes up early and is sick as well, she however just runs a low grade fever, unlike Sarah's which has been extremely high for several days. She vomits once and has a bit of diarreha, but nothing as severe as her sister's, and her mother is greatly relieved about that. Since Sarah has another doctors appointment scheduled for that day and Ashleigh is sick as well; Judy stays home from work. She calls the doctor to see if they can include Ashleigh in the visit with the doctor, but he says he doesn't really need to see them both, since their symptoms are the same. He just needs to check Sarah since her fever is still so high. Sarah's grandmother comes to take Sarah to see the doctor and Judy stays home with Ashleigh, he confirms his diagnosis of Sarah, and gives her grandmother the same instructions as before as to how treat them both, once again saying that it will just have to let it "run it's course", since "it's viral".
The next day is the same, Judy is home with both girls, her parents stop by to leave their dog for the weekend, as they are going out of town, Sarah's temperature is getting back to normal, and although she is very weak, she is finally feeling better and able to keep light foods down. Ashleigh still isn't running a temperature, it's in fact still a little below normal, and does not really seem to be that sick, she just has not been able to sleep since the afternoon before, saying that she just hurts too much. They try the tylenol and heating pads for the achiness, and even muscle rub, all to no avail. On Friday Judy calls the doctor and tells them again about Ashleigh's achiness and waits on the nurse to call her back, when she does they tell her the same thing, "it's just the flu, keep following the instructions we gave you, she just needs to get some rest".
Saturday, exhausted from no sleep, not feeling too great herself Judy continues to follow doctor's instructions for the girls and doesn't really worry too much. Sarah's doing much better and Ashleigh, thank goodness has not been nearly as ill as her sister has been, and she thinks to herself; "it's almost over and it's just the flu"...........
Sunday dawns and Sarah is anxiously waiting for her boyfriend to stop by, he's leaving to return back to college that day, and they plan to spend some time together. Judy is able to get out of the house for a little while and get a little breather from her "nursing duty", and has breakfast with her boyfriend Tim, while Sarah and her friend stay with Ashleigh. Around noon Judy fixes a light lunch for the girls, but Ashleigh doesn't want to eat, not even her beloved ice cream. As Judy sits with her a bit later on the couch watching TV, Ashleigh asks her mother a question that will haunt her forever, "Mom" she asks "am I going to die"? More than a bit taken back by this question, and feeling so sorry for her daughter who must be so exhausted and is feeling miserable, she responds "Oh, honey of course you're not going to die. You just have the flu, people don't die from the flu, try to get some rest, you'll feel so much better."
Hoping to help Ashleigh relax and maybe get some needed sleep for them both, her mother lays down with her to read her favorite book "The Secret Garden", which they have been reading together. Ashleigh gets up saying she needs to use the bathroom and she suddenly falls. Her mother is alarmed and calls the hospital for advice, explaining her ailments and the symptoms of both girls in the past seven days, the hospital tells her not to be overly concerned, and that Ashleigh is only weak from the infection and needs to sleep. Judy hanging up the phone is unconvinced, but feeling like she has just been dismissed and treated like an over-anxious mother, she hesitates about what to do. She wishes her own mother were at home so she could call her for her opinion. Just then, unable to even support her own slight body's weight, Ashleigh falls down again. Not caring now if they do think she's just a worried and inexperienced mother, Judy calls the hospital and informs them that she is bringing her daughter in.
Getting Ashleigh's shoes on her, and getting her out and into the car was quite a task and took both Judy and Sarah, because Ashleigh could no longer walk. On the drive to the hospital Ashleigh is worried that she may not be able to walk, and asks her mother if Tim can come along with them to help, but he is away, and Judy tells her that it will be okay; the people at the hospital will help them. As they turn off the main highway, Ashleigh asks "How much farther"? and her mother replies that they are almost there, then Ashleigh's says "good, because I don't think I can hold on much longer". She turns to look at her daughter, and taking her hand she notices how pale she looks, and how cold her hand is.
It's 3:00p.m. they arrive at the emergency room, hospital personnel come out with a wheelchair and as they raise Ashleigh out, she screams out in pain, they rush her inside. As Judy fills out paperwork, Ashleigh is already being examined, after what seems like only seconds, she is allowed to join her daughter just as doctors discover a red, purplish rash spreading across Ashleigh's chest and stomach. Alarmed, they quickly begin to take her into another examining area, telling her that she will have to wait outside, and as they are escorting Judy out and are rushing Ashleigh away, she looks at her mother with imploring frightened eyes, and says "Mom?!" Judy does not yet know, but these are the last words she will ever hear her daughter speak.
