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A LIFE CUT SHORT
Melanie's Story: A family celebrates the life and still mourns the loss of beloved teen killed by a repeat drunken driver
Melanie Powell, a 13-year-old girl from Marshfield, was killed by a repeat-offense drunk driver on a summer afternoon while crossing Route 139 on her way to a birthday party. She was just one of 156 people killed by drunken drivers in Massachusetts in 2003. I always thought tragedies like that happened to someone else’s family. Then it happened to mine. Mel was my granddaughter.
THE PILGRIM BELLE
It was two nights before on Plymouth Harbor, aboard the party boat Pilgrim Belle. The whole family was there and it was an incredible night.
Tod and Wendy’s older sister, Betsy Powell, a professional singer from Marshfield, provided the entertainment with her band, Shady Pete. Melanie’s cousins and closest friends were there.
It was supposed to be for Jubilee employees, but Melanie insisted that all the cousins deserved to be there because they helped, too. And she simply had to have her girlfriends there.
Melanie and her friends were the last ones to arrive. As they walked along the dock toward the boat, fashionably late and stylish, everyone stopped talking and looked. Tod was struck by how grown-up the girls suddenly seemed. They could be models, he thought.
“Here we were having this great night together with all our family and children,” Wendy said. “Tod and I were partners and it was so exciting that Nancy and Tod could be a part of my life. We had the greatest thing going. And now, we’re struggling to get that back and I’m not sure it can ever be the same as it was that night.
“It was so great to think that the kids were becoming a part of it,” Wendy said. “My relationship with Melanie was growing. We went shopping together for birthday and Christmas presents. Melanie definitely had her own style, and we really had fun. I loved being her aunt.”
After the party, Melanie was off to friend Katie Conway’s house for a sleepover and then a 13th birthday party for another friend on Friday. On the Pilgrim Belle, the girls were all dressed up trying to look so mature, dancing and singing the night away, but still little girls at heart.
While doctors fought to save Melanie, Tod, Nancy and Wendy endured an anguished trip to New England Medical Center.
At the Marshfield police station, the 49-year-old woman who hit Melanie was being booked on a charge of drunken driving.
With one conviction on her record, Pamela Murphy knew better than to take a Breathalyzer test. But there was no escaping the camera. State law requires bookings to be taped.
Murphy had trouble answering basic questions, such as whether she was married or had children. She was unable to dial a phone and could not remember her own number. She stumbled and slurred her words and seemed completely oblivious to what she had done. She never asked about the condition of the girl she had just hit.
Melanie was hanging on to life by a thread.
At the hospital, she was taken to the pediatric intensive care unit on the sixth floor. Tod, Nancy and his sister Wendy Carley arrived to an ominous reception.
“We were once again greeted at the front door, this time by a priest and a doctor,” Tod said. “Our first thought was we were too late. We were escorted to a similar small empty waiting room.
“The doctor said Melanie was still on life support and we could move up to the intensive care unit shortly. The doctor left and the priest stayed with us as we prayed.”
The priest asked what Melanie’s name was, mistakenly using the past tense, and Nancy corrected him firmly. Her daughter was still alive.
They were taken upstairs to intensive care. They could see Melanie while the doctors and nurses worked on her.
“All you could smell was that strong odor of blood and medical supplies,” Nancy said. “Melanie was still not moving or showing any signs of life except for her chest moving up and down from the life support machines.
“You cannot imagine the horror of seeing our little girl, who was so full of life, now laying in a bed with tubes coming and going in every direction, alarms from elaborate machines continuing to sound off as they were losing her.
“She had no control over her own bodily functions as we sat and held her. We were able to stay with her as the nurses and doctors were fighting to keep her blood pressure and body temperature up throughout the night.”
Wendy started trying to reach someone in the family. Home phones, cell phones - no one was answering. Finally she reached her husband, Chris. For the first time, she broke down.
“It’s really bad. They said she’s not going to make it.”
Chris just kept saying, “I don’t understand, I don’t understand.” Finally, the initial shock wore off and he made some calls.
Relatives began arriving to be with Melanie and to give her parents and aunt moral support. Aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins and grandparents,
Tod’s sister Betsy Powell, a licensed practical nurse, had witnessed miraculous recoveries from terrible accidents during her 14 years at Braintree Rehabilitation Hospital. Her first reaction was, “OK, she can make it.”
Another sister, Kelly Powell, and her husband, Bob Farrell, raced from their Newton home to the hospital. They were rushed along corridors, deep into the complex where the family was waiting. Tod told them Melanie had a serious head injury and only a miracle could save her.
They were shown into Melanie’s room, where Nancy and her mother sat with Melanie.
“Talk to her,” Nancy said. “She might be able to hear you, tell her a happy memory. It could help bring her back.”
