On the last day of July, Kristie Rubino put the finishing touches on the Dr. Seuss mural she had been painting in her son’s nursery.
For nine months, Brody had been growing inside her. The next day, he would enter a new world. Right from the start, she wanted that world to be Seusslike: colorful and playful, unique and righteous, just like her.
What she couldn’t know was that just as Brody was meeting his new world, she would be leaving it.
At age 35, Rubino was about to become a mother for the first time, and she couldn’t have been happier. She was three years into a great relationship with her fiance, Jeff Wilkins. They’d met over the Internet, and they shared a love for skiing, snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking and the band Phish. They were living together in a house they had bought in the village of Cato.
Early in her pregnancy, she began a baby diary to her infant.
“Your Dad let me pick out all of the fun Dr. Seuss things I want to paint in your room,” she wrote Dec. 9, 2010. “When we went to sleep he had his hand on you to keep you safe.”
She had worked with children most of her adult life in day care and social services. Children loved her. She had a bachelor’s degree in art from Cazenovia College. With her creativity and energy, she designed activities that would bridge the needs and interests of children with varying abilities, said her sister, Koren Rubino, who worked with her at Jowonio, in Syracuse.
Having a baby would also make her a Derby Mom. She’d joined the Assault Cityroller derby team three years before, took the stage name “Raging Ruby” and the number 5 3/4, because she was just over 5 feet tall. She found roughing it up with her derby sisters a joyful connection and an outlet for her energy. In a diary entry just before Christmas, she told her infant that they’d received a gift: a onesie printed with the message, “My Derby Mom can beat up your Soccer Mom.”
She worked full time through her pregnancy at the Huntington Family Center, in Syracuse, where she helped families to get assistance. She stopped skating but took on the role of coordinating home derby bouts — overseeing things as varied as referee scheduling and promotion. She wasn’t one to easily relax.
Her pregnancy had been healthy and uneventful. In the final weeks, her platelet count dropped, and she was eating salads to boost it. On the Thursday before the birth, she became nauseous at work. Heartburn, she thought. But it was bad enough the next day that she drove herself to St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center to check it out. They examined her and sent her home.
Calm, then a turn
On the morning of her scheduled C-section Aug. 1, she awoke Wilkins and made him coffee. She awoke her mother, Nancy Matrafailo, of Jeffersonville, who would ride with them to the hospital. Rubino insisted on driving. They left Cato at 5 a.m.
Her platelet count was low that morning, too — a risk factor for someone receiving an epidural anaesthetic. Rubino wanted an epidural so she could stay awake during surgery. The medical staff decided to give her general anesthesia. She would be unconscious.
Brody was born at 8:59 a.m. Fifteen minutes after his birth, while Rubino’s anesthesia was wearing off. Brody nestled against his father’s bare chest, his first “skin contact” with a parent. Another 15 minutes passed, and Rubino was wheeled in to Wilkins and the baby. She was groggy and in pain. After an hour or so, she tried to nurse.
The medical staff gave her medication for her pain and to lower her blood pressure, which was staying stubbornly high. About 2 p.m., things began to settle down. She nursed again. Wilkins left the hospital to get sandwiches with her sister, Koren.
They returned to an anxious medical staff. Rubino’s blood pressure was climbing. Wilkins dropped his sandwich. The staff couldn’t bring down her blood pressure.
Wilkins held her hand, stroked her face and encouraged her to breathe deeply and slowly to lower her blood pressure. It seemed to help. She seemed calmer. After a night’s rest, medical staff told Wilkins, Rubino should be all right.
She wasn’t. Her calm turned into unresponsiveness. Her doctor ordered a CAT scan.
About 6:30 p.m., the neurosurgeon told the family that Rubino had had a large brain hemorrhage. Nothing would save her.
A rare condition
Why was Rubino’s blood pressure so high?
After Brody’s birth, Rubino’s family first learned about preeclampsia, a hypertensive condition unique to pregnancy and more apt to occur during a first pregnancy.
Preeclampsia and related hypertensive disorders impact 5 to 8 percent of all births in the United States,according to the Preeclampsia Foundation. Signs to watch for are high blood pressure, indications that the kidneys or liver are failing and reduced numbers of red blood cells or platelets, it says. A woman’s condition can go from mild to severe preeclampsia very quickly. One form can severely damage the mother’s liver.
