A couple of times a week, I drive to Markham Park, in suburban Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and visit the Royal Poinciana tree my family and I planted in memory of my daughter, Krissy. She died two years ago this month, but I feel her presence in little ways all the time, especially here. On Mother’s day last year, the tree sprouted two beautiful scarlet blossoms that hadn’t been there two days earlier. I think that was Krissy’s gift to me.

Because Krissy was so young—seventeen—and because she had been a successful model like her sister Niki, the press had a heyday when the news of her sudden death broke. International tabloids speculated that she must have either been on drugs or emaciated by an eating disorder. Those false reports just made our heartache even worse. I’m sharing my story here in order to honor Krissy’s memory, to tell the truth about what happened to her—and to alert other parents to a medical danger of which they may be unaware.

My husband, Ken, a retired Florida highway patrolman, and I have been married for thirty years. We always remind people that we had three daughters, because so much attention has been paid to the two famous ones. Joelle (Joie) is now twenty-six, Nicole (Niki) is twenty-two and Kristen would have been nineteen in May.

Joie was the leader of the three; Niki was the adventurous one. But Krissy was my homebody. She loved being with her friends, line dancing or just listening to country music. Joie and Krissy would talk for hours and go out to dinner together several times a week. “I don’t think I’ve ever laughed with anyone as much as I have with Krissy,” Joie has said.

Niki was intrigued by modeling at a young age, and we started sending pictures of her to agencies when she was thirteen. By the time she was sixteen, she had a makeup contract. At one point, we took the other two girls to a photo shoot and had them sit for pictures so they could see what their sister’s career was all about. Joie didn’t like having her hair and face done, but Krissy thought it was fun, and she started getting modeling jobs soon after that. Joie later became Niki’s assistant.

In 1992, Niki and Krissy were chosen to appear together on the cover of Seventeen magazine, and Krissy really came into her own as a model. Ken and I stayed involved in their lives by going with them to the shoots. We never worried that sudden fame would drive our daughters to drugs or anorexia. They were never into that. Krissy loved mashed potatoes, cheese fries and chicken fingers, and she never dieted; her young metabolism was simpy good enough to let her indulge in her favorite foods.

Krissy hadn’t decided whether to model after finishing high school. Both she and Niki used to talk about working with animals or going into clothing design, and like her sisters, Krissy also hoped to marry young and start a family right away. Everything seemed possible for her.

A medical mystery

July 1, 1995, was a typical day for us. Niki, Krissy and Ken went to a ball game that night; Niki and Ken had a bite to eat and then went their separate ways. Krissy, who had driven her own truck, ran an errand and came home a short time later.

Around midnight, Krissy was feeling a little short of breath—she had allergies and occasional upper-respiratory problems—so she inhaled Primatene Mist, an over-the-counter medication she used occasionally. I tucked her into bed and kissed her good night, as I always did.

The next thing I knew, it was four a.m. and Niki was at our bedside shaking me and saying, “Mom! There’s something wrong with Krissy!” She had left her bedroom and collapsed by the front door, unconscious. I can only guess that she heard Niki coming home to pick up her car and went to meet her. Niki called 911 and pleaded for help as Ken and I frantically performed CPR.

Paramedics arrived and took over the resuscitation efforts, then rushed Krissy to Memorial Hospital West. They worked on our daughter for an hour, and I tried to hold out hope that they could save her. But from his experience on the job, Ken knew in his heart that Krissy was already gone.

It was a nightmare. In the middle of our overwhelming grief, we were suddenly all over national TV and newspapers, and our usually quiet neighborhood was filled with news vans.

The coroner’s initial report found no signs of alcohol or drugs, but Krissy’s lungs showed signs of scarring, indicating that she had asthma. That just confused us even more. Krissy’s pediatrician had never diagnosed asthma.

Several weeks later, the medical examiner told us that a sudden arrhythmia in Krissy’s heartbeat had contributed to her death. We wondered if the Primatene Mist might have triggered it, but it didn’t seem logical, since Krissy died hours after she had taken the drug.

By chance, a woman in California heard our story and contacted the medical examiner, explaining that she had lost two children to a rare heart condition. She suggested that we go to the University of Miami Medical Center and Jackson Memorial Hospital, which has specialists who study such cases. The M.E. referred us there, and Robert J. Myerburg, M.D., the director of the cardiology division, told us that there are several heart conditions that can cause sudden death in young patients. He agreed to contact the medical examiner about doing further studies on Krissy’s heart tissue. There was nothing for our family to do but wait.

Saying good-bye

Instead of a formal burial—I couldn’t see us doing anything in a stuffy funeral home—we had a memorial service for Krissy in Markham Park. Family and close friends gathered and filled her blue Chevy truck with her favorite flowers—sunflowers and daisies—and shared our fondest memories. Then we set off fireworks and danced to “Redneck Girl,” which was one of her favorite songs, and “Remember Me This Way.”

Getting through that first year was hard. It took me the longest time to go outside, becuase I was scared of having to talk to anyone. People were kind to us, but sometimes they said the wrong things: “I know what you’re going through.” (They didn’t.) “At least you have two other daughters.” (I woundn’t miss Krissy any less if I had ten children.)

