Coretta Scott King's Four Children Speak of Her Illness, Final Days

The King children -- from left, Dexter, Bernice, Yolanda and Martin Luther III -- gather before speaking to reporters.
The King children -- from left, Dexter, Bernice, Yolanda and Martin Luther III -- gather before speaking to reporters. (By Ric Feld -- Associated Press)
By Darryl Fears and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 6, 2006

ATLANTA, Feb. 5 -- During the months between their mother's stroke and her death last Monday, the children of civil rights legend Coretta Scott King rode an emotional roller coaster of hope and despair -- down when the stroke and a heart attack paralyzed parts of her body, up when she appeared to be recovering, down again when tests for blood clots revealed stage-three ovarian cancer, up when she vowed to fight it, and then a final plunge into mourning when she stopped breathing.

In their first joint interview since that day, the King children -- Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter and Bernice -- spoke openly on Sunday about their mother's final hours. Dexter teared up, saying she died on his birthday, Jan. 30. Bernice spoke of listening to her mother gasp in the dark hospital room they shared. Yolanda expressed shock that the founder of the Mexican hospital where her mother died had been convicted of multiple felonies.

As a group, they suggested for the first time that their mother's cancer may have grown from an ovarian cyst that doctors in Atlanta diagnosed as benign several years ago. The family is awaiting an autopsy report that could help trace the course of the disease.

The family expressed gratitude to the 45,000 people who stood in line for hours to view King's body at the Georgia Capitol on Saturday. The children agreed to speak to reporters at the historic Paschal's Restaurant, where their father, the slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., strategized with other leaders, on the condition that they not be asked about the future of Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The center was built by their mother to carry on their father's legacy, but it has deteriorated so much, according to reports, that Yolanda and Dexter have proposed to sell it to the federal government for $11 million, while Martin and Bernice want to keep it under the family's control.

The cancer diagnosis in mid-November, following a stroke and heart attack in August, "came as a tremendous shock to us," Yolanda said. "Obviously, she had a stroke and she was recovering. She was walking with a cane, more erectly. But she was continuing to have clotting, which led to tests. She shed a few tears and she said, 'Okay, we're going to face this.' "

Coretta King, 78, chose homeopathic treatments to fight her disease, refusing to believe doctors who said it would be life-ending. In her later years, she had become a vegan, abstaining from meat and diary products. Her children said Sunday that they agreed as a family to turn to the Hospital Santa Monica in Playa de Rosarito, a controversial facility that, before it abruptly closed last week, practiced alternative cures.

The owner, Kurt W. Donsbach, a chiropractor who is not licensed to practice medicine, pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion and bringing unapproved drugs into the United States. He admitted to smuggling the medicines and paid more than $150,000 in back taxes. He was sentenced to a year in prison but never served the sentence.

"We were shocked," Yolanda said. "We had done quite a bit of information-gathering. We spoke to people who were extremely ill who had been at the clinic and are here to tell about it. We were stunned. It came highly recommended."

Coretta King arrived at the hospital on Jan. 26. She was extremely sick, so much so, Bernice said, "that I knew in my spirit, in December, that my mother would die, but I never spoke of it."

Bernice, the youngest child, stayed with her, sleeping in the same room, watching with a heavy heart. "She was there only four or five days," she said. Later, Bernice said, "she started transitioning . . . to eternity, Friday night. She was basically resting, coming in and out of her rest, opening her eyes."

An intravenous tube was attached, but, as Bernice put it, "she was rejecting everything."

"She had not started any treatments," although they were scheduled, Bernice said. She corrected reports that put her mother's death at 1 a.m. Tuesday, as a spokeswoman at the U.S. consulate in Tijuana had said. "It was 8:25 p.m. Pacific time Monday. I was actually in the other bed. She was gone before midnight."

The first person Bernice called was Yolanda, the eldest sibling, who was returning from a visit to a chiropractor in Los Angeles. "She told me she stopped breathing," Yolanda said. She pulled to the side of the road, prayed and called Dexter, who also lives in the Los Angeles area.

Dexter, who had been quiet throughout the interview, finally spoke. "It was very difficult for me because it happened on my birthday," he said. Tears filled his eyes.

Later, he said, "The hardest thing is to mourn in public. You think you're all right. You think you're fine. But then a question may be asked and it conjures up emotions."

Martin Luther III said he is comforted by people such as the man at a Walgreens drugstore who handed him $20, even though it appeared he could not afford it, and asked him to buy flowers for his mother.

"Over the last five or six months since her illness, there have been tremendous expressions of love and support . . . in a period that was very challenging for her and for us," he said. "The love . . . has been phenomenal."

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