The family won’t say much more about her cause of death. Wilkins said he has not read Rubino’s autopsy report.
In recent years, deaths of mothers during or immediately after childbirth have been increasing in the U.S. In 2008, the maternal mortality rate was 16.7 per 100,000 live births, according to the Lancet, a British medical journal. Thirty-eight countries have lower maternal mortality rates than the U.S.
Rubino had registered as an organ donor. As a teenager, she had received two cornea transplants that corrected her vision. So after her brain hemorrhage, her body was kept on life support as her family began the organ donation process.
About 2 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3, Wilkins learned that Rubino’s liver and kidneys had become too toxic for her to donate internal organs. She donated skin, tissue and bone.
‘Is this real?’
By late Monday, the phone calls, texts and Facebook posts that had spread good news about Brody’s birth early in the day abruptly turned dire.
“It didn’t seem real,” said Becky Firman, president of Assault City, who learned of it in a text message from a teammate. “I started calling everyone to ask, ‘Is this real? Is this a sick joke?’ You think women don’t die in childbirth in this day and age. But she did. It’s just sad. You go from the most joyous moment in someone’s life to the most tragic.”
Rubino’s father, in Davenport, Iowa, on a cross-country motorcycle trip, left his buddies and flew to Syracuse. A cousin flew in from Florida. Friends and relatives came from around the state. Each new arrival at her bedside deepened the grief of those who had been with her from the start.
“It was just a blur,” Wilkins said.
Hospital staff gave Wilkins an overnight birthing suite so he could stay with his son.
Tuesday, friends and family members made their peace with Rubino. In small groups they shuttled through the hospital between Rubino on the third floor and Brody on the fifth.
About noon Wednesday, more than 20 people had gathered in Wilkins’ suite with Brody. They held hands and each shared a story about Rubino or a quality of hers that they loved. They laughed and cried, said Joan Pilonero, a longtime friend of Rubino.
Then the group descended to the third floor. With nurses and a doctor they crowded into Rubino’s room. A chaplain said a prayer. Wilkins held Brody. Hospital staff unplugged Rubino’s ventilator. They turned off her heart monitor. They watched the pulse in her neck fade away.
Team of support
In roller derby’s circus-like atmosphere, it takes a lot to put a damper on things. But at Assault City’s final home bout of the season Aug. 20, there were tears and sniffles for Raging Ruby’s moment of silence. More tears flowed among the 600 or so gathered when the team captain, Grouchy Lady Thug, skated silently around the Greater Baldwinsville Ice Arena carrying Raging Ruby’s jersey.
Assault City’s Battery Brigade blocked and jammed their way to victory over Cortland’s Crown City Rollerz, 176-64. Assault City skaters wore a decal on their cheeks with Raging Ruby’s number.
Rubino’s family and close friends were all there. So was Brody, not quite 3 weeks old, and people gushed over his tiny features.
He seemed unfazed by the heat, the screams and blaring horns. He was oblivious to the helmeted women with their heavy make-up, tight shorts and torn fishnet stockings all mixing it up on roller skates.
Women’s roller derby has a unique tradition. Before a bout, the home team gives the visiting team a gift basket. It holds useful things like aspirin, bandages, granola bars, safety pins, deodorant and candy bars.
That night, which served as a benefit for Brody and his father, the gift gesture was especially generous: enough disposable diapers, baby wipes and formula to fill a small tool shed. Raging Ruby T-shirts were sold, a 50-50 raffle was held and people threw money in a teddy bear bank. They raised close to $3,000.
That kind of goodwill and a large and devoted group of relatives are helping Wilkins through the unexpected burden of life back home.
As he grows, Brody will look up from his cradle at the mural his mother painted, and he’ll see a bright scene from Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax.” It captures a world before it’s polluted and depleted by greed: pink and purple trees, happy flying swans, humming fish, playful Bar-ba-loots.
Rubino painted each wall with a different story. “Green Eggs and Ham” on one, “The Cat in the Hat” on another. She made “The Lorax” the room’s focal point.
Its message: One last seed — planted, nurtured and protected by one little boy — offers the hope of a new beginning after a tragic end.
And it is right there for Brody to see before every dream. It is his gift from his mother.