Niki threw herself into her work to keep her mind off her grief, telling people she didn’t care to talk about it. But the pain was still there, compounded by the stress of her divorce from her husband, Matt Martinez, and of raising her twin sons. Joie’s characteristically bright outlook on life helped her a lot, but there would be times when she’d suddenly think about Krissy and her eyes would brim over with tears.

Ken was more inclined to shut his feelings inside, and I always wanted to talk, so there was some friction between us. We coped by realizing that we had to respect each other’s feelings and accept our different ways of mourning.

The holidays were especially hard that year. I love Thanksgiving, but I dreaded celebrating it, because it was hard to feel thankful for anything. Having my grandchildren there was the saving grace of the day—Joie’s daughter, Blake, offered a special blessing. At Christmas, I found myself putting too many decorations all over the house. “What are you doing?” Ken asked, surprised. I didn’t know. I think I was trying to fill up the emptiness.

Just after Thanksgiving, the family gathered again at Markham Park to dedicate Krissy’s tree and set the memorial marker. We hadn’t talked very much about our loss in those five months, so we stood by candlelight for half an hour, reading aloud the letters and poems we had received from people all over the country. The tree is a special place for all of us, and we go there often. When Joie remarried last year, she had her ceremony under her sister’s tree.

Deciding what to do with Krissy’s things was hard. The notes and love letters in her nightstand seemed to personal for anyone else to read, so we held on to them, and we plan to burn them one day and spread the ashes by her tree. Even the shoes in her closet told Krissy’s life story. We gave them all to her friends, insisting that they were to be worn and enjoyed, not stored away.

The hidden danger

It wasn’t until six months after Krissy’s death that the final piece of the puzzle fell into place at last. Dr. Myerburg and a researcher from France discovered something significant. The right ventricle of Krissy’s heart had an abnormal amount of fatty tissue and scar tissue inside—signs pointing to a rare condition known as Right Ventricular Dysplasia (RVD) that most often appears in adolescents and young adults.

For reasons not yet understood, the scar and fatty tissue buildup can cause sudden, rapid heart rhythms that can be fatal. If it’s detected in time, this and other heart conditions can often be treated in young patients with medication or, in more severe cases, with an implantable defibrillator that can jolt the heart back to normal rhythm.

Though the medical examiner disagrees, Myerburg has now concluded that RVD was the major contributor to Krissy’s death, with her asthma playing a secondary role. Even if Krissy had survived this episode, it’s highly likely that she would have had another dangerous arrhythmia if her condition had gone undiagnosed.

We’re satisfied now that we have all the medical answers, and we take some comfort in knowing that there was no way we could reasonably have known this might happen. An electrocardiogram (EKG) or an echocardiogram could have picked up the RVD prior to the attack, and she could have been monitored and treated. But why would we ever think to give a seemingly-healthy girl a cardiac test?

Everyone in our family has gone for cardiac testing, and we’ve all been found healthy. That’s not surprising, since the majority of RVD cases are not hereditary. Why Krissy was born with it is a question that may never be answered.

That’s why I feel strongly that doctors should perform EKGs at least once on all preadolescents. We have our children’s teeth X-rayed once a year; why not test their hearts, too? True, it may not be a cost-effective measure, but it would be a worthwhile one if it saved even a few lives. Parents should also know about the primary symptoms of heart conditions that occur in children. If your child suffers fainting or near-fainting spells—especially during physical exertion—or a rapid heartbeat when at rest, take him or her to a doctor right away.

Signs and memories

It’s hard to believe that the second anniversary is already here. But our family remains close, and together, we are strong and we cherish our time with one another. And we each have our own memories of Krissy. Ken says, “Things were always brighter if she was there.” Joie remembers, “She made you smile,” and Niki says, “She was real. She was strong, and she said what she believed.”

The one final tribute I’d love to have for Krissy would be a country song written in her memory. I hope this will become a reality one day.

I know a lot of people don’t believe in such things, but I’ve witnessed odd coincidences that I’d like to think are signs from Krissy. During the memorial service, a shooting-star streaked across the sky—and the letter I was reading at that very moment was decorated with shooting-star stickers. Then, on my birthday last year, my beeper suddenly went off. The message was “Tone Only”—the indication for a caller who hangs up—and the numeral 3, which was the code number Krissy always used. I told Ken, “It was Krissy calling to say ‘happy birthday.’”

People from all over the world have written us to offer their sympathy. A few mothers have named their babies after Krissy; one of them gave birth the day after Joie had her new baby son, Dalton. In my spare time, I maintain a Web site (www.krissy.com) that includes a tribute, special photos and essays. One woman wrote that her husband always teased her for kissing and hugging their daughters at bedtime every night, but he changed his mind once he read our Web page.

I’ve been asked if I have any advice for other grieving parents. It’s hard to tell other people what to do—everyone’s experience is so personal. But above all, my advice is to let those you love know it right now, and as often as possible.

That’s one thing I’ll never regret not doing, because I tell my daughters I love them all the time. I said it to Krissy on the night she died, and I’m so glad that there were no unfinished hurts or arguments between us. My only regret is that she passed away in the first place. God, it hurts.

By Barbara Taylor, as told to Shana Aborn.