As she walks away from her frightened little girl, time seems to slow way down and she feels as if she is almost in a fog, a daze, then a kind woman in a turtleneck shirt with halloween pumpkins on it, appears and takes her to a door which opens into what looks like a private waiting area. The first thing she notices is a beautiful picture of a dove in flight hanging on the wall, she wonders to herself why the kind lady has brought her here, it looks like a place for prayer and mourning, but she doesn't need to be here, why can't she just wait in the usual waiting area, after all it won't be that long, and why does this lady keep insisting that she call someone to come and be with her? It's just the flu, nothing serious, she only brought her in to be checked on.....but the lady is still insisting that she must not be alone, so to appease her, Judy tries to think of who she can call. But, thinking seems very difficult and she has a hard time figuring out who she is supposed to be calling, and why is she calling them again? She then remembers that her parents are out of town.....who else is there? She calls her sister and says "Ashleigh is very sick, I am at the hospital and they say I should have someone come and be with me."
It seems within minutes her sister is there, funny it didn't seem to take her long to get there. Doctors come in and ask questions, the hospital chaplin arrives and gives a report, and she wonders or maybe she even asks outloud why he is there. They come in and say that Ashleigh's heart has stopped, but as soon as they get her stabalized they will airlift her to Ft.Wayne. She tries to go in and see her but they won't let her in. Her sister seems to make some more calls, and soon family starts to arrive, her friend Kim comes with Sarah, doctors come and go, they say once again that they are working on her because her heart has stopped again, the chaplin says a prayer. Soon many of her family members are there, her sister's husband Jack, their two grown son's Nolan, and Matt and his wife Christi, and even Ashleigh & Sarah's father! What is he doing here? Her parents come in last, weren't they out of town?
It's now sometime after six o'clock and Judy keeps thinking that this is taking way too long, they should have been home by now.......and why are all these people here? Why are they all so worried? It seemed as though she hasn't spoken a word outloud since she called her sister on the phone, she felt so lost in all of this, so confused, then as they all sat and waited, everyone in their place, she remembers it still, the doctors walked in.
Two doctors came in and came towards her, the same two that took Ashleigh away. The one never losing eye contact with her, she remembers his eyes. The chaplin was with them, the kind lady in the halloween turtleneck, and others she did not know. The one doctor knelt at her feet, the other standing right behind him and not really looking at her, they looked as if they were crying, she felt sad for them. The doctor kneeling before her took her hand, and then she knew and spoke outloud for perhaps the first time, almost in a whisper she said "she's gone".
6:30 p.m. The doctor said "we lost her", and it was as if the world and it's universe just jolted to an immediate halt.....they went on to explain how her heart had just stopped..... and they had tried but could not keep it going.... they said they did not understand what had happened..... but that the infection was so great and her heart just wasn't strong enough to fight it........ and they did not know why............. She heard all these words, but at the same time she could hear her own father's loud cry "Oh God no, why not me, why not me"? And her family screaming out and all of this crying, this terrible wailing. Then Sarah was cursing and trying to escape, be anywhere but there in that room, in that hospital. She knocked the chaplin over as she ran out of the room, as Sarah's father was going after her.................. she just sat there.
She waited and that is the part that seemed to take forever, more people came, they already knew that Ashleigh had died. How did they know? They tried to be so comforting, but all she could think of was getting in there to be with her baby, and then it was time and taking Sarah's hand they went to Ashleigh.
She was lying on a gurney, the room was darkened, the walls were green. She remembers her long hair, so pretty all around her, almost like the storybook Rapunzel. She was so quiet and still, covered with that sheet. Her hands were so cold. She thought about how she had helped Ashleigh wash her hair just that morning, and how her neck had hurt. Now her neck and face were so swollen, someone told her it was from the trauma she had gone through as they tried to save her. They said her poor little body had been through so much. She held hand once again and remembers her fingernails and how perfect they were, how proud Ashleigh had been of her long nails....so still, she was so still. Then they noticed how her little clothes were so perfectly folded at her feet, and wondered who did that and how did they feel? Did they know how much we loved this little girl?
