By MATTHEW KAUFFMAN, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
5:25 PM EST, March 3, 2013
Kelly Carrignan was just a kid when the movie "Charly" came out, telling the tale of a mentally challenged man who undergoes an experimental operation and becomes a genius.
"I always wished something like that could work for Kimmy," she said, recalling the dream she clung to as a child. "I always felt there was something inside of her that was more than she was able to say."
Kimmy Carrignan — Kelly's older sister by five years — was never able to say much of anything. Starved for oxygen at birth, her mental capacity never progressed the infant stage. Family members called her their "angel," and did their best to deal with the prognosis that Kimmy wouldn't live to see her 18th birthday.
Kimmy, however, was tougher than she looked, Kelly Carrignan said, surviving harrowing seizures and occasional hospital stays and celebrating birthdays well past her 18th.
But in the end, Kelly says, what her sister could not survive was Connecticut's group home system for the developmentally disabled.
"The state basically put her in harm's way, as far as I'm concerned," she said. "To me, that's what killed her."
Kimmy's real name was Cathleen, but her mother called her Kim-Kim and then that became Kimmy, and among close family, that's all she was ever called.
As a child, Kimmy was cared for at the family's home, across the street from a fire station in West Haven, where her father was a fire captain. Kelly remembers EMTs rushing over to the house a few times after Kimmy suffered a seizure.
Those were scary events, and with three other children in the home, caring for Kimmy became overwhelming, Kelly said. She could not bathe or clothe or feed herself. She could eat no solid food. When Kimmy was 8 years old, her parents made the tough decision to send her to a special school in Kent.
"I remember crying because I wanted my sister to come back and live with us," Kelly said. "As a 5- or 6-year-old, I couldn't understand."
Instead, the family would visit frequently, and Kimmy would light up at the sound of a Mylar balloon's crinkling, or the special "heeeee-heeeee" noise her mother would make, that always told her family was there.
At age 18, Kimmy became a ward of the state, first living at a state-run regional center and then being moved, over the family's objections, to the privately run Larchmont Group Home, a four-bedroom ranch house on a quiet street in Stratford.
Kelly quickly sensed that Larchmont was not a good fit for Kimmy.
"You could kind of see it in her," Kelly said. "She had always had a very happy and loving disposition. That kind of changed."
As a child, when Kimmy was nervous, she would jam her entire fist in her mouth, a habit that ultimately distorted her jaw. That wasn't a problem at the state-run facility, Kelly said.
"But two or three years into Larchmont Group Home," she said, "the fist was back in the mouth again."
But none of her misgivings would prepare Kelly for what she would hear in the summer of 2006.
Kelly was at work when she got a call from the group home. "They called me and said: 'You're going to need to get to St. Vincent's Hospital; your sister's been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia.'"
Kimmy, then 49 years old, was unconscious and connected to assorted tubes and wires. Kelly thought it looked like a death bed. The doctors thought so, too.
Kelly was frantic and desperate for answers. Doctors told her that Kimmy had choked on Mucinex cold tablets and that one tablet was found in her lungs and another lodged in her throat.
The explanation made no sense. "She was not supposed to be on any kind of solid food for most of her life," Kelly said. "How does she have a pill lodged in her lung when she's not supposed to have anything solid going down her throat? That was really shocking to me."
But it was far from the most shocking news doctors had to share.
'Hit By A 2x4'
In examining Kimmy, physicians made a disturbing discovery: She was suffering from a vaginal infection so serious, they feared that the child-like woman had been raped. And they worried that she might have contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
This is what Kelly Carrignan learned on the day she thought her sister was dying.
"It absolutely felt like I was hit in the face with a 2x4 when they told me that," Kelly said. "It's just like — how do I even respond to this? What do I say? Who would do that to a person in that condition?"
An AIDS test was ordered. The police were called. And then, after three agonizing days of waiting, doctors concluded that their initial fears were misplaced; Kimmy hadn't been sexually assaulted. But the damage to her skin raised suspicions that her health and personal hygiene had been neglected at the group home, a state investigation found.
The news that her sister at least had not been assaulted offered a glimmer of relief in a nightmarish week. Kimmy was not getting better. Doctors were losing hope. And that led to an agonizing decision.
There were tearful calls to her parents in South Carolina, and an attempt — at least an attempt — to be philosophical and remember that Kimmy had lived longer than anyone had expected, and that they were blessed to have had her for 49 years.
With hope fading, Kelly signed the papers permitting doctors to shut down the machines.
But Kimmy took a breath. And then another. And then another.
Kimmy stabilized, and St. Vincent's prepared to discharge her back to the group home. Kelly would have none of it, and Kimmy was placed in a convalescent home in New Haven to recuperate.
But she didn't. Weeks passed, but "she never really got better from it," Kelly said, "never recuperated."
In late August, a complication put her back in the hospital. Kelly visited, Mylar balloon in hand. But it wasn't her Kimmy lying there.
Days later, in the predawn hours of Aug. 30, 2006, Kimmy took a turn for the worse. By sunup, Kelly had gotten the call.
"I had to be the one to break the news to my parents," she said.
Held Us Together
Employees at the group home gave inconsistent stories to state investigators about what had happened the morning that Kimmy choked on the medicine, a state review found. The staff member listed in medication records as having administered the Mucinex tablets told investigators that he had crushed the pills before they were fed to Kimmy. Told that intact pills had been recovered, he said he didn't specifically recall crushing pills that day, but said that was his practice.
The staff member also told investigators that although his name was on the medication-administration form, he had actually given the tablets to the group home manager that day.
The manager of the home, who had called 911 when Kimmy began gurgling and struggling to breathe, told investigators that she couldn't remember if she was the one who administered the tablets just minutes earlier.
The manager did not attempt CPR, according to state investigators, and records at the group home give no indication that she attempted to clear Kimmy's airway. On the contrary, the manager wrote that "there were no problems or concerns" with Kimmy that morning, and that she had gone off to her day program.
Under questioning, the manager admitted that she had prematurely filled out her end-of-shift paperwork.
Raymond G. Baldwin Jr., president and CEO of St. Vincent's Special Needs Services, which runs the Larchmont Group Home, was not affiliated with the company at the time of Kimmy Carrignan's death. But he said that since being hired in 2010, he has put a renewed focus on training and patient care to improve the safety of residents.
The state Department of Developmental Services substantiated neglect against the group home, a nurse and two staff members and recommended retraining for the workers. No one faced disciplinary action by the state.
Kelly said she never received a copy of the state's investigative report, and learned only recently from a reporter that employees had given conflicting stories about who gave her sister the pills that sent her to the hospital.
But the details are just details. They don't change how Kimmy died. They don't bring her back.
In her Hamden home, Kelly Carrignan wipes a tear and recalls how much her family life was focused on Kimmy. Even as she presented challenges for the family, she was also a rallying point.
"She became the glue that held us together," Kelly said.
Kimmy's ashes are on a bookshelf in her parents' retirement home in South Carolina. Both parents are in their 80s, and when they die, Kimmy will join them in the family's burial vault.
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