More than 300 people jammed Everly Funeral Home in Fairfax, Monday evening, to say their final goodbyes to 16-year-old Courtney Leduc Richard. A sophomore at Chantilly High, she died last Thursday, June 17, of viral meningitis.
Among those paying tribute to her was Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Robert Wooldridge, who's been friends with her family for a decade. He said the number of people attending her funeral service and the sentiments written about her on the old "spirit shack" on the school grounds were clear evidence of people's love for her.
"The measure of our life on this earth is not how long we live or how much we've accomplished in our chosen field, but how much others have loved us and how much we've loved them," he said. "And if that's the measure of a life, then Courtney's was a very full one."
Sadly, though, it was also way too short. A standout at volleyball and debate, she was one of three local residents recently stricken with viral meningitis. The others are another female Chantilly student, Kelly Edwards, 16, and a teacher at Armstrong Elementary in Reston.
Chantilly Principal Tammy Turner said there doesn't seem to be any connection between the three, or any common place they all went. The two Chantilly students took one class together, "but we don't know that it's even relevant — or if [the infection] is even related to school," said Turner. "Everybody's anxious to hear [how they contracted it]."
MENINGITIS IS an infection of the tissues covering the brain and spinal cord. Viral meningitis is the most common type but, according to the Fairfax County Health Department, is "rarely fatal in persons with normal immune systems." That's why Courtney's death is still such a puzzle.
"Doctors don't know why her [meningitis] turned the way it did," said Turner. "The Health Department and doctors are really scrambling to figure out what happened to her." The Reston teacher is still hospitalized, but the other Chantilly girl, Kelly Edwards, "is out of the woods and should go home [Tuesday]," said Turner.
She said Courtney's death made a big impact on the school's teachers and staff. "We're so sad that we lost a promising, young Charger," said Turner. "She was really smart, a wonderful kid — just a delight to know. She was the kind of student teachers love to have in class."
She was also special to her friends and enjoyed having coffee and hanging out with them at the Reston Town Center. She loved rock music, especially The Cure, and she'd joined the debate team because she wanted to someday be a lawyer.
Then came the meningitis — which manifested and did its damage in the space of a week. Courtney first became ill on June 10; seven days later, she was gone. Her sister Lauren, 18, was salutatorian of Chantilly's graduating class and had won the school's science award. So on June 10, Courtney attended Lauren's convocation to see her receive the honor.
But she took sick and had to go home. The next morning, Friday, June 11, she couldn't get out of bed. "She felt bad," said her father, Dan Richard, of Chantilly's Franklin Glen community. "She had a massive headache, was throwing up and said she couldn't go to school."
A MEMBER OF her school's championship forensics/debate team, Courtney could have gone to nationals in Nashville, that weekend, with her teammates. But instead, she planned to accompany her father, sister and mother Suzanne to Vermont to celebrate her paternal grandparents' 50th anniversary on Saturday.
Still not feeling well, she rallied enough to see her team off, Friday afternoon, and bring them Gummy Bears® for a snack. But her condition worsened.
"When she came home around 4:30 p.m., her temperature was going up a degree an hour," said Richard. "When it reached 102 degrees, we took her to the [Inova] Fair Oaks Hospital emergency room."
She was checked into the pediatrics ward for testing, and it quickly became apparent that Courtney did not have bacterial meningitis. "That's the deadly one," said her father. "So we were relieved it was viral because you don't normally die from it." Doctors ran more tests and medicated her for her painful headache. "Her mother and I took shifts staying with her and sleeping by her bedside."
By Saturday morning, June 12, Courtney's temperature was only about 98 degrees and, said Richard, "We thought she was coming out of this." But her temperature started rising again in the afternoon and she had difficulty breathing."
It was her dad's shift and, as someone who'd coached her teams in CYA basketball and volleyball, and SYA volleyball, he went into coach mode to try to talk her through it. "I told her to be strong, keep working through the pain and keep breathing," he said.
"She said, 'I'm trying hard, Dad,'" said Richard. "She was starting to lose consciousness, and then she put her feet onto the floor, snapped to attention and said, 'Put me in; I can play.' Then she went limp and her eyes glazed over, so I laid her back down in bed. She was breathing shallowly, and I couldn't get her to respond to oxygen."
THIS HAPPENED at 7 p.m. and, two hours later, Courtney was Medevaced to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Inova Fairfax Hospital. There, machines breathed for the teen and, said Richard, "An army of people and equipment" took care of her. "Everybody did a great job. She was hooked up to equipment and monitors."
Tuesday, June 15, around 9 a.m., "She was still unconscious, but she fought the [breathing] tube in her throat, so we thought it was a good sign," said Richard. "She seemed stable, and we were clinging to our hopes, not our fears."
Chantilly's Class of 2004 graduated at 7:30 that night and, by that time, Courtney had rallied enough so that Lauren was able to go ahead and graduate with her classmates. But by 8:30 Wednesday morning, June 16, she took a turn for the worse.
"We got the call that every parent dreads, saying, 'Your child's not responding. Come in,'" said Richard. "We went in, and her eyes were open, but there were no lights. Her eyes were always her defining characteristic — they always lit up. But these were the eyes I saw when she went limp at [Inova] Fair Oaks."
"Now, our only hope was a miracle, so we appreciated everyone's prayers for her," he continued. "We stayed with her all of Wednesday, but there was no change. On Thursday, the doctor said her brain had been compromised and she'd be officially declared brain dead."
Since then, said Richard, the family has received "outpourings of love and affection" from the school, Courtney's teams, parents, friends and Lockheed Martin, the company employing both he and his wife.
"A lot of parents should be very proud of their children — the way they've responded," he said. "They've come to our house, every day, and sat in her bedroom. Many are kids she's grown up with in the neighborhood." Sunday night, June 20, they even held a small bonfire in her honor in the Richards' backyard.
Last Thursday afternoon, after Courtney died, there was a big rainstorm, around 4:30 p.m., and then the sun came out. "There was a rainbow on the horizon, outside our house," said Richard. "It was one of the brightest and most incredible rainbows anyone had ever seen and, [referring to heaven], one of the kids said, 'Hey, Courtney made it."
Although her family is devastated at her loss, her father said Monday that everyone is still numb. He said her death hadn't sunk in, yet, because funeral arrangements and visitors at their home have kept them busy.
"When everybody leaves, that's when we'll feel it," said Richard. "Courtney's gone — she won't be at the table. When we realize that she's missing, it'll hit us hard."
But the close relationship he's shared with both daughters comforts him. "I have loved every minute of being with my children," he said. "And the special moments we've had — like [Courtney's] left-handed, reverse lay-up that won the [basketball] game against Reston — will help. We have so many wonderful memories."
Memorial contributions, payable to Chantilly High School, may be made to the Courtney Richard Fund, c/o Chantilly High School, 4201 Stringfellow Road, Chantilly, VA 20151. Write "Courtney Richard Fund" on the memo line.