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Just one month and a few days after learning she had cancer, longtime Chatham educator Karen Heilman — known for her positivity, love of sports and her great hair — died at age 55 on Sept. 9.
Her husband, Thomas “Newt” Heilman II, confirmed the news later that day on Facebook, in a post which would eventually receive hundreds of comments from people sharing memories of and love for Karen.
“And just like that the greatest person I have ever known, my best friend for 30 years, the love of my life, is gone,” Newt wrote. “Remember her big smile, her great hair, her lust for life, and her quest to make the world a better place for others. We were lucky to have her in our lives!”
Karen was — as most people are, but perhaps not as vividly — many things to many people. She was Newt’s wife for 29 years, and mother to Becca and Sara Heilman. She was a daughter to Becky Sbrollini and the late Paul Sbrollini and a sister to Lauren Macaluso. She was an aunt to Abigail and Vincent Macaluso, a friend, a coworker, a mentor and an advocate.
She was a teacher at Chatham County Schools for more than 20 years, after moving to Chatham in 1994, where she was a fierce champion for students and received Chatham Central High School’s 2018 Teacher of the Year award. In 2019, she was promoted to district high school instructional program facilitator, where she was, essentially, a teacher of teachers.
Karen is now also the namesake of the Rotary Club of Pittsboro’s annual scholarship.
She was a positive force to be reckoned with, coworkers said of her, though “not a mush,” her mother emphasized.
“If you knew her well,” Becky said, “Well, you knew.”
Karen was a birthday rememberer, family Disney trip coordinator and “once-a-weeker” phone caller. She gave good gifts, often made her own cards and was “school mom” to many students she met over the years. During the pandemic, she started yoga classes for high school staff on Wednesday mornings to help alleviate heightened stress. And on the way to the emergency room at the end of July, she dropped off files for the AVID program at Chatham Central, said longtime coworker and friend DeLisa Cohen.
That’s just the kind of person Karen was.
Her aggressive cancer diagnosis was a shock to everyone, including Karen. Doctors never figured out exactly what type of cancer she had, but the official cause of death on her death certificate was “Signet Cell carcinoma of the Ovary.” Though in hindsight Karen thought she’d had symptoms for a few months, it wasn’t until the summer she felt worried enough to start really looking into it. A decreased appetite coupled with increased fatigue, cramping and ascites — swelling of the stomach — made her think her symptoms were more than just due to pre-menopause.
Karen went to the emergency room on July 26 at her doctor’s recommendation, where lab tests used to diagnose blood clots suggested she likely had cancer — confirmed by a diagnosis on Aug. 6. She checked into the hospital on Aug. 9 — where she’d stay until she left for hospice.
“And she was gone by Sept. 9,” Newt said. “I mean, it was fast."
A lifelong athlete, the vivacious Karen played basketball for Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. She played adult basketball, softball and volleyball; coached basketball, softball and soccer; taught fitness classes and was an avid cyclist.
Karen and Newt were still riding bikes together when she learned of her diagnosis, biking 15 to 20 miles every ride. They celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary on Aug. 1, while on a final family beach trip — though they didn’t know it at the time. From the hospital, she checked in on work — not because she had to, but because she wanted to — and made sure the people in her life were taken care of.
Becky said her daughter was a lifeline for her during the pandemic — taking her to appointments during Becky’s second bout of cancer in 2020, getting her groceries and “never leaving her out of anything” even when they didn’t physically see each other much. Becky moved to Pittsboro in 2015 with her husband, Paul, to the retirement community Galloway Ridge at Fearrington. One year later, Paul unexpectedly died from a blood clot following complications with hip replacement surgery. It was devastating to Becky, but she had her girls — granddaughters Becca, Sara and Abigail and daughters Lauren and Karen.
“She was very caring of me, which I never really knew how much until COVID,” Becky said. “I’m going to miss it.”
Karen’s sister, Lauren, who was two grades younger than Karen, has fond memories growing up together: playing sports, wearing matching outfits when they were younger, and having their first children 10 days apart — without knowing beforehand that either one was trying to get pregnant.
Lauren lives in New York, so she didn’t see Karen super often. But every year — including this one — they spent at least one trip together, often at Emerald Isle.
“Even though we didn’t constantly see each other, we always knew we had each other’s backs and love for our kids,” she said. “It was really nice to always have that person who you knew, we always put each other and our family first. ...And that’s something I feel extremely proud of, to have grown up with that and experienced that with her throughout our lives.”
For Randa Branson, a junior at UNC-Greensboro, Karen was the person she went to for everything. They met in Randa’s first year of high school, when she needed help with an English paper.
“We hit it off,” Randa said. “She stayed with me from then until my junior year of college.”
As a first-generation college student, the college application process was daunting. Karen got Randa involved in AVID, pushed her to apply and helped her with applications. After she graduated, Karen traveled with Randa the summer of 2019 to give a speech to more than 3,000 educators in Tampa, Florida, about the impact of AVID on her life.
A picture from that trip is now Randa’s phone lockscreen.
Karen also helped move Randa into college her first two years. Since she was in the hospital this year, Karen couldn’t help with move in; still, she reached out to other educators to make sure someone would be there with Randa.
“She was the rock that I sort of built everything around for seven years,” Randa said.
Nearly everyone who knew Karen has a “Karen story.” For Newt, reading hundreds of such tributes from people is bringing him comfort. He was reading a letter to Karen from her college friend and holding her hand right before she died.
“There was a lot of that at the end,” he said. “So many people had so many fond memories of Karen.”
He finds himself often looking at pictures of them together — remembering and seeing how happy she was, how happy they were. And of course, remembering her beautiful smile.
For Becky, hearing all the kind words others offer about Karen has reinforced that others also knew the daughter she knew and loved so much. It’s also shown her that Karen “lived a whole other life” apart from her; as it should be.
For example, after Karen died, Becky and Newt found her dad’s license in her wallet, five years after he died. Becky hadn’t known Karen had the license until then.
“Another thing, we were not a religious family, far from it,” Becky said. “But she said, ‘Well maybe now I’ll see dad, he can use me and he needs me.’ Which wow, we all just ... wow.”
So Karen was many things to many people. But to all the people she knew, Karen was someone they loved, depended on and admired. Now she’s someone they’ll miss, and someone they’ll remember — for her love, her laugh, her smile.
For Becky, there are countless memories with the daughter she knew and loved for 55 years, but the way she wants her to be remembered is simple.
“Like I do,” she said. “As a wonderful, giving woman.”
A celebration of Karen’s life will take place at a later date, tentatively in spring 2022, to coincide with her birthday on March 30. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to a cancer research or education charity.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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