Over the weekend (on Saturday morning to be exact), I learned that my 13 year old niece had died. Backing up a bit, though, I feel in order to pay tribute to her life, I need to expand on her story.
Randi Jo Carothers was born to Richard and Lori Carothers on December 21, 1994. She was named for my brother, Randall Joe Baker, who had died in a car accident at age 19 just a year and a half earlier. Her life, a struggle from the start, began quite a bit earlier than it was supposed to. My sister had to be put on bed rest and hospitalized early in order to increase Randi’s chances of survival. Still, Randi came early and endured her first heart surgery at 8 days old. Nobody expected her to survive this initial surgery.
But survive she did! As Randi grew older she succumbed to many more surgeries, more hospital visits, more “at-home” treatments, all intended to “give her life.” The ultimate goal was to have a heart transplant when she got into her late teenage years. A couple of months ago, however, it became apparent that time was not on Randi’s side, and a heart transplant was needed fairly quickly. Randi was excited because, to her, new heart = new start.
Initially, Randi was put on a “non-critical” transplant list, meaning many names came before her. As a family, we watched Randi get weaker as more health issues arose. For example, her kidney, was working at probably half capacity. Obviously anyone who knows much about kidneys would say “Well, she still has the other one. Humans only need one kidney,” and you would be right. You would be right if Randi had at least one good kidney, for the one I speak of that was operating below healthy functionality was the only good one she had. The other had quit the fight long ago.
In order for Randi to be a “good” candidate for a heart transplant, she needed to get this one semi-functioning kidney in check. Well, I should say, the doctors needed to do so. The surgery that was to be performed to do this was called something like a “renal artery” something or other. It was a risky surgery, even for a fairly healthy individual, or so the doctors said. Randi was far from a “fairly healthy person” and we all knew the risks, including Randi.
Randi knew this surgery was a means to the end. The end being the heart she so desperately wanted. So, a date was set for March 20 at 7:30am. The operation was to take 4 1/2 to 5 hours. Quite a long operation considering we are speaking of a girl who, although she was 13 years old, only weighed less than 50 pounds (soaking wet) and stood 52 inches high. Randi was wheeled into the operating room at 8am. The length of the surgery more than doubled, and 11 hours later, Randi was wheeled into Intensive Care.
According to the doctors, the surgery went well. Though no one would have wished for this child to be under anesthesia for over 11 hours, all in all it went well. They were confident.
I went from hearing at 8pm on Thursday night that all went well to a phone call from my sister at 1:30pm on Friday afternoon telling me my niece was not going to make it. WHAT? That’s what I said to my sister, because what else do you say to someone who is aware, with sureity, that her daughter IS going to die. She informed me they were taking her home so that she could die among family and friends.
That night, as I walked into my sister’s house and saw my niece sprawled on her dad’s lap, connected to tubes, I witnessed the fragility of life. I saw someone not quite alive, but not quite dead, and the dichotomy of these points on a spectrum was difficult to make sense of. I felt like I was witnessing a live person’s visitation as people walked up and seemed to pay their respects, and file back out the way they came. I watched from a chair just a few feet away, taking in the process of dying. It seemed slow but, in reality, was quite quick, for my niece died just hours later.
We left at 11pm that night, and Randi died at 2:25am. I’ve thought a lot about being only 3 1/2 hours away from someone’s death. This is not my first brush with death, but it was my first encounter with dying. I have received many calls in my life informing me that someone had “passed away,” but I’ve never been so involved in the process of dying. It left me contemplative to how fragile life is and how, at the end, one is barely hanging on, but not quite ready to let go.