Virginia mother who died after wasp sting lived a life worth remembering

Petula Dvorak
Columnist August 4

How can anyone make sense of such a death?

A 32-year-old mother of four was in her Fredericksburg, Va., back yard one day last week. She was stung by a wasp and had an allergic reaction, which triggered a brain aneurysm, and she and her unborn baby died.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Totally heartbreaking and so hard to understand.

Sarah Harkins was, by all accounts, lovely inside and out. She was pregnant with her fifth child, home-schooled the others, made beautiful little clay beads into rosaries that she sold online, ran summer camp activities for other home-schooled kids and even — get ready for this — created homemade toothpaste for her family.

Her fourth child, Faustina, was born with Down syndrome, and Sarah lovingly logged all her children’s accomplishments, delights and milestones on her blog,the Clay Rosary Girl.

“Little Faustina has gotten so big! Still not walking, but that’s ok. I can carry her around for now. She is 15 months old and getting cuter by the second,” she wrote in a blog post this spring. “Of course, the other three kids are getting bigger and smarter and cuter every day too. It’s a lot to keep up with. So many little souls for one mamma to take care of. Thankfully I don’t have to rely on my strength. God’s grace is sufficient for anything.”

Her husband, Eric Harkins, worked for the Secret Service, the agency charged with protecting the president and his family. Sarah’s job was protecting the Harkins family. They lived in a quiet, safe exurb, far from the rat race of the city. In their home-schooled universe, there was no threat of schoolyard violence or even the risk of a crash during the commute to school.

Sarah Harkins believed in natural foods, breast-feeding and a wholesome home. She took care of her family. And then it was all undone by a sting.

“The Agony in the Garden is one of my favorite mysteries of the rosary,” she wrote on her blog last year, alongside pictures of the stunning, tiny clay beads she made depicting Albrecht Drurer’s Praying Hands. “The inner struggle between doing what’s right vs. doing what’s easy is pretty easy for me to relate to — every day.”

But an insect in the garden? How can faith and planning overcome that?

Maybe Sarah Harkins can remind us of how fleeting that gift of life is. We beat ourselves up for not being perfect enough. We sometimes walk around acting as though we have complete control over ourselves and our environments. The truth is that we have very little control over what life, ultimately, hands us.

My 10-year-old son had that epiphany this summer. We were at an amusement park, and he got off the highflying chair-swing ride without his usual wide eyes and giddy adrenaline rush. He was pale and withdrawn, didn’t want to talk.

When he finally opened up to me, it was this: “I looked up at that chain and I realized it could just break. And nothing lasts forever. Nothing. Is. Forever. Mom.”

Yeah, an amusement park existential crisis. But he’s a child. And once we got to the log flume ride, he forgot his angst and went all gonzo in the front row. There is only so much fretting we can do before we stop enjoying the ride.

I thought about this when I heard about Sarah Harkins. As inconsequential as they sound, insect stings can be fatal. An average of 40 Americans who are allergic to bees die after stings every year. Some people know they are allergic and carry an EpiPen just in case. Others don’t know and can die suddenly.

Did Sarah Harkins know she was allergic? Could an EpiPen have saved her?

In her case, it wasn’t just a sting that killed her, but the aneurysm. Undetected aneurysms are like heart attacks. There is rarely a warning that one is about to rupture, and screening for them — possible with an MRI — isn’t even recommended when it’s part of a family’s medical history, according to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Sarah’s death was preventable. It’s about the ride, about the way she lived her life, and realizing that it’s not all in our hands.

To help the Harkins family, go to gofundme.com/c9t0j8 or youcaring.com/memorial-fundraiser/support-fund-for-the-harkins-children/211371.

8To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local