On December 28 of 2011, my good friend Katherine passed away after a year-long battle with Aplastic Anemia. She was only 31 years old. The entire ordeal was tragic in every way you can possibly imagine.
Her troubles started just over a year ago. She had a urinary tract infection, the first of her life (how she’d managed to make it 30 years without one was a mystery to me). She went to her doctor, who prescribed Sulfa, the standard antibiotic of choice for such infections. No one knew that her Dad had an allergy to it, and that she also would have an allergic reaction so severe that it caused her bone marrow to go haywire – an autoimmune disease called Aplastic Anemia. She went on the drug right before the holiday break. When she came back to work in January, she came in my office one day to show me that she was covered in petichiae – something I was familiar with from my ITP days. And she knew this, too, because she was around for the last episode. She said, “I have these red spots and they reminded me of what you had before you went into the hospital.” I took one look and knew exactly what they were, but I didn’t want to panic her. I casually said something like, “Yeah, it does look like that. Can you see your doctor?” She had an appointment that same day and left work a few hours later to have her blood tested.
Apparently, her doctor was able to do this in his office and give her the results immediately. I’ve never met the man, but I maintain that he must be some kind of moron because he essentially looked at the results, freaked out, and sent her to the hospital in a panic. She called both me and our boss Linda crying hysterically. I should also note that the poor girl had lost her mother to ovarian cancer just six months before. So she was terrified and still raw from the trauma of loss and disease. Linda and I agreed that I should go to the hospital, so I packed myself up and went to sit with her in Admitting, and then in the room while they got her sorted with nurses and doctors. She was crying the entire time. She couldn’t reach her boyfriend, whose cell phone was turned off, and that was big source of stress. She was so scared. At one point, through her tears, she said, “I just want my Mom.” My heart just about broke in two. I tried my best to be positive and cheerful, but coming up with the right thing to say was impossible and I was starting to annoy even myself. In the mean time, my Dad called to let me know that my grandfather had suffered a massive stroke and would probably not recover. So I was doing my best in Katherine’s room to be positive and supportive, and then would excuse myself to cry in the hallway. Finally, a doctor who is part of my own Hematologist’s practice came in to see her. He completely talked her off the ledge, for which I almost threw my arms around his neck and kissed him. He wasn’t worried, and they were going to get to the bottom of what was going on. He had even joked that Aplastic Anemia was so rare, it couldn’t possibly be that because he’d just treated a patient with it a few weeks before. So what were the odds? Sadly, the odds were not in her favor.
That is indeed what she had. I don’t know as much about AA as I probably should at this point, but essentially every part of her blood was wrong. White blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, hemoglobin…nothing was working the right way. It made her exhausted, susceptible to infections, and a bleeding risk. She went on disability and spent the next eight months between her apartment and the hospital, where she had many multi-week stints either due to infections or attempts at treatment. Nothing was working, and the writing on wall eventually became clear. She would have to have a bone marrow transplant. She only had one sister, who was not a match, so they had to find her a match from the bone marrow registry. She went in for her transplant in September. Details become foggy at that point, but following the transplant, she had a cerebral hemorrhage, at which point she had emergency brain surgery. It seemed every day there were new complications as her body fought against the bone marrow she’d received. A coma was induced. She had to be started on dialysis. Every part of her body was failing and in the end, she had a bleed in her GI tract. It was the final straw, and, because she’d had a DNR, the decision was made to take her off life support.
How to describe Katherine…she had a big personality. She was brilliantly smart, funny, and blunt. You always knew where you stood with her. She had moved to LA to be an opera singer, something that always astounds me. She was very talented. In high school, she did an exchange program and lived in Italy for a year, where she became fluent in Italian. After high school, she decided against traditional college and studied dramatic arts in various places, including Wales and New York City. She was a long way from her roots in Columbus, OH, and always on her own, but she was adventurous and very brave, so she probably didn’t second guess any of those decisions. I met her almost six years ago, when she started working in my department at the studio. At the time she was taking undergraduate courses at a local community college while working full time. We weren’t close friends right away, but I did even at that time admire how smart she was. Katherine always blew me away with her intellect, high-brow proclivities and thirst for knowledge. She would find out something existed one afternoon, and be an expert on it by the following morning. She was a member of the local museum and of an Italian Cultural Club affiliated with UCLA. She was an incredible athlete, participating in the Malibu triathalon a few years in a row, and most recently, joining the LA Derby Dolls, the local roller derby team.
She was a few years younger than me, and sometimes I felt that she almost looked up to me, the way I look up to my friends who are older than me, and seek their advice and opinions. I’m not sure if she knew that I would even do the same with her, because she was so very smart, and her ability to read people and situations was so dead on. We were always super friendly in our work group settings, but I think when she entered a special level of friend-dom for me was when I went through my divorce. I lost a lot of friends during that time. I tried to take the high road with my ex’s and my mutual friends and not put anyone in the middle, but the upshot was that I lost everyone in my life who I spent most of my time with. I was very hurt, during what was already a painful and difficult time. Katherine suggested we go out for dinner and drinks right after I moved into my new apartment. Over drinks, as I was lamenting my situation, she said “I know you think those people were your friends. But they weren’t. If they were, they’d still be here now.” It seemed pent up, like something she’d been wanting to say to me for a while. Something about her saying that snapped me out of my moping as I realized how right she was. I was always grateful for that conversation.
