Life. It’s a wonderful but brief adventure. Our path through this world shapes us into who we are. The experiences we have, the feelings present in all of us – love, joy, laughter, to name a few– form us into the precious souls we become. These experiences create the memories we all cherish throughout our time here. The truly special events are the ones we hold most dear. They inspire us, lift our spirits, and make us smile. They define our lives.
August 10th, 1998. One of the few precious dates etched in my memory. The day I met my future wife. There was no question, no doubt; I just knew. I felt it in the core of my body as we spoke. Actually, I bumbled every word, unclear what I was supposed to say. Smitten I suppose. From that moment forward Elizabeth consumed my thoughts. Our relationship blossomed. We made our wedding day February 14, 2000, a date even I could not forget for an anniversary. I finally knew what true love was: a glorious warmth, an irrepressible smile, a lightness in my soul. We travelled, but mainly just cherished each other’s company. The easy laughter, warmth, and comfortable nature of it felt like a warm blanket. I felt blessed.
May 13, 2001. An equally unforgettable date etched in my mind. My only daughter, Claire, was born. Life simply could not get any better. I had reached the pinnacle of life. Life hit overdrive. We knew from the very beginning that Claire was a special gift. We were fortunate enough to do everything together. ‘Close knit’ is not sufficient to describe the love we all shared. As Claire grew and matured, her warm and friendly personality began to shine. Her innate kindness and consideration of others was her most remarkable attribute. Being an only child, I was concerned for her possibly being withdrawn and awkward. I couldn’t have been more wrong. She embraced her school age years with a vigor and enthusiasm that surprised us. It was delightful. As she matured, it always brought a smile to my face to watch the growing bond of mother and daughter. I was allowed to tag along on some shopping trips. Be it grocery stores, specialty stores in nearby Pittsburgh, or a clothing pursuit. To see the love and smiles on their faces and genuine laughter was but a few of the warm memories I’ll always carry with me.
A family favorite was visiting Disney World. We all enjoyed planning it. What was so unique was Claire’s genuine interest and enjoyment of the park, which grew more and more as she entered her teenage years. Racing from park to park or ride to ride caused stitches of laughter and jokes. It’s a memory I treasure even today.
During her ‘marine biologist’ years, we couldn’t keep her away from the ocean. Elizabeth and I always strived to enhance her dreams. Bar Harbor, Maine was a gold mine of adventure and ocean exploration, whether it was watching the humpback whales on an expedition or investigating tidal pools for what seemed like hours on end. Claire did it all. Her enthusiasm, quick wit, and absolute joy of life were evident in everything she did. I swelled with love and appreciation for what was given to us. From family ski trips to large family gatherings, these were great moments in time occurring one after the other. From silly Disney Halloween costumes to Claire catching her first fish, it was one terrific ride and I feel we all knew it. The good times, love and laughter felt eternal.
From days on a Hilton Head Island beach to collecting sea shells in buckets on Captiva Island. These are precious fleeting moments in time we all need to cherish. I was always actively aware of how blessed my family was. We had so many countless memories. I tried very hard to remind myself, as life was passing in front of me, that this joy and happiness was perched on a precarious edge and must be savored and enjoyed.
Through high school, Claire excelled. School, education, the entire environment was perfect for her. Life’s challenges were her elixir of adrenaline. Driving her forward was an enthusiasm and joy of life that made us embrace her goals and dreams in life. We held on tight and savored the ride, the numerous school functions and her endless efforts at improving who she was. Her zest for life seemed bottomless.
Without a doubt, my warmest memories of us were game and cookie nights. Fall, winter and spring were great months for us. Our great room/tv room and kitchen were one large room. In the great room was a large wood burning fireplace. It was the center of our lives during these months. My wife, Elizabeth, was quite simply an astounding cook and baker. So night after night our evenings typically unfolded in front of a warm fire, with Claire and me setting up one of our many game boards after dinner while Elizabeth was nearby in the kitchen baking, laughing and chatting with us.
The smell of fresh baked cookies and other fantastic treats permeated the air, along with the intoxicating fire and coziness of the three of us just enjoying the moment. A movie on the tv, and the three of us gobbling down warm cookies. The comfort and contentment of us was obvious. We just loved it. This was a frequent event as winter wore on. The number of games I lost of Uno Spin because of Elizabeth’s and Claire’s ninja-like reflexes left me in last place. I loved it. I remember it as if it were yesterday. The clarity of those moments, the smells and sounds are razor-sharp in my memory. It’s difficult to describe the love and laughter we shared, as is the loss of it and the pain I will carry with me for the remainder of my days.
As time flew by at record speed, I tried in vain to embrace every moment we spent together, realizing college was fast approaching and could not be stopped. Elizabeth and I began dreading the day Claire would leave our perfect world for college. Claire’s accomplishments in high school were something to marvel. No matter the subject, no matter the project, she simply excelled. You could not have met two prouder parents. She simply made it look simple. Somewhat aggravating to me as I knew how I worked and struggled through high school. It was great to witness.