Bob leaned over and took Melanie’s hand. He talked softly about the time she had visited their summer place on a lake in New Hampshire. They spent the entire afternoon on the water, canoeing, swimming, diving. She wanted the good times to go on forever.
On the sign-in wall at the cabin, Melanie wrote, “To Kelly and Bob. I love you. I will miss you. July 26, 1999.”
That was four years earlier, to the day.
The hospital staff did a great job calming the children and keeping them occupied. The chaplain gave them coloring books. They were thinking of where Melanie was at that moment, and not about the accident scene.
Still, it was heartbreaking to see the little girls who were with Melanie at the time of the accident hopefully drawing pictures for her, writing get-well cards and asking if they could talk to her. They had been through a nightmare, but it didn’t seem to have registered.
Katie Conway and her sister Ashley sat in shock. Katie, Ashley and Melanie were the Three Musketeers. They planned their lives out together - where they would go to college, what kind of car they would drive and what kind of boy they would date and someday marry.
At sleepovers at the Conways’ when Melanie was younger, she would usually make it until midnight before homesickness set in. The call would go out to Tod and Nancy and they would pick Mel up and take her home.
For cousins Joe and Caroline Satterthwaite and Desmond O’Neill, the night was agonizing. They sat with the other children part of the time and with the family the rest. Desmond remembers being at his dad’s house in the swimming pool when his stepmother came to get him and told him he had to go because a car had hit Melanie.
None of them could comprehend that death was a possibility. Desmond thought, “She’ll make it through and maybe just be different.” Caroline thought, “Maybe she’ll be in a wheelchair.” She wondered what it would be like if Melanie were disabled.
Every time the doors opened, Joe Satterthwaite expected a doctor to walk in and tell them everything would be OK, but it was always a janitor.
AT MEL’S SIDE
The family was gathered in a waiting room outside the intensive care unit. In small groups, relatives went into Melanie’s room to touch her, gently kiss her head and to tell her, “I love you.”
The nurses, who knew the prognosis, never let on that it was hopeless. Every time one of them touched her, she would first say. “OK, honey, I’m just going to move your pillow” or “This is just a little fluid.”
The doctors were honest from the beginning, but respectful of Nancy’s need to come to terms with the inevitable loss. From the beginning, Tod understood what the doctors were saying. But for Nancy, death was out of the question. She kept asking the doctors, “What if she lives?”
Tod had the added worry that he would lose his wife as well as his daughter.
The chief of the pediatric trauma unit explained to the family the difficulties everyone would face over the next 24 to 36 hours. Melanie was not responding and there was no sign of brain activity.
The nurses and doctors fought through the night to keep Melanie’s vital signs strong.
They pumped in fluids to keep her hydrated and to keep her temperature up. Blankets covered her body and the machines whirred rhythmically.
Some family members slept on couches. Others rushed home to catch a couple of hours of sleep, change clothes and rush back with fresh clothes for Tod and Nancy.
Nancy’s mother and Betsy sat with Melanie while Tod and Nancy tried to sleep. She half expected Mel to sit up and say, “You two need a shower.”
At about 2 a.m., Melanie’s blood pressure began to drop. At the same moment, Nancy awoke with a start. She was sweaty and sick. She had to go see Melanie.
As she went down the corridor, all she could hear were buzzers - they were losing Melanie. Betsy ran to wake Tod. He felt a burning from his head to his toes.
“They were still in their separate worlds,” Betsy said. “Tod knew, but Nancy just wasn’t there yet. They stabilized Melanie and we made it through the night.”
By that time, the hospital staff decided the time had come to approach the family about the possibility of organ donation.
They asked Tod’s mother, Bobbi Bersani, to broach the subject with him. It was the hardest decision she would ever have to make.
“At 3 a.m., the doctor gathered the family for an update on Melanie’s condition,” she said. “Afterwards he spoke with me privately in the hall. He said Melanie was the perfect candidate for organ donation.
“At 3:30, Nancy came out from Melanie’s room and it was clear she wasn’t giving up. If she couldn’t give up hope, how could I?
“I went to the doctor and told him I just couldn’t be the person Nancy remembered for the rest of her life who told her she had to accept death and let Melanie’s organs be harvested. Selfishly, I just couldn’t do it for myself, and I love Nancy too much to do that. He understood.
“I would have loved for Melanie’s life to continue on in another person, but by the time Nancy was able to accept her death and came to us, it was too late. Nothing is the way it’s supposed to be. Melanie was not supposed to die.”
By Saturday morning it was evident that the opportunity for transplanting Melanie’s organs was gone. Overnight the fluids that had been pumped into her had accumulated and her appearance was vastly different.
“When the new shift came on at 7, the night doctor came in for one last check-in,” Betsy said. “There was nothing to say, and he just held Tod. It was an amazing moment.
“I kept thinking I’m a nurse. I know how to deal with this. But this time I couldn’t.”
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