What Happened?

So many people asked me, “What happened?” in the hours after Catherine died. I repeated the story over and over again – to paramedics… to doctors… to nurses… to clergy… to family… to friends… I finally got tired of it and told them I couldn’t answer that question any more. Numbness took over. Everyone describes it as “numbness.” That’s really a pretty good word because you know you’re there, but you can’t feel anything. I haven’t found a better word.

I wanted people to know what happened. I just couldn’t keep saying it over and over again. And I still don’t want to say it. I have found that I want to write about it though. And so, over the next few days or weeks or however long it takes, I’m going to post the story of what happened in all its excruciating detail and all the vaporization of my already-fading memory. My suspicion is that it’s not an easy answer to read. It’s certainly not an easy answer to write. It’s helpful to me to write about it. Maybe it will be to you as you read it, as well.

Here goes….

Wanna Help Me Learn Image
Always loved Catherine’s smile in this photo. Plus she’s standing!

Two weeks ago, today, I was up at 5:00 AM preparing for my day like usual. Well, not exactly like usual because it was a Wednesday, and I usually wash my hair on Wednesdays. Two weeks ago, I was dragging. The alarm went off and I had to work hard not to hit the snooze and roll over for a few more minutes. I don’t recall why I wanted to be up at 5 AM. Interesting.

I stared in the mirror debating with myself: “Should I get in the shower? Could my hair make it another day? What do I have on my calendar? I am so tired, I don’t feel like it today. I think I can skip it.” Little did I know, those words bouncing around my head became the “famous last words” of stereotypes. And little did I know that NOT being in the shower made all the difference in the world.

I started putting on makeup, relieved with my decision, and thankful I could go one more day before washing my hair. I started thinking about all the things I would do with my treasured, quiet hours in the still morning.

Through the whispers of my mind, I heard the nurse calling. At least I thought I did. My ears have been trained over more than a decade to listen for nurses who might be having trouble two floors down in our townhouse. By now it was about 5:25 AM. She should be hanging a bag, I thought.

Then I heard her again – this time, I heard the panic. “Uh, oh,” I thought as I stopped what I was doing – did she have another seizure?” I couldn’t hear her words; just the panic. I quietly exited quickly because I didn’t want to wake Sarah. When I got to the hall, I could make out the words, “She’s not breathing! She’s not breathing!”

My mouth was suddenly drier than it’s ever been.

I ran down two flights of stairs and turned the corner to look in Catherine’s room. She was whiter than I’d ever seen her. And she had a yellowish tinge. To the EMS team when I called a little later, I said, “She was white as a ghost.” She wasn’t really that white; it was an eerie pale that I’d never seen before – even after her most intense surgeries. And she was so still.

The nurse was starting CPR. “Did you call 911?” I yelled. “Where is the oxygen? Why isn’t she on oxygen?” I fumbled with the oxygen concentrator and realized it wasn’t plugged in. I got that started, gave it to the nurse to administer, and ran back up the stairs to my phone saying, “I’m going to call 911.”

“911 – Where is the location of your emergency?” they asked after one ring.

I’d done this many, times before. I was always calm. I even made jokes with the Dispatcher. This was different. I stated the address immediately and then said, “My daughter isn’t breathing! You have to send someone fast.”

She went through a series of questions, clearly designed to triage and help a panicked caller on the other end of the line. “I’ll stay on the line with you, ma’am,” she said. It had always been annoying in the past. I knew the drill. In the past, I got irritated because I needed to pack a bag since a call to 911 meant an ambulance ride to our local hospital and then a transfer to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Every other time I’d called before, I had things to do and no time to hang out with her on the phone. This time, I was glad she was there.

Simultaneously, I had climbed a flight up from my phone to Brian. “Get up! Catherine’s not breathing!”

“What do you mean, not breathing?” he asked as he pushed himself up in the bed. I ran downstairs before I had time to answer. I think I yelled back up the stairs, “Just get up!”

I came back downstairs and saw the nurse doing CPR. My brain flashed back to high school when I got certified more than thirty years ago. Meanwhile the EMS dispatcher kept asking questions. I can’t even remember them all now: Does she have a pulse? Is she responsive? Keep doing CRP. Are you giving her breaths?

Breaths! Oh yeah – I hadn’t seen that done yet. “We need to give a breath,” I said to the nurse. My mouth was so dry that the words barely came out. It was like they were stuck in there attached to the top of my tongue and the roof of my mouth – a cobweb of words that had no way to escape.