By the end of high school, it was obvious that Claire was heading to the engineering sciences. Her passion and drive propelling her into new challenges. Claire really enjoyed the size and diversity of West Virginia University’s (WVU) campus. With multiple scholarships behind her, she entered WVU College of Engineering in the Honor’s Program, choosing a dual major of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering with a minor in Business. A daunting challenge I thought, but this simply did not concern Claire. It was a challenge she simply relished. We could not have been prouder parents, beaming ear to ear, knowing the incredible adventures in life that were beginning to unfold in front of her. I must add, the saddest day in my life up to that point occurred when we walked out of her dorm hall. The anguish in all of our faces was so apparent, we all hugged and cried. A wonderful, very painful moment all wrapped up in our hugs as we held on to each other. A moment in time which is difficult for me to recall as my wife and daughter looked like they were being torn apart, their anguish so apparent. Little did I know what would happen to us just six months later.
Elizabeth and I were heartbroken. Elizabeth and I lived our days texting each other and checking in on Claire. So proud, yet in pain at the years that had streaked by with Claire’s life moving forward. Our joy as a family leaping alive as Claire encountered her first serious boyfriend. A remarkable, sensitive, intelligent young man, he was an Engineering student who thought Claire was a revelation from above. I knew how he felt, experiencing a similar revelation myself 20 years earlier. They were off enjoying college, friends, and life itself. Heart-warming, that made us glow with pride and relief that Claire was happier now than at any point in her life. Elizabeth and I were excited for Claire as well as ourselves as we realized we had accomplished so much. Experienced so much. Loved so much.
December 2019 arrived, and our world was forever altered.
Claire was studying for her first semester Finals in early December and complained of a sore throat. This became more painful with development of significant fatigue. Strep throat was assumed and antibiotics given. Over the next 10 days she was not getting better. Several days before Christmas she became weaker, fatigued, and increased in fever. Diagnosed with Mono, she was sent home. Rest, fluids, and fever control. Shortly thereafter, a dry cough developed. I became concerned for pneumonia and the day after Christmas took her to the ER. Now a right lower lobe pneumonia presented itself. Even with antibiotics, her symptoms were quickly worsening. Back to the ER with progressing pneumonia. Admitted immediately for IV antibiotics as a bacterial pneumonia was assumed. Things quickly began spiraling out of control. Four days later she was intubated and placed on a ventilator. Quickly progressing and failing the ventilator in just a few days. Her only hope was advanced life support with ECMO intervention. She was emergently seen by surgeons. She was urgently taken to the operating room and had a large ECMO catheter placed in her neck. This technology essentially removes blood from your body, oxygenates it, and returns it to your heart. Effectively providing oxygen to your body when your damaged lungs cannot. Her clinical course continued to spiral down. Her ICU life was miserable. Our hearts were broken. The anxiety was unbearable. Our entire day was an endless carrousel at the hospital, praying, urging Claire on, with every day a further step backwards. My nights were filled with sitting up in the hotel room reading dozens and dozens of medical articles on her diagnosed condition as we watched her life slowly slip away from us. As a result we took a huge risk and had her flown to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, ECMO equipment and all for an alternative workup and treatment. She was quickly diagnosed at Cincinnati with overwhelming Adenovirus infection and pneumonia. With their therapy and teams of specialists they quickly brought her huge systemic viral load down. Treated her own aggressive inflammatory response to the infection. She fought and suffered six additional grueling weeks in their ICU. Their exemplary care and treatment were not able to save her as the extensive damage to her lungs by the adenovirus was simply unrecoverable. My delay in getting her to the proper specialists and Hospital causes guilt and second guessing of my actions that will haunt my conscience forever. Her condition was now so frail that even the lung transplant doctors could not operate on her. Our final hopes of recovery now apparent, we were left with the most difficult decision any family would ever make. Watching her last breaths, feeling her soul slip from her was incomprehensibly painful. It felt as if our own souls had left with her. She died on February 26, 2020. She was just 18 years old. The pain and memory of that moment would forever haunt us. The absolute devastation of watching your greatest love and hope of life leave you should never be made to be burdened by any of us. Our wonderful lives crushed so quickly and our loss so complete. We were left without love, hope, happiness and all things that make us human.
Life for Elizabeth and me became a dark, agonizing series of days. A pain and darkness I hope never befalls another living soul. We struggled to walk, to eat, to even breathe. My wife and I are very private people and reaching out to others for help was not something we embraced. We leaned on each other for support. Talking, crying, walking, and crying some more. The anguish in our hushed voices, clinging to each other, gasping for breath. These were our days and nights. An endless rollercoaster of grief. I sought medical help, Elizabeth would not. Medication and counseling provided some relief to me. The thoughts of joint suicide permeated our conversations. We were extremely close to carrying it out one early March day. Our despair and agony in a dark, dark hole. All we wanted was relief from the endless searing pain we experienced. We also thought endlessly of Claire’s suffering and all the wonderful years of life she would never experience. Her first professional job, her career, the beauty of marriage, the joys of family. The memories of life we all hold so dear. Gone. Her life ended on the cusp of an entire world awakening before her.
The deep emotional pain haunted us daily. Suicide thoughts came and went on a continuous basis. The thought of life without her seemed impossible. We drifted, we cried, we mourned. We spread her ashes in the ocean at her favorite beach. No parent should ever have to endure this.
