'It's killing me because she was so innocent' - Family's heartbreak as Irish student dies after sudden stroke in US
A young Irish student suffered a sudden stroke on her first ever holiday alone that tragically left her brain dead within hours, her heartbroken family said today.
Kildare-native Rachel Fitzgerald (20) was enjoying her first taste of independence while holidaying with friends in Orlando, Florida when she began to feel sick.
Having only been in the United States less than a week, the 20-year-old Carlow IT student suffered a stroke which left two fatal blood clots in her brain last Tuesday.
“It all happened so fast… within two hours, the damage was done, and she was gone – the doctors pronounced her medically brain dead just after she arrived in the hospital,” said Rachel’s devastated older brother, Ciaran Fitzgerald (26).
“It’s just been so hard to deal with because of the speed. She had only been there four or five days… and everything seemed to be going good.
“On the day it happened I actually got a Snapchat from her. Everything is fine, then you wake up the next morning and you get the message that something is wrong.
“You just can’t make sense of it – that everything was good one moment and the next…
“I still can’t get my head around it, it doesn’t feel like she's gone.”
Rachel was at Universal Studios when she started to feel unwell. Brushing off the nausea as sun stroke, the young Kildare woman continued touring the popular tourist spot until she started having headaches.
“One of her friends did the right thing and took her to hospital. They thought they would be in and out in a few hours but then Rachel started feeling nausea again while in the waiting room… it was only then when a doctor was examining her that she started slurring her speech,” Ciaran said.
“The doctors rushed to remove the clots with blood thinners but it didn’t work because the damage was too bad.
“They thought about operating but it was too late, she was too far gone. There was no brain activity.
“That's one of the things that’s been so though, just how fast it came on.
“No one has an explanation for it. A few things have been mentioned, like the long haul flight, but the doctors haven’t been able to find an answer yet.”
Rachel’s brother said the young student had had no known previous medical condition, adding that she did not drink, or ever take drugs.
“She was just an all-round good family girl.
“This was her first time going on holidays with her friends; her first ever trip without her parents, she was very nervous but really excited too.
“Like I said, she is a very quiet girl, family- oriented; she loved nothing better than coming home from college and spending time with us.
“That’s what’s absolutely killing me – she was so innocent, she never did a thing wrong in her life.”
Ciaran described how a Garda called at the family’s door last Wednesday to tell them that something had happened to Rachel.
Boarding the first flight they could get, Rachel’s parents Emmett Fitzgerald and Olivia Flood and brothers Emmett (24) and Billy (19), flew out alongside Ciaran to New York City so they could grab a connecting flight to Florida.
“We didn’t know how serious it was until we landed in [JFK], we phone the hospital straight away and they told us the Rachel was ‘medically brain dead’ and that there was nothing more anyone could do.
“We just wanted to get over there as fast as we could.”
Over the next three days, the family were given time to say their good-byes. Praising the support given to them by hospital staff at Orlando Regional Medical Centre, older brother Ciaran said he and his parents “would never forget what they did for us”.
“The staff in the hospital were absolutely amazing; I’ll never forget how they treated us. To see the doctors and the nurses care so much… they were crying with us.
“Whenever we had to walk out of the room for a few minutes, they would hold her hand when Rachel needed tests done until we got back.”
Ciaran and his family are currently staying in the Hubbard House, a charity accommodation fully funded by staff at the hospital where Rachel was being treated, and offered special praise for those who have been helping to look after the family’s needs so they could focus on Rachel.
“We’d like to thank them all, especially Peggy who runs the house, she is a very kind hearted lady.”
Ciaran added: “Rachel’s lungs and heart were unfortunately too damaged by the clots to be given to someone else, so they will be coming home with the rest of her remains later in the week.
“But all her other organs have been donated. Her liver has already gone to someone else, so to me she’s a hero. It’s exactly what she would have wanted.”
Friends of the Kildare student have launched a campaign to ask her favourite band Paramore to pay tribute to her on stage.
“Rachel was actually over the in US for a cruise with the band, she loved them so much,” Ciaran said.
“We’ve been really be touched by the gesture from her friends and I know it would mean so much to Rachel, whose looking down from heaven now, if the band recognised her.”
Rachel’s friends and many Irish Paramore fans have been using the hashtag #spreadyourwings on Twitter to reach out to the US rock band.