Here's another story about Tara Parker...........
Friday, September 12, 2003
An extraordinary life cut far too short
By DUSTIN LONG
THE ROANOKE TIMES
Editor's Note: Staff writer Dustin Long began interviewing Tara Parker, a heart transplant recipient, in July for a story detailing her life. They talked most recently Aug.30 in the family's motor coach at Darlington Raceway, days before her death.
Tara Parker survived heart surgery when she was a newborn, open-heart surgery when she was in elementary, junior high and high school, and a heart transplant two years ago. In July, she and her husband realized a dream when they adopted a baby boy.
Wednesday night, Tara Parker died when a pickup truck - driven by a man police say was drunk - smashed into the back of the limousine she was riding with stepsister Mysti, 24, and half-sister Megan, 16. The gas tank ruptured, causing an explosion. All three died.
Tara, 29, is survived by her husband, Shawn, who is stock-car driver Dale Jarrett's crew chief, and their adopted son, Jagger.
Now, Tara's family and those in NASCAR who knew her are left with memories and many questions.
Why God? Why now? Why do this to a family that had been so supportive, a husband so devoted and a child so young? Why did she endure so many heart surgeries to die this way?
Her life always had been challenging. Tara's first heart surgery came shortly after birth when a doctor noticed something wrong with her heart on an X-ray. Her chest was as big as the surgeon's hand.
She needed open-heart surgery in the fourth grade. Complications forced doctors to operate again.
Still, she often felt tired.
"I remember in school I always dreaded field day because I could not run," Tara said Aug.20 as she sat in her luxurious home, looking tan, trim and as much the former model that she was. "I was just exhausted so much. It got to the point where I had to just get a doctor's note because I couldn't always participate or I would have to sit down and rest."
She needed open-heart surgery in seventh and ninth grades. Signs of her weakening heart were evident in her purple lips and fingernails. After her transplant, she never painted her fingernails.
"I never had pink fingernails before," she said, admiring her fingernails.
Her heart condition never improved. At times, her heart raced to nearly 200 beats a minute or slowed to about 30 beats a minute.
The man who made her heart skip, though, was Shawn. They met at Daytona in February 1997 when Shawn was a mechanic on Rusty Wallace's team and she was working for R.J. Reynolds. She approached him.
"Don't I know you from somewhere?" she asked.
She laughed as she recalled the story and how she relied on a cliche pick-up line.
They went out every night at Daytona. A week after she returned to Greensboro and he to Charlotte, she moved in with him.
They married November 2000 in Charleston, S.C. She has no memory of her wedding day. A theory is that the medicine she took while on a ventilator as she waited for a heart caused the amnesia.
"It's heartbreaking," she said in a slow, soft voice. "It really is. I can look at the video, but I can't remember doing that."
They canceled their honeymoon to Maui because Tara was sick. One day, frustrated, she wrote in her diary, "I don't know what is wrong with me, all I want to do is sleep."
The following spring, her heart worsened and she was hospitalized at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Twice possible hearts were rejected. One had hepatitis; the other came from a smoker. She needed a strong, healthy heart - a young man's heart.
She waited surrounded by family. Shawn flew to Charlotte with the team Sunday night after races and then drove to the hospital. He left the hospital early the next morning, went home to change before going to the race shop. He returned to the hospital after work, repeating the cycle when he wasn't traveling with the team.
Tara's family provided strength when Shawn was gone.
"My mom was my backbone. My Nanny [grandmother] was the one who would baby me. My dad made me laugh no matter what," Tara said Aug.30 while seated in a chair in the family's motor coach and rocking Jagger in his baby seat with her foot.
She received her new heart July 28, 2001, and spent most of the next two months in the hospital. Bedridden so long, Tara was too weak to climb the steps at home. Shawn carried her until her strength returned. That seemed so long ago to Tara, who was used to running up the steps and showed no signs that she was a heart transplant recipient.
As she held Jagger two weeks ago, she talked of her life, her trials and her future.
"People who usually go through something like that, I guess, you would expect them to say, 'Well, I never thought that I'd be here,'" Tara said. "I knew that I would be here. I knew I'd live. I don't know why.
"There were a few times when I told my mom, 'I'm done.' But then again it got to where I just knew that all it would take was getting a heart and God would not put me through all of that to get a heart and die. I don't want to sound cocky. I'm very grateful that I'm here. I'm grateful that I survived the transplant ... and I've made it two years. Every year and every day is a miracle that I'm here.
"I thought, I guess, for the longest time after the transplant that God did this for me. I must be special. Then when I first set eyes on Jagger, I thought God didn't do this for me at all, he did this for this little boy right here so that Jagger could have a life."
And a mom, if only for a few weeks. One day someone will tell Jagger the story of how extraordinary she was.