A radio played softly in the intensive care suite where Jessie Thomas lay dying. Her husband and her mother sat at the bedside, holding the unconscious woman's hands and singing spirituals. In the corner, a monitor ticked off the last beats of her heart.

Thomas, the 33-year-old housewife who made medical history last summer by receiving the first artificial spine transplant, died at 1:30 this morning from a bacterial infection that had spread to her brain.

"I could tell by the expression on her face that she just wasn't there," said Jessie's mother, Thomasina Kennedy. "You can imagine how I felt. My baby, my youngest child, she had suffered a lot and she had to fall."

After surgeons performed the historic 17-hour operation last Aug. 31 removing a football-size tumor from her back and replacing part of her spine with a six-inch metal rod, Thomas spent months recuperating in University Hospital. By the end of February she was sent home in a wheelchair, crying with happiness. But on March 26 she was readmitted to the hospital, suffering from a kidney infection.

Jessie Thomas -- who vowed she would someday walk again -- slipped into a coma four days ago and never regained consciousness.

Her surgeon, Dr. Charles C. Edwards, said yesterday that Thomas' kidneys "were in a weakened state so this infection was not as responsive to medication as you would typically expect and led to her rapid decline." But, the doctor added, "even with her illness, the spinal prothesis continued to function."

As she lay dying in the green-curtained hospital room, nurses from every hospital floor came in twos, quietly hugging Jessie's mother and consoling her husband, Ray, pausing over the woman they had helped care for over long months of hope and pain, touching her face, her hands for one last time.

"None of us wanted to let Jessie go," intensive care supervisor Barbara Arnold said yesterday, staring out at the Baltimore harbor skyline, recalling Thomas' last night. "When we realized she was going to die, we continued with her medicine and her monitoring but we started to focus on the family."

Thomas' husband, mother, brother and sister sat in her hospital room, joking and talking with the comatose woman as if she could hear them. The family had been by her side since she returned to the hospital one week ago.

"It was good that she was able to go home -- even for this short time," Edwards said yesterday. "At least she was able to have some time with her family. It saddens me deeply that as much as she went through, she didn't enjoy that life just a little bit longer."

Edwards and a team of surgeons performed two separate operations on Thomas last year, removing a 6-inch wide malignant tumor attached to her spine and four vertebrae. Six weeks later the spinal rod was implanted.

Thomas, who had been paralyzed and confined to a stretcher before the operation, was then able to sit in a wheelchair. She was released from the hospital Feb. 29, and able to move about in her Baltimore home.

"These goals were met," Edwards said yesterday, "even though we lost the war."

Because her kidneys had been damaged by the tumor, catheter tubes were placed in Thomas'urinary tract to drain the kidneys. According to Edwards, Thomas developed a kidney infection that spread through her bloodstream and eventually reached her brain causing memingitis.

"Jessie's been here so ,long, been such a part of the hospital," Barbara Arnold said yesterday. "She was a very sick lady, but she was young and she tried so hard."

Arnold said yesterday that she knew Jessie Thomas would have wanted her daughter Felicia and her husband, Ray, to be with her, "and that she always liked music.

"when Jessie's time came, the family was part of it. They could handle it better. It was really kind of nice to see the family doing so well."

Thomas lay on the hospital bed dressed in a floral nightgown she received from a nurse last Christmas. Around her the family spoke of the good times, of family and friends.

And when the heart monitor began screaming and the scanner line went flat, there were no tears. "Death is the ultimate cure," said Arnold.