Grief’s Gravity 

When Jesica Santillan died of a botched heart-lung transplant, Nancy Rommelmann was nearly swallowed by the story.


I spent February 19, 2003, the way I’d spent the three previous days: monitoring Jesica Santillan’s condition via the Web. It was the lead story on CompuServe, and I read only, “Bleeding and swelling on the brain,” before I pressed my palms to my eyes.

“Wha-at?” my boyfriend asked. His patience regarding Jesica was wearing thin; even my daughter had given me a jaundiced look the day before in the car when I said, “Maybe Jesica wants me to write about her.” She was 13, and not unsentimental, but would not be complicit in the fantasy her mother was spinning.

I’d started my vigil the day The New York Times ran an article about 17-year-old Jesica that included a photo of the comatose girl: dark-haired, her shoulders bare above the hospital bed sheet, she looked exactly like my daughter. When the story moved to the front page, I went with it. I kept tabs on Jesica via the Web, by the hour, then the minute. Work, books, eating, everything fell away, seemed frivolous compared to the devastation taking place inside this girl.

I knew what everyone else glued to the story knew: That on February 7, Jesica had undergone a heart-lung transplant of a mismatched blood type by surgeons at Duke University Hospital. That her parents, illegal Mexican immigrants who spoke no English, had smuggled her into the country three years earlier in order to seek treatment for her congenital heart abnormality; that a North Carolina homebuilder named Mack Mahoney — the man we saw on TV, begging for a new set of organs for Jesica — had two years earlier established Jesica’s Hope Chest (JHC), a foundation to help pay for the girl’s life-saving operation, which, due to an oversight, was likely going to kill her.

I was unable to accept the fatal error. I bucked every time I thought about the moment when the incompatible organs were placed inside Jesica. This was followed closely by empathy for what I felt sure her family, and in particular her 37-year-old mother, Magdalena, must be going through, after having waited three years for this and then having to watch helplessly as what they waited for destroyed Jesica. And then, after seizures and bleeding and lying in a coma for two weeks, the doctors tried another transplant, and succeeded in killing Jesica’s brain. To me, it seemed, they killed the child twice. The betrayal was impossible for me to keep down.

Why we as readers, as a nation, become involved in one story over another is fueled by primal concerns and fanned by the media. But what keeps us involved? While I am sure many found Jesica’s story wrenching, they turned the page, perhaps on February 20, the day Jesica received her second transplant and also the night of a devastating nightclub fire that would eventually claim 100 lives.

I scanned the photos from West Warwick, Rhode Island, the stunned face of Great White lead singer Jack Russell, the charred foundation of the Station, but the images did not stick. This tragedy was happening to other people; there was nothing I could do. I did not feel this way about Jesica. While the origin of my obsession may have been a thing as random as appearance — the tawny skin and almond eyes and babyish nose were the same as my daughter’s — nurturing the fixation gave birth to something less simple, a launching pad I used to catapult myself into Jesica’s posthumous life.

My flying to North Carolina, to stay with Mack Mahoney, to meet Jesica’s family, to discuss her case with lawyers may have happened because I’m a writer who tends toward immersion journalism. It may have been driven by career ambitions; I boarded the plane with a verbal agreement to write a book about Jesica. It may have been that my obsession simply swept me overboard. My mother said Jesica’s tragedy sucked me in because she had a face, and we know that a news story with a face, whether it’s Willie Horton’s or Laci Peterson’s, incites emotional involvement.

These reasons were true, but ultimately ancillary: I flew to North Carolina because my fixation caused a puncture wound I could not stem alone, there was too much empathy flowing, it needed someplace to go. I no longer felt like a compassionate stranger in Jesica’s tragedy, but a participant. I wanted to know more about her, to meet her mother, to be around others who were grieving for Jesica.


On February 21, I read, “Irreversible brain damage,” and that Magdalena had said before the second operation that Jesica squeezed her hand and wiggled her toes on command. These, I realized, would be the last sentient communications she’d have with her daughter. Later, when a CNN special report announced Jesica was “brain dead,” I did not see Magdalena in the crowd, but imagined her wanting to claw her way into the past, to reclaim her child, to say, leave her with me, I will take her from here.

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