Pletchers won't ever forget Justess
Larry Pletcher cradled his baby girl Justess in his arms, as his wife Jody and oldest daughter Journie sat on each side of his lap.
They knew the time had come.
Only moments before she took her last breath, Justess opened up her big blue eyes and looked up at her family.
And then she was gone.
Justess, 2, died Tuesday morning, following a nine-month battle with a rare form of leukemia called myelodysplatic syndrome, a disorder in which the bone marrow produces too few red blood cells, white bloods cells and in some cases, platelets.
To the very end, her parents say she was a fighter and defied the odds.
"Even when she could barely move, she surprised everyone when she got up on her knees and sat up," Larry Pletcher said. "She went through so much and her doctors couldn't believe how she kept going."
Justess underwent two bone marrow transplants - in June and December - where doctors used her older sister Journie, 7, as the bone marrow donor.
Despite the perfect match in the sisters' bone marrow, Justess' body rejected each transplant, leaving her doctors at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh looking for a medical miracle to save her life.
After her last transplant Dec. 29, she was released from the hospital Jan. 17 with a grim prognosis.
"But her doctors wouldn't give up and kept trying to do what they could for her," Pletcher said. "We wouldn't give up either."
Even after a hospice aide was called to their Belle Vernon home, Pletcher said Justess' doctors and nurses continued to call and offer support.
As Justess' condition grew worse, Pletcher says he was bracing for what was to come. His wife, however, who is pregnant and expecting their third daughter, could not accept their daughter was dying.
They also had to prepare Journie, a student at St. Sebastian Roman Catholic School, who doted on her baby sister.
Earlier this week, Jody Pletchers' parents from North Dakota came to be with them, which prompted Justess to respond with smiles and she called out their names.
She always was continually giving out "kisses" to her family.
"She just wouldn't stop giving kisses," he said. "It's like she knew something was going to happen."
The night before she died, Larry Pletcher slept next to Justess and will never forget a special moment they shared.
"She just woke up in the middle of the night, looked at me and said, 'love you da-da,'" he said. "I just lost it."
Justess never complained or cried much through her ordeal, except for a few times during her final days when she told her dad that her "heart hurts."
The Pletchers say they will hold onto their final days with Justess and how she blessed their lives for two years.
They will also not forget the support, love and generosity they received from their doctors, nurses, those at the St. Sebastian school, family, friends and the community. They are also grateful to funeral director Shelby Ferguson, who broke traditional standards when he came to the Pletcher home after Justess died in her father's arms.
"My arms were so tight and I was shaking as he took her from me, but he didn't put her on a stretcher or anything, he carried her in his arms and held her in the backseat of the car the whole way back to the funeral home," Pletcher said. "We will never forget how much he has helped us through all of this."
Pletcher knows they have a long road ahead of them and isn't sure how they will get over the devastation of losing their daughter.
They are going to lean on each other, friends, family and counselors to help each other, especially Journie, who left a piece of herself in her sister when she died.
"When Justess died, she still had 13 percent of Journie's blood (from the transplants)," Pletcher said. "Someday she will truly understand what she did for her sister.
"We were blessed to have Justess in our lives and we will never stop loving her or forget her."