The legacy of Caroline Comly

How one family turned a tragic loss into a mission to support physicians and families at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center

John and Ginny Comly met in Romare Bearden Park, back when it was a gravel parking lot.

John was leaving work late. Ginny had just gone for a swim at the gym and couldn’t start her car.

“I wasn’t exactly a knight in shining armor, but I was someone with jumper cables,” John recalled with a laugh.

In the years since that chance encounter, John and Ginny have built a life together. They got married, moved to Washington, D.C., and then back to Charlotte and started a family. Their son, Robert, will be 11 in September. Their daughter, Katherine, turns 9 that same month. And this fall, they will honor the memory and legacy of their daughter, Caroline, with the opening of Caroline’s Corner within Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.

“One of the important things for me, and the reason I want it to be called Caroline’s Corner, is that, in 20 years, people will still be saying her name. To me that’s an important thing,” John said. “I also hope it will take little things off people’s plate, both the caregivers and their families. I hope it will make their experience less trying than it already is.”

Unfortunately, it’s an experience the Comly family knows well.

Baby Caroline was born four weeks early, in January of 2018. Despite arriving sooner than expected, she was happy and healthy. Two days after she was born, the new baby was home with her brother and sister.  

“We have some awesome videos of them coming home — Katherine being so over the moon about being a big sister, some really special pictures of the kids holding her,” John said. 

Then, on Super Bowl Sunday, Caroline slept through a meal. That alone seemed strange. Then, Ginny had trouble waking Caroline to feed. John hoped it was normal. Ginny felt strongly it wasn’t. She drove Caroline to the Novant Health Hemby Children’s Emergency Department.

From the emergency room, Caroline was transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). Ginny and John didn’t know what was happening, why their daughter was sick. Eventually, a spinal tap confirmed it was bacterial meningitis — an extremely rare condition — that had found its way into Caroline’s central nervous system.

“We were so thrown off by the diagnosis,” Ginny said. “There were so many unknowns, and the medical team would be hopeful at one point that she would come out of it. And then she’d seize again.”

Caroline was put into a medically induced coma as the medical team tried to figure out a way to fight her illness. But a CT scan revealed the situation was far worse than they thought. Caroline had lost all neurological function. She was breathing only with the help of machines. Five days after she came to the hospital, Caroline passed away.

In the wake of tragedy, it can be hard to find meaning. But the Comlys have found it, in part in serving those who served them during the toughest time of their lives.

“You have so much time together with the caretakers who have now become friends and supporters, and we realized they didn’t really have a space to go to talk, to get any sort of peace, to recharge,” Ginny said. “I know they’ve been on call for 24 hours, but where have they slept? It was pretty obvious that these caretakers are so vital in your experience in the PICU, and yet they don’t have a place to go to recharge.”

So John and Ginny built one within the pediatric intensive care unit. There’s a couch and a TV, a coffee maker and a computer. It’s a simple, dedicated space for the people who do so much for the patients and families in the PICU.

“I think for all the positive stories they get to experience, there’s so much heartbreak,” John said. “Their job is as much of a calling as anything else. You think about people who run into harm’s way. These people aren’t running into battlefields with bullets, but they’re running into the most painful emotional environment every day with the hope of fixing a few of them, and that’s pretty special.”

But helping the caregivers wasn’t enough. The Comlys’ experience in the PICU showed them all the issues that families face when medical crises hit.

“We were blessed that we had family here so we had people bringing us clothes and food. The nurses would let us sneak in and use the shower in rooms that were being turned over. But you’re sort of cobbling all this together, and we thought, ‘There’s got to be another way,’” John said. 

To that end, the Comlys have spearheaded the construction of Caroline’s Corner, a dedicated space within Presbyterian Medical Center for families with loved ones in the PICU. When it opens this fall, it will feature soft seating, TVs, work stations, food service, a shower, laundry — everything families need when they can’t go home because their loved ones are fighting for their lives.

“What we really wanted was just a peaceful place that had peaceful colors — to make it warm, comfortable, as much like home as possible,” Ginny said. “I was thinking about a way to make it not feel like a hospital but to make it feel like a place where your mind could take you somewhere peaceful.”

That mission is reflected in the tagline for the space: “Care, comfort and hope.”

“That’s what we view as the ultimate goal because having a child in the PICU is a life experience where there is little, if any, comfort and hope,” John said. “When Caroline died, it became more of a mission that we wanted to do this and to do it in her name. And this can hopefully be part of a number of legacies that she’s able to leave even though she’s not with us.”

Those legacies are taking shape at home, too.

“We always celebrate her birthday. She’s interned at our church, and we’ll go there as a family on Sundays and holidays,” John said. “Her room is no longer a nursery, but it’s a bedroom and sometimes the kids sleep there at night. There’s a garden outside the window of her room that we put together in her honor, and we hang her stocking at Christmas.”

All of that helps keep Caroline’s memory alive and well, just as Caroline’s Corner will when it opens this fall.

“It really has been part of our grief process,” Ginny said. “There is an outlet there that takes a little bit of the tragedy away and helps us create something beautiful and hopeful and comforting.”

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