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Her heart knew no bounds

Published March 20, 2007


Flowers brightened the trays of their wheelchairs and, one by one, they placed them on a table at the front of the room - in memory of Jenny.

More than 100 people showed up for the service last Saturday at the Angelus in Hudson, where Jenny had devoted so much of her time and energy to the profoundly handicapped residents.

They wanted to return the love.

The flowers had little cut-out butterflies on them. Jenny McCoy loved butterflies and had kept a garden for them in the back of her house in Lutz. When it got real cold, she'd take the butterfly larvae and put them in an incubator, just so they'd be safe. Jenny was like that, the protector of all things alive.

Jenny's work as a social worker could be heartbreaking and frustrating. But when asked why she did it, this was her reply:

"Everybody deserves quality of life."

In 1993, she opened a business in Land O'Lakes, Individual and Family Options, which supports the disabled and their families. Her family isn't exactly sure why she chose this path. She didn't have one of the normal ties - a handicapped sibling or child, or a pivotal moment growing up. To her, it was just the right thing to do.

"She was good to me," Jeff Tingley said softly. He's a 52-year-old handicapped man. Jenny helped him get into his own home, where he has assistance. He prayed for her during her illness. Now he prays for her family every night.

It made Jenny furious when disabled people and their families could not get services they needed because of government red tape. But she knew how to cut it. Her clients say that if they needed something and Jenny couldn't get it, then it couldn't be done.

"She made paperwork sing and dance," said Anne Chavez, whose daughter, Beth McDonald, was a client of Jenny's for 10 years. "She knew how to overcome bureaucracy, and she did it with such loving care."

Jenny, who was 60, died on Feb. 24 from complications after a lung transplant. Her loss shook not only her family but the entire local disabled community.

"Who is going to take care of me now?" John Roth asked his mother, Kathy Eriksen, when they found out Jenny died. John is 21 and has cerebral palsy. Jenny helped place him at the Angelus when Kathy battled breast cancer a few years ago. Who, Kathy wondered, would care for her son if she died?

When Kathy went through chemotherapy and radiation, Jenny eased her worry. This was normal for Jenny. She visited and called all of her clients regularly. Nights. Weekends.

Ten years ago, Jenny was diagnosed with Alpha-1, a rare and terminal disease of the lungs. She told a few people but waited years to tell her daughter, Jessica, and son, Todd. She didn't want people to worry about her. She just powered through her symptoms - shortness of breath, wheezing, fatigue - with her usual spunk and drive.

But a few years ago, her symptoms worsened. She still went to work every day, but had to rest at her desk after walking the few steps from her car. An oxygen tank was always nearby.

She was put on a transplant list and carried a beeper, hoping the call would come before it was too late. She didn't complain. Most people didn't realize the extent of her illness.

Mac knew. They were married for 37 years. Both were from West Virginia. She was a coal miner's daughter, a girl who loved nature and being in the countryside.

They met at the University of West Virginia, where she studied recreational therapy. She was athletic, a member of the synchronized swimming team. Lithe, healthy body, shiny dark hair, huge, toothy smile.

Mac remembers the instant he fell in love with her. He can't remember the date. Just the moment. They were driving and pulled over to a scenic outlook at Hawk's Nest in West Virginia.

Jenny walked in front of him and she turned and flashed him that smile, and he felt like his legs were made of stone. He couldn't talk. "No," his mind said. "I'm not supposed to get serious. I'm not getting serious with anyone until I'm 30. No."

But then she laughed. And he knew it was over. She was it.

"It took her another six months to decide whether or not she wanted to reel me in," Mac said at the memorial service. "And it took her another six months to get over how ugly I was."

They married after graduation and moved to Florida, where Jenny's mother lived. They got a trailer in Hudson, then a little while later, a house in Lutz. They never bought another one.

He cared for her, making her meals, carrying her oxygen tank when she was too weak to drag it herself. He'd get up every night to check on her.

Sometimes she'd be awake, and they'd sit in the kitchen at 2 or 3 a.m. and just talk for a long time.

The transplant beeper went off on Feb. 2. They had three hours to get from Land O'Lakes to Shands HealthCare in Gainesville and be ready for surgery. The first lung didn't work. So she had a second transplant. But then she got pneumonia. Mac rarely left her side.

Their daughter, Jessica, 26, said she and her mother never had one of those discussions where they tell each other everything unsaid, because there wasn't anything to say.

Jenny told people she loved them, how much they meant to her, how they touched her life, as a daily thing, not just when facing mortality.

Jenny was cremated and Mac had some of her ashes put into a silver cross, which he wears around his neck on a thin chain.

This summer, he's going to take the rest of her ashes to that outlook at Hawk's Nest, where his heart became hers, and release them over the edge.

Life Stories is an occasional feature taken from Pasco obituaries. Erin Sullivan can be reached at or 813 909-4609.

[Last modified March 20, 2007, 01:01:08]

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