As time moved forward to early summer, my daily nightmares of Claire’s miserable ICU life she endured continued to haunt my thoughts night and day. The clarity of the events, procedures, enormous blood loss from GI bleeding, her emergent medical codes from dangerously low blood pressure, all were a continuously revolving wheel of events played over in my mind. The persistent guilt and recurring visions I have of my decisions for her will never leave me. Neither therapy, medication or counseling will ever fully cure me.
Elizabeth suffered from immense loss and grieving of our daughter’s life. She was bitter, angry, short-tempered and deeply depressed. I urged her repeatedly to see a counselor, a Psychiatrist, a family doctor, anyone. She simply would not. Her reasoning? Simple. In her mind they did not know her, did not know Claire or our lives. No true empathy could be given from a care provider. They would not know or understand the depth of her despair, her pain. Without that genuine link for her, she simply wouldn’t move forward with that approach. She scoffed at medications, knowing it would take weeks or months for effectiveness, if at all. We had a tremendous number of people checking on us and offering support. While I was slightly better, I worried about her. She was a different person. I felt helpless. I simply did not know what I could do. At times I thought she might be getting better as May and early June wore on. My anxiety and concern lessening somewhat. We would still frequently hug and cry together. Just a difficult way to live. Constant under the surface was the unbearable pain. I prayed for her. By mid-June she seemed more relaxed, at peace even. I was relieved.
In the end, her pain was so intense that she took her own life. I loved her beyond words.
I spiraled quickly down. My loss and pain absolute. My younger sister ignored me when I said I was okay and she flew in from California to stay with me. Family was nearby, refusing to leave me alone. My colleagues tried to respect my wishes to grieve on my own, but still some texted and arrived at my doorstep anyway. Something difficult for me being such a private person but welcomed. My own counselor and doctor checked in with me. No one realized the endless depth of pain, the agony I was suffering. I was lost and searching for a way in my mind to end this pain. I realized at this point that I was now feeling the deep anguish and searing pain my wife had experienced. An unending cyclone of deep emotional torment. They were gone, I had nothing left. I wanted out. I wanted to leave this place, to join them as soon as possible. As the doors in my mind were closing, I could actually feel the peace and love of my wife and daughter surrounding me. In my experience, people mistakenly think that suicide is a place you look for. It is not. It is a place you arrive at. A dark quiet place that strangely provides a warm sense of relief and comfort. There is no fear. I felt so exhausted. I could not wait to rest and lie down beside them and feel their warmth and love again. To see them once again. I was ready. No one recognized where I was heading. Except one person, the business manager of my Professional group, was highly suspicious. Sam Merandi has known me well for over 25 years of working together. He began calling anyone and everyone on my physician and counselor team. He simply said, “If someone doesn’t act right now, he is going to leave us by taking his own life.” Sam knew the effect the combined loss of my only daughter and my beloved wife in just three and a half months would have. His efforts were quickly responded to and before long my Psychiatrist was on the phone asking if I would be willing to try a limited approved IV therapy called ketamine. At this point I simply didn’t care. I said, “Sure, I’ll try it,” knowing I had plans to leave this world as quickly as possible to escape this crushing pain. He asked that I have someone drive me in immediately. My sister took me in. I had the infusion. The change was astounding. Within an hour I felt less depressed, the pain had decreased. While a ketamine infusion is a somewhat otherworldly trip, the effects for me were miraculous. Six infusions were performed over 3-4 weeks. The effect was most profound in the first three infusions. I cannot explain it other than to say, it felt like someone turned the light switch back on. Suicidal thoughts quickly diminished. It saved my life. None of it would have been possible had Sam Merandi not intervened. He deserves the credit for saving my life. His behind-the-scene intervention moved the wheels quickly, and I was brought back from my dark abyss.
My life is different now. While I suffer from PTSD related to my daughter’s ICU life and death as well as the death of my wife, I continue on with a purpose.
While I will always live with the horror of what happened to my family, I feel I was pulled back from the brink for a purpose. My goals are simple. In my time remaining on this earth, I plan on changing it. Or at the very least, improving it. I want to change outcomes and save lives from what devastated my family. For my daughter I have created a Biomedical Engineering Scholarship at WVU. If you wish to know more about my daughter, Claire, her life and dreams, and the scholarship program, please visit her website: clairelaplante.com. I love her so much. She is forever missed.
This nonprofit I have created in Elizabeth and Claire’s name I hope will change awareness and treatment pathways for children and young adults infected with Adenovirus and its potential devastating effects. Quicker intervention, awareness and availability of life saving therapies need increased focus and direction.
Suicide is a devastating result of crippling patient pain, grieving, loss, deep depression, and hopelessness. The shortcomings of our current approach in suicide prevention are simply overwhelming. We are losing family members, young military members, and young adults at an alarming rate. This must be changed. Having been to the ‘edge of the cliff’ myself, I have a sharpened view of what must change. To experience the loss my wife and I suffered through and ultimately what I had to bear with her own death, we must refocus our intervention and treatment strategies as urgently as possible.