I leaned over to give her a breath, trying to recall how hard to breath. “Should this be child-sized breath or adult-sized breath?” I thought as I leaned over to cover her mouth with mine.


Her chest rose so easily. This wasn’t nearly as hard as the mannequins at school. I hope I didn’t do too much, I thought.

We started counting compressions. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Breathe. I seemed to remember you weren’t supposed to breathe like this any more. I didn’t care. BREATHE!

“Bubbles – she has bubbles coming out of her mouth. That’s a good sign, right?” Brian was standing across the bed, and I admitted with the rationality I’ve learned from him after 25 years of marriage, “No, that’s just air escaping from compressions.” He agreed. I can still see their purplish tinge.

“Is the nurse getting tired?” the EMS dispatcher seemed to break through my awareness. I asked her, and we swapped. I started doing CPR compressions on my 14-year-old daughter’s chest. And breathing. And I was surprised at how far her chest compressed when I pushed down on her sternum. “I bet all her ribs are broken,” I thought. “That’s OK,” I heard echo in my head, “That’s the least of….” My thoughts trailed off and we swapped compressions again.

“They need to get here! Where are they? It’s never taken this long. Are you sure they’ve been dispatched and are on their way?” All these questions pushed out of my mouth to the EMS dispatch woman like the air I was pushing out to help my daughter breathe.

“You don’t know me; I’m normally really calm,” I tried to explain to the woman. “This is different. She’s not breathing and they need to get here! This is taking a really long time! Are you sure they’re on the way?” Chest compressions in the background continued and I finally saw the lights.

It’s no exaggeration that approximately 15 EMS professionals showed up at our house over the next few minutes. We had them all: fire, police, medic. They opened the doors wider. They moved furniture. They moved Catherine to the floor. I had heard them say something about the truck coming that had the drugs. Suddenly, I was hoping for “the drugs.”

Finally, Terri walked in. The paramedic who had cared for Catherine in the past. She was chill and knew us and took one look at the scene and walked straight in. I stepped away – way away. They had a job to do, and I wanted them to do it. I watched a defibrillator come into our house, being carried by one of the huge professionals. “This isn’t good,” I thought. I never asked if she had a pulse or any breath. I figured as long as they were working on her, there was hope. And I preferred to hope than hearing any information that, frankly, I knew enough to know could be wrong. Dead wrong.

Meanwhile, a policeman told me to pack a bag. “That’s a good sign!” I thought. “That means we’re going to the hospital and that will only happen if there is hope.” I ran upstairs again. Brian stood on the stairs. And then I saw Sarah, Catherine’s 10-year-old sister.

I think it was about 5:45 AM and I had hoped she’d stay asleep through all this. Looking back on it, it’s absurd to think she’d sleep through all the sirens and yelling. “I heard you yelling when you closed the door,” she said as tears welled in her eyes. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong with Cackie?” (her nickname for her sister since she started talking).

I have never, ever, hid things from her. Sarah’s grown up being part of Catherine’s life and that includes the medical parts. She knows her oxygen saturation levels and heart rate better than our nurses. “Sarah,” I looked her straight in the eye. “This isn’t good. Cackie isn’t doing well. There are a lot of people downstairs trying to help her. A LOT. And they’re doing the best they can, and I need to get ready to go to the hospital with her, OK? I don’t want you to be scared, so you stay up here. I’ll go check on her and come back and let you know, OK?”

She started crying. “I don’t want Cackie to die. What’s her sat level?” Truth is, she didn’t have a sat level as far as I knew. How did I begin to tell her sister that? “I don’t know, right now, Sarah. They’re still working on her though and that gives us hope. Let’s just keep hoping for Cackie, OK?” That seemed to satisfy her for the moment. A moment.

I ran back downstairs and asked Brian to come up. “What do you want me to do?” he asked as if there was anything either of us could do.

“Just sit with her while I get ready.” And he did. They sat on the couch. I changed clothes in the middle of the kitchen and packed a bag for the hospital, while experts worked below us trying to save my daughter’s life.

With the bag packed, I checked on Catherine and could see they had intubated her and were working to shock her with the defibrillator. There was nothing I could do. I kept saying, “Come on God. Come on Catherine!” I guess that’s the best I could do for a prayer.

