Adopting sisters while not forgetting the one they lost

Black Mountain News

Last Wednesday, Charlie and Beth Russell and their troop of children were bouncing around on the couch, reading, talking and laughing before getting going out to eat.

It was a happy time, there in the living room cluttered with the books, games and other things that families with children have around. But the Russells are different than most. They have more of and less than what most families have.

Three years ago, they lost their six-year-old daughter Emilee, to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. The loss was devastating but one the Black Mountain couple has used to make people aware of the sickness.

Emilee, who like her twin brother Bubba was born prematurely, can never be replaced, Charlie Russell said in a recent interview. But in August, he and his wife adopted Jocelyn, 9, and Caroline, 6. The sisters, whose previous life in Mitchell County was troubled, fill the Russells’ house with their rambunctiousness and high energy, squabbling and playing with Bubba as siblings do, their father proudly said.

“I think we’re helping each other heal,” Charlie, a Black Mountain Fire Department battalion chief, said. “We’re growing through the process together. We’ve both experienced loss in different ways. Each day we grow closer and experience life as a family. I can’t image life without them, any more than I can imagine a life without Emilee.”

Emilee had been playing outside on Memorial Day 2013 when Charlie noticed a tick on her neck. He tweezed it out and ensured that he’d gotten all of it. Five days later, Emilee appeared to have the flu. Their doctor said it didn’t appear to be a result of the tick, though the symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever mimic the flu. She did, however, have strep, the doctor said. He prescribed antibiotics.

The family was getting ready to visit Beth’s family in Texas. The doctor said she should be better by the time they arrived, but Emilee was worse. Beth's sister-in-law, a pediatric nurse practitioner, ran some blood tests and told her parents to take her to the emergency room. The hospital, in Longview, Texas, ran some more tests and diagnosed Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Doctors there said she needed to be in a pediatric ICU unit; the doctor recommended one at Louisiana State University’s hospital.

Emilee was in severe muscle and joint pain. Her heart had stopped, then been restarted. She was unresponsive by the time she got to the LSU medical center. Three days later, on June 12, she was declared brain dead. Her parents took her off life support.

“We asked them to bring a couch into her room,” Charlie said. “We just held her until she passed. It was the most heartbreaking thing that any parent goes through.”

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a serious illness that can be fatal within days if proper treatment isn’t applied, according to the research the Russells have done. Fever, rash, nausea, muscle pain are some of the symptoms, but if caught in time, they and the illness go away. Charlie said North Carolina leads the nation in deaths due to the illness, with numbers that greatly exceed Louisiana, second among RMSF deaths.

Stunned, Charlie and Beth met with a child services counselor at the hospital to get advice about telling Bubba, named that by Emilee because she couldn’t say “brother.” Being people of faith, the Russells told him that God decided the best way to treat his sister was to call her back to him.

And then commenced a very long year. Charlie and Beth decided they wanted to adopt.

“As to the adoption process, Charlie was praying for a sister,” Beth said. A certified nursing assistant that Charlie used to work with messaged Beth, an obstetric nurse, in December 2014, more than a year after Emilee’s death. She told Beth that her sister, a placement coordinator for DSS in Mitchell County, had asked about the Russells, who she’d been praying for.

Told that Bubba wanted a sister and the Russells wanted to adopt, “she started to cry and said, ‘This has to be God!’” Beth said. “She told her about two little girls that their mom had signed over rights the week before.”

The Russells met the girls two months later and, having taken the necessary classes, started taking care of them on weekends to give their foster parents a break. In summer 2015, the court allowed them to take the girls to Texas to visit Beth’s family. They began spending more and more time together.

“The girls didn’t know we intended to adopt,” Charlie said. “Before school started (last fall), we asked the girls would it be OK if we made them a permanent part of our family. They were so excited. Bubba just immediately accepted the girls as family. They are just so close.”

The adoption was official on Aug. 29.

“During that one and a half years, we were adjusting,” Charlie said. “But we always knew that we wanted to adopt. The community has been awesome – so many people have reached out with prayers and fundraisers and love. “

Every now and then, Charlie and the family walks down Emilee’s Walk, a portion of the Black Mountain Greenway that is behind Black Mountain Primary School. “It’s a quiet time to remember,” he said of his walks. “We tell funny stories to remember.”

Every Dec. 1 – Emilee’s birthday - someone ties balloons to the entrance to Emilee’s Walk. Charlie has no idea who it is.

“It’s not easy,” he said of the past couple of years the family has been through. “You’re dealing with a roller coaster of emotions. But it all works out in the end. It’s good.”