Tim arrives at the hospital and then Judy remembers crying, and knowing now that this was real!! Family members, and the friends who were there went in and stayed with her for a few moments. Nobody knew what to do, they stayed a long, long time, there was nothing that Ashleigh's mother could do for her daughter anymore, but she couldn't leave. Sarah walked around carrying her sister's clothes, and crying. Then as her mother sat with Ashleigh, she realized through the shock and the pain that it was time to leave....Ashleigh was not really there anymore.
They rode in silence, Sarah crying softly in the backseat of Tim's truck. It was late, midnight or so. People came to the house, a neighbor who was Ashleigh's former preschool teacher, Sarah's boyfriend's mother and sister with groceries and kleenex, and soft drinks. Then her parents were there, they said that her brother and sister-in-law were on their way from southern Indiana, the phone began to ring, and ring, and ring.......
Sarah went into the bedroom that she had shared with her sister and closed the door. She sat down on the floor and set up all the Barbie dolls and their furniture, dressing them all and putting them all in their place, making everything neat and tidy. While the phone rang and the people came and went crying, in the middle of the night.
Then it was quiet again, they layed down, the three of them in the living room, they left the lights on. Sarah slept, escaping where it was safe, and her mother cried throughout the night.... the tears would not stop for many days.
Morning finally came, the sun was bright. Judy wondered how the sun could be shining, when her daughter was dead. The phone was ringing again, she recalls her sister-in-law's face as she walked in the door, they held each other and the tears and the anguish began again. People came and went, they cried, they tried to comfort, they brought food, and cards, and all the things that people do when someone dies. No one could believe that this could happen.
The entire family gathered to help Judy plan the funeral. Sarah picked out her sisters favorite doll and stuffed animal that she had slept with to be buried with her, friends from work provide a beautiful nightgown and robe set for her to wear. Her mother has to choose the casket, the music, who will speak, pallbearers, so many details.
So many flowers, so many people at the funeral home, they say over 600 people came. Ashleigh's mother trys to speak to them all, thanking them for coming, hearing their words of sorrow and comfort, and all the while she cries. They say things like "I am so sorry" and "I can't even imagine", and she thinks "no you cannot." The day is very long, but she doesn't want it to end, this is the last day she has to be near her little girl, tomorrow they will take her away. Then once again it's time to go, everyone goes home, escaping for awhile into sleep, and her mother cries......
It's Wednesday, just seven days ago Ashleigh had only said; "my knee hurts". Now the funeral is less than two hours away, Sarah is running a fever again, and she is rushed back to the doctor, her mother is frantic, afraid for her life, they still do not know what really happened to Ashleigh.
Everyone is waiting, there is standing room only, and they are the last to arrive. Many children are present and the pastor calls them all forward and gives a special sermon for them, just like in church when he calls them up to the alter, only this one is at the foot of Ashleigh's casket. He trys to help the children understand, but how can they, can anyone? Some have brought little mementos to be placed with her, and they surround her on the floor. Sarah and her mother have each written a letter and those are read, and there are prayers, and more music, and then it's over and the people all file out. It's time to say good-bye, but how? How do you say good-bye to your child?
In the days and weeks to come, when the people stop calling, and everyone goes home, Sarah and her mother try to put their lives back together. Sarah eventually goes back to school, she is a high school junior. Judy goes back to work as a dental assistant, but life proves to be even more difficult now than either of them ever could have imagined...they have begun the longest and most painful journey of their lives.
The autopsy report showed that Ashleigh died from StrepA/pnuemonia/sepsis. A rapidly progressing infection causing low blood pressure/shock/and injury to vital organs such as kidneys, liver, and lungs. Attacking the central nervous system, shutting down vital organs, with minor "flu" like symptoms. Approximately 60% with STSS die. The coroner reported that the bacteria had been dormant within her system for about three weeks, before it attacked. It was also found that Ashleigh was born with a hole in the right ventrical of her heart that had never been detected, and that the bacteria settled there leaving her without a fighting chance. No one knows how she contracted such an illness.
Writing this story has been very painful for me, but it was something I felt I had to do. Another step that I had to take on this journey of grief. My hope is that someone will read this and may be fortunate enough to detect such an illness in their own child, so that they perhaps can be saved in time. I have been told that I did all the right things and could not have possibly known anything else was wrong with my daughter and that there would have been no chance, even if it had been found early enough, but that is a question in my heart and in my mind that will haunt me forever and one that will never be answered.
Judy/Ashleigh'sMom - © 2002