Why she died a puzzle

Published May 19, 2007

TAMPA - In her last moments of consciousness, Caroline Wiren touched her newborn son's head.

Turning to her mother, she said, "Tell the baby I love him."

An autopsy performed Friday didn't immediately solve the mystery of what killed the former Buccaneers cheerleader, an energetic and determined University of South Florida dance coach married to longtime Tampa Bay Storm arena football player Nyle Wiren.

Days after her death, students shared their grief online. A former coach remembered the University of Mississippi student who showed such promise of leadership.

And the Storm game Friday night opened with a moment of silence in her memory, with players from both teams wearing heart-shaped stickers on their football helmets in a show of support for the father learning at once to be both mom and dad.

Just 34 years old, Caroline Wiren died Wednesday at St. Joseph's Women's Hospital after giving birth to a healthy boy. Clay, 9 pounds, 3 ounces, the couple's only child, remained in the hospital Friday afternoon.

"He's doing great, " said Caroline Wiren's older brother, Chris Still.

The unexpected death stunned family and friends, particularly because she seemed an active and healthy woman, a perfect candidate for motherhood.

"Having a child was the pinnacle of what she wanted to do, " said Still, 38, an Alabama lawyer.

She and her husband spent months preparing for their baby's arrival. The petite, 5-foot-4-inch expectant mother had regular visits to a doctor. She carefully watched her diet. The couple decorated the nursery in toy trains and cars.

Clay was due May 8. When he still hadn't arrived, the Wirens scheduled an induced birth for May 15. The night before, Still spoke with his sister and told her the family couldn't wait to welcome Clay.

The next afternoon, she gave birth. Her mother, Jean Still, a retired teacher from Oxford, Miss., was with her.

Caroline Wiren was conscious after the birth, but it became clear immediately that something had gone wrong. She went into surgery, then an intensive care unit.

The next morning, she died.

Her relatives, who live in Mississippi and Alabama, had already booked airplane flights to meet the newest addition to the family. Now, they came in sorrow.

They still don't understand what happened. Even Caroline Wiren's mother, who was in the delivery room, doesn't know, her son said.

"Things have been so crazy, you know, " Still said. "It's hard for my mother to recall."

More tests

The family had hoped for clarity from an autopsy, but it didn't immediately provide answers. More tests must be done, said medical examiner's spokesman Dick Bailey.

The hospital plans to review the case to see if anything could have been done, said hospital spokeswoman Lisa Patterson.

"We're certainly looking into every step of the process, " she said. "It was devastating, absolutely devastating."

On Friday, the couple's relatives joined together at their Carrollwood home. They offered support to Nyle Wiren, who is dealing with the daunting process of being a father and a widower at the same time.

The same day that Caroline Wiren died, he fed his newborn for the first time. Later, he discussed the experience with best friend Shane Stafford, and even through the grief, the excitement was evident from his voice.

"Man, it's pretty cool, " Nyle Wiren told Stafford, his teammate from 2001-02 and 2004-06.

"Coming from anybody else, it would have sounded like he was downplaying it, but coming from him, I knew it meant he was pretty ... excited, " Stafford said.

The women coached by Caroline Wiren on USF's dance team, the SunDolls, remembered their coach as adviser on more than dance steps.

"She was our mom, " said Leah Evans, 22, who spent four years as a SunDoll.

'Great role model'

Sydney Lidstone, 20, one of the team's co-captains, found it especially hard Thursday evening when preparing to send out information about the SunDolls' annual summer dance camp. She had to go through each application and draw a line through Caroline Wiren's name and number as the contact.

"It's been tough, " Lidstone said. "Caroline, to me, was the embodiment of what a woman was. She was the rock of our team, and she was a great role model."

Tiffany Blevins, 19, just finished her first year on the team. She cried when talking about the impact her coach had on her life.

"She told me how much she believed in me, " Blevins said.

Raised in Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi, Caroline Wiren bounced back from a childhood leg problem to become a strong athlete.

In college she had been captain of the school's dance team, the Rebelettes. Her former coach, Cheryl Cannon, remembered her as a stand-out member of the team.

"Caroline was extremely energetic and a very good leader, " Cannon said.

After college, Caroline Wiren danced at Disney World. She donned masks to play cartoon characters Chip and Dale.

She returned to Mississippi to earn a master's degree in education, then moved to St. Petersburg to teach at a private school.

She left teaching to work at a publishing company, where her ambition and determination brought her financial success, her family said. And she cheered with the Bucs for two seasons and worked with the Storm's dance team.

A love of athletics

She met her husband through mutual friends. In 2002, the couple married in Key West. They shared a love of athletics and devotion to others.

Nyle Wiren spends his spare time at the Children's Cancer Center in Tampa, where he was awarded volunteer of the year for the time and dedication he gave to families dealing with cancer.

The news of the death stunned the cancer center community, said Mary Ann Massolio, the center's executive director.

"Nyle's always the one helping us, and now we're trying to help him, " she said.

Caroline Wiren will be buried in Oxford, her brother said.

The funeral will be held May 26 at 11 a.m. at the College Hill Presbyterian Church in Oxford.

Her sister, Cathy Johnson, said it's been wonderful to see the community's support, a testament to her sister's work.

Tucked inside Caroline Wiren's wallet, Johnson found a fortune cookie note that summed up her sister's philosophy: "No matter the job big or small, do it right or not at all."

Times staff writer Kevin Graham and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 813-226-3373.

Fast Facts:

How to help

The family has established the Clay Christian Wiren Irrevocable Trust.

Those who want to make a contribution to the trust can do so by sending it to:

The Clay Christian Wiren Irrevocable Trust c/o Bruce L. Gordon, Esq.

600 University Park Place, Suite 100

Birmingham, AL 35209