I went back upstairs to check on Sarah. Brian and I tagged out and I sat with her. I can’t recall what we talked about, but it didn’t take long for her to want to see. I tried to prepare her. She said she just wanted to peek around the corner. We inched our way down the stairs to a place where she would be able to see if she looked around the corner. When I thought she had the best picture I could paint, I said, “You sure?”

Big brown eyes met mine with a nod, and she bravely peered around the corner to see her sister lying on the floor with swarms of professionals bending over her. She couldn’t see much and then I heard her, “I see her! I see Cackie!” Her enthusiasm filled my soul.

It wasn’t much longer and they were ready to move Catherine to the ambulance. She still looked pale, ghostly yellowish, white. I hadn’t heard anyone say, “We got a pulse,” or anything, really, to suggest anything positive. I kept thinking, “They could pronounce her dead here. If we’re going to the hospital, that must be a good thing.”

As I turned back to look at Brian and Sarah on the stairs, he asked, “Do you want us to follow and come to the hospital?” Normally, I tell him to stay home til we figure out what the plan will be. This time, I didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

“When do you want us to come?” he asked.

“Now,” and then I left to get in the ambulance.

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  1. I’m glad you are finding it cathartic to write about what happened that morning. It is very painful to read and I can’t even imagine how painful it is to write. You are a beautiful writer and I appreciate you sharing the story. <3

  2. HUGSSSSSS and PRAYERSSSSSS Ellen, Brian and Sarah…..i have no words, no words, Just HUGSSSSSSSS and PRAYERSSSS.

  3. You are such a powerful writer. Thank you for sharing with others. It’s hard to put into words what sharing your journey has meant to me and to so many.

  4. Dear Ellen,
    I recalled someone mentioning that they had heard about Catherine. Just today, I am trying to clear out my outlook email because I’m tired of getting notices that my mailbox is too full and I come across this email, dated August 21, 2013. It included the link to your blog. I couldn’t believe it! As I slowly maneuvered through the various links, I finally found your most recent post from Jan. 4, 2019, which confirmed what I had heard. As I am reading the events of that one dreadful morning, my eyes well up with tears and my heart aches. I find myself holding my breath, imagining the terror, as your story unfolds. The words are so descriptive that I feel like I’m there on the steps with Brian and Sarah watching the chaos from a distance.
    There are no words that can possibly express how sorry I am to hear about Catherine. My memory immediately takes me back to when Catherine was just around 3 years old. That first, hot summer day when I walked into the tiny house in Severna Park. Their she was….this tiny, sweet, curly-haired blonde girl. Flash forward nearly 10 years. I couldn’t get over how much she had grown but she still had those beautiful curls, blonde like her Mommy, and then there is Sarah, dark haired like her Daddy. I love the family photo you posted from New Year’s Day.
    We go back many, many years and the journeys been long. I will always remember your energy Ellen. It always made me giggle and warmed my heart seeing the endless amount of love, hugs and kisses you showed both your daughters. No matter what you were dealing with at work, when it came to your and Brian’s girls, your whole face lit up with joy. (Reading your story about Catherine’s birthday party with the drums….that’s just 1 example of many, where your enthusiasm shines through)
    So now we know what happened. I’m still sitting here in disbelief. No words come to mind that can begin to offer my condolences to your family. My head is spinning and my thoughts are going in a thousand different directions. I want to wake up from your nightmare.
    I know you have a strong faith and I pray your faith and trust in God will help you through the days, months, years ahead. May all the sweet memories you have of Catherine sustain you in the dark days ahead. You worked tirelessly to give her a beautiful life and showered her with opportunities to experience that life. Who else do you know would be brave enough to let someone else take their daughter surfing? Whether it was Sarah or Catherine, you wanted your daughters to have meaningful experiences, so it meant something to them personally.
    From one Mama to another, all I can say is I am so sorry for your loss. Please know that I am thinking about you and praying for the whole family. Take care always.

  5. Dear Ellen, thank you for sharing your story of hope and pain about your beautiful daughter Catherine. With your words, you both continue to inspire others. Sending prayers and greetings from your ccds classmate living in Spain

  6. Ellen:

    I am so sorry for your loss of a beloved daughter. My heart breaks for you and your family. I know you will cherish all Catherine’s best memories.

    Your friend,

  7. I can feel these words are coming from your soulspace and I will hold space for your grieving and healing. Sending you love.

  8. I am so very sorry to hear this, i have followed your blog for years and just got caught up today. I hope and pray for peace and comfort for you all.

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