Kelli’s legacy

One year ago, 30-year-old Kelli Richmond lost her battle with stage 3 ovarian cancer. It was a fight she bravely shared with The Advocate’s readers for more than a year as part of her mission to create an awareness about the disease, which typically strikes women 55 or older.

Kelli was only 28 when she was diagnosed and underwent a hysterectomy, resection of her colon and removal of several sections of her intestines at Woman’s Hospital. It was the first of several surgeries and numerous rounds of chemotherapy that landed her as a patient at Woman’s, where she quickly became a favorite among the doctors, nurses and staff with her positive, never-give-up attitude.

Through it all, parents Patsy and Ron Richmond were by their daughter’s side. Now they are continuing her battle.

“It’s been unbelievable grief and sadness,” said Patsy Richmond, tears filling her eyes. “I can’t imagine her not here. I get through it day-by-day … I used to question her becoming an advocate but now I know that was her mission.”

As requested by Kelli, the Richmonds divvied up her life insurance to specific causes. A quarter of it went to the American Lung Association (Kelli had asthma) and was used to sponsor a walk in New Orleans where walkers at the front of the line carried a banner with her name.

Another quarter went to her church, First United Methodist, which took the money and had an altar table specially made by member Bill Grimes in Kelli’s memory for its parish hall. “They invited us to services there and served communion from the table,” said Ron Richmond, emotion catching in his throat.

A fourth also went to Sister Dulce’s Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center, where Kelli visited the nun said to be able to cure others. “We went out there one day and met with Sister Dulce,” said Patsy Richmond. “They wanted to do something special with the money. A few weeks later they sent us a letter that they were using it to create a nature trail for patients in honor of Kelli.”

The final quarter went to Woman’s Hospital and was matched by Kelli’s parents. Shortly after the check was sent, Woman’s Development Director Lynn Weill called with an idea. “We originally were going to dedicate a room to Kelli on the fifth floor, the oncology ward,” said Patsy Richmond, “but then they decided to do a window. It’s the first thing you see when you get off the elevator and there’s these big letters that say ‘Kelli’s Window’ and a plaque that says, “She lived to help others and touched many people in her lifetime. She looked at the world through her own window and she could do anything! Now she is helping God in heaven.”

The Richmonds also got the name of a needy child with cancer from Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge and gave him a donation, as well as to an ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) patient. Kelli was working as the development director of the ALS Association Louisiana-Mississippi Chapter when she was first diagnosed.

Just last week, Ron Richmond filed papers with the secretary of state forming the Kelli Leigh Richmond Ovarian Cancer Foundation. Its first projects will be to hold an ovarian cancer walk in the fall “to raise awareness and to raise money for ovarian cancer patients” and to get Kelli’s Kloset up and running.

Kelli’s Kloset was a project Kelli herself wanted to tackle. It will be a clothing exchange for women whose weight fluctuates as they undergo treatment for cancer. “We’ve already had people volunteer to man the store and donate clothes, so what we need right now is a space,” said Richmond, who will soon set up a website and Facebook page for the foundation.

As expected, the first round of holidays and special occasions were very difficult for the Richmond family. For Ron, it was Father’s Day. Always an early riser, he had to force himself out of bed that morning.

“When I walked out the back door, I said a little prayer asking God to give me a sign,” Ron said. “About two seconds later I heard a cow moo, but I just blew it off.”

Still feeling the hole in his heart, Ron decided instead of waiting for a sign — something for him, he’d do something for Kelli. So, he got busy washing and cleaning out her notoriously dirty car. “I was almost through when I heard this bird singing this beautiful song,” Ron recalled. “I looked up and on top of the garage was this beautiful cardinal just singing away. I said, ‘Thank you, God!’ ”

For Patsy, who still texts her daughter good night every evening, the most difficult day was Kelli’s birthday in January. “That was a big hump,” she confessed, adding that she too has had signs from her daughter.

What made it bearable, indeed what has helped Patsy, Ron and Kelli’s sister, Kristin Stewart, all deal with their grief, was the birth of Sage Kelli Deviller just two days after what would have been Kelli’s 31st birthday. “She’s saved us,” said Patsy, adding that the original due date was Kelli’s birthday.

In fact, just a week before Kelli’s death she asked a mutual friend if Kristin was pregnant. When told no, Kelli objected. “She said, ‘Yes she is; I just know it. Kristin is pregnant,’ ” said Patsy, adding that Kristin had been told she would probably never be able to have children. “She found out she was pregnant with Sage in July. … This is God’s doing.”

“I wouldn’t surprise me if she’d made a deal with God,” said Ron, laughing at the memory of Kelli’s headstrong temperament. “I’ll go but you have to give them someone else to love, so we got Sage.”

As much comfort as Sage has brought into the Richmonds’ lives, so too have the continued comments, phone calls and Facebook postings from Kelli’s friends and others, many complete strangers even to Kelli, whose lives she touched. One of the most touching is the wounded veteran who, contemplating suicide, stumbled across The Advocate’s series of stories online and decided to live after all.

“She had such a sweet spirit,” said Patsy, wiping away tears. “I knew she was special but I never knew just how special. She did more in her 30 years than most of us do in a lifetime.”