Of the many things I will miss about her, a big thing is her witty way of turning a phrase, always clever and unique. When I was moving out of the apartment I’d shared with my ex, I was trying to downsize the vast amounts of stuff I no longer needed. I had tons of things I was giving away, and she asked if she could come over and pick through to see if there was anything she needed. I happily agreed and she came over after we went out to dinner one night. She walked into the place, which at that point was dark, half empty and half packed up, and said, “This place is like Sunday afternoon in the Winter.” I’ve never heard anything more accurately described, and remembering it always makes me laugh. A kind of spooky side note: among the things she took was some Thanksgiving-themed serveware. Just this past weekend, another friend of ours from the office was at Katherine’s apartment with her family, going through possessions. She said as she saw those pieces, she thought of me and that Katherine would want me to have them. She had no idea I was the one to give them to Katherine in the first place. But I will gladly take them back.
Every time I’m in my apartment, I can’t help but think of her, because she helped me hang up my curtains. And let me clarify that “help me” means she hung up my curtains for me. I’d never done it before, and she was so independent and self sufficient, she’d done it many times without batting an eye. Another friend of mine had tried to help me hang them a few weeks before, but the drill she had brought was old and wouldn’t hold a charge long enough for us to make any progress. So we drank wine instead. Before Katherine came over and I told her, “I have a drill we can use.” Well, the drill still wouldn’t hold a charge, making the task at hand impossible. Katherine seemed disgusted by the situation and said, “I’ll be back in thirty minutes,” during which time she went home, changed into her I’m-about-to-get-down-to-business clothes and grabbed her professional looking toolkit. She showed back up at my place with a toolbox like I’d never seen before – everything looked brand new and pretty high-tech. She rolled up her sleeves and hung up my curtains in no time. I helplessly followed her around saying things like, “Do you want me to hold the screws or something?”, and was essentially useless. Then we drank cosmos. It still makes me chuckle to think of how seriously she took the job and how great she was at it. This was not a girl who waited for anyone to do anything for her – she was more than capable of doing it herself. And she was probably better at it than you, anyway.
When I was reading her obituary a few days after she passed, I discovered that her cat Basil had been put to sleep. That’s “Basil” pronounced in the British way – Katherine and I both shared a love of British entertainment and culture, so the cat’s name always cracked me up. She’d had him for a very long time and I think he was sixteen or something. He’d been mostly blind for a while and would make his way around her apartment by use of his whiskers. It was actually very funny to watch, and she did a great imitation of it. I can only imagine that her family made the decision to put him down while Katherine was in a coma – she would have been devastated. She loved that cat. When I found out that Katherine had died, I called my mother, crying. She, like many people, was not that surprised. She said, “I know you wanted her to get better. But she was so sick and there would have been no way to overcome it all. At least now she can be with her Mother.” It is somewhat comforting to think of Katherine, up there in the great beyond, with her Mom and Basil (who hopefully has had full eyesight restored in Heaven), healthy and happy again. Of course, knowing Katherine, I know she is totally pissed off that this happened in the first place, and for how it turned out, and for every piece of it that was out of her control. She had so many things left to do in life and it was all taken from her – in a very slow and painful way. But one thing that strikes me now is how much she had come to terms with her potential fate, even before the transplant. I was thinking today about how she would talk about the possible complications or things that could go wrong – even death, and I would go totally Pollyanna on her and be sickeningly positive, like some sort of delusional cheerleader. I realize now that that must have been my own stuff, my own way to deal with what was happening to her and what could potentially go wrong. And I think she knew that. And so she patiently nodded as I spewed my happy rainbow thoughts, all the while knowing in her heart what the reality of her situation was.
I hate having regrets, and these are the situations that should remind us all – life is so ridiculously short. Sometimes you can’t even possibly guess what is around the corner. Do what you love. Be with who you love. Don’t push people away out of spite, or anger, or fear. If someone is important to you, let them know. One thing I can’t get out of my head is that I never told Katherine how great I thought she was, or what she meant to me as a friend. My sister said, that’s ok, because where she is now, she knows. I cling to that notion, and it’s what has been getting me through these past weeks.
Right before this past Christmas, I had an amazing dream. In the dream, I was leaving the mall after a shopping trip, and walked to my car in the parking lot. When I got in the car, my grandparents were in the backseat (my grandfather passed away in January, and my grandmother died when I was in college). I said, “Thank God you’re here. I’ve missed you so much.” And my grandmother said, “We’re always here.”
I awoke with a peaceful feeling – it was very comforting. It’s also comforting to think of that now, with Katherine gone. I will always miss my beautiful, smart, funny, strong, brave and talented friend Katherine, but I can find some solace in knowing that a part of her will always be here.