Susan Smiddy, a music therapist at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, recorded Anna’s heartbeat in her final days, then recorded a song using parts of Anna’s favorite songs on top of her heartbeat. The family used “Anna’s Heartbeat Song” to create a slideshow with photos and video clips of Anna through the years, and played it at her funeral and celebration of life services.
By Jo Mathis
District News Editor
When the LeFort family moved to Ann Arbor last August just in time for Anna and Alex to begin the year at Forsythe Middle School, their mother, Fran, stayed behind in South Dakota to sell the house and keep working a bit longer.
Anna (pronounced “Ah-na”) and Alex loved Forsythe, where they were in seventh and sixth grades. Anna had fun and made friends on the soccer and synchronized swim teams.
Meanwhile, back in Rapid City, Fran would get the news of yet another unexpected death of an AAPS student.
“I was just so sad for each passing of a student,” she says, sitting in the living room of the family’s rented house on the city’s northwest side. “I was so sad for their family.”
She never imagined that Anna would be the sixth of the seven AAPS students to die during the 2016-17 school year.
“I’m still numb,” she says, staring at a stack of photos of Anna taken over the years. “I go between this really deep almost a physical searing pain that’s almost unbearable … When you think about how beautiful her life was, and all the promise, and the impact she was already making in the world. She could have done anything and been anything.”
It was on Feb. 21 that Fran, along with her father, arrived in Ann Arbor with the last of the family’s belongings in boxes. It was also her birthday, and Anna had a homemade cake waiting for her mother.
But when Fran greeted Anna when she got off the bus, Anna—who had stayed after school for a swim team party— said she wasn’t feeling well. That evening, she couldn’t eat anything.
At the doctor’s office the next morning, an x-ray revealed Anna had pneumonia. A flu swab taken that morning would soon reveal the presence of Influenza Type A.
Anna was sent home with medicine and an appointment for the next day. But by that evening, her parents took her to the E.R., where she was quickly admitted to the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Ten hours later, Anna was put on an ECMO bypass machine for her heart and lungs, and soon after that, was put on dialysis.
From the start, the LeForts were told there would be ups and downs and that they would have to take it moment by moment.
Their hopes at first were high.
Then when it was obvious Anna would miss a lot of school, they thought: She may need a tutor.
As the weeks went on, that thought became: She may have to repeat seventh grade.
But her condition never improved, and Anna remained in a coma until her death on April 5.
“We still have a lot of questions about exactly what happened,” says Fran, noting that her daughter had strep throat in January, but was a healthy, strong girl not prone to sickness. “There are so many what-ifs.”
Michael LeFort had grown up in southeast Michigan, and was looking forward to returning the area after 10 years in South Dakota. A communications manager with Deloitte SP, he is able to work remotely.
“We chose Ann Arbor because of the schools, and heard that health care is really great here as well,” says Fran, a former newspaper reporter who worked in communications at a university in Rapid City before moving to Ann Arbor.
The LeFort children were adopted from Russia at the ages of 2 (Anna) and 1 (Alex), and were very close.
“I’m her brother, so she was always nice to me, but sometimes we fought,” says Alex, who’ll be in seventh grade in September. “Here (at school), I always saw her with her friends, smiling and stuff and sometimes helping people.”
He said he misses her simply “being around.”
“It’s good that people will remember her,” he says, “and be nicer.”
His mother says Alex misses her, and is able to talk about her.
“He’s handling it in a healthy way, whatever that means,” she says. “He’s able to be a 12-year-old boy, and maintain his interests in his baseball team and his friends.”
The Anna LeFort Kindness Award
Anna had signed up to become a mentor for her peers with disabilities next year and was looking forward to becoming a WEB (Where Everybody Belongs) leader to help younger classmates.
“That was so in line with what she’s always done,” says Fran. “ She was just perfect. She was an honor student. She was so kind. She was giving and caring. And those aren’t just words.”
The day after Anna’s death, Forsythe Principal Jerry Morrissey called Michael LeFort to ask what he could do to help.
Michael recalls: “The only thing I could think of was, `Let’s do something positive.’ I wasn’t thinking of the funeral. I wasn’t thinking of the sadness. I wanted to do something proactive.”
“I said, `We need to start an award for her, and celebrate the kindness she had and the service to others she showed.’ He immediately said yes. He’s been extremely helpful and supportive through all this. He’s bent over backward. We couldn’t have asked for a better principal or a better school to work with through all this.”
So the Anna LeFort Kindness Award was created to honor Anna’s giving spirit by recognizing three Forsythe students (one in each grade) who show similar compassion and kindness.
Staff and parents nominated 24 students for the award.
The top finalists are sixth grader Alex Enrique Shakespeare; seventh grader Sophie Schrag and eighth grader Geneve Thomas-Palmer.
Geneve didn’t know Anna but felt she did after watching the slide show about her life.
“It gave her a personality and made me feel more connected to her,” said Geneve. “It made me feel like this could happen to me, or people close to me. I was close to tears and it made me real, real sad. I’m just glad there is this award to keep her memory alive.”
She says kindness is greatly underrated.
“Academics and sports are usually the most important pillars of our society,” says Geneve. “But kindness is the most important thing because no one is going to remember you because you got on the honor roll or got all A’s. They’re going to remember that one person who smiled at them in the hallway or held the door open for them while they were exiting the cafeteria.”
Sixth grader Alex thinks the Kindness Award in Anna’s name is a great idea.
“I imagine the importance (of kindness) as a triangle,” he says. “The two things you can see are academics and sports. But it’s held up by kindness.”
Michael says he hopes the award named for his daughter makes a difference.
“Families who go through this worry that their child’s memory is going to get lost over time,” he says. “This hopefully ensures that her memory at least in this school district, at least in this school, won’t be forgotten, and perhaps will help impact others. That’s the biggest blessing a family can have—that the loss not be for naught.”
Anna would have continued to help others, he says.
“So perhaps this will impact more lives,” he says, noting that perhaps more Forsythe students will volunteer, or consider more ways to be of service. “That’s what I hope for the award. It helps me personally get through each day more. It’s something positive instead of dwelling on the negative, which is the loss.”
Principal Morrissey said Anna’s death continues to be emotional, but the Kindness Award is something beautiful to come of it.
“The beauty that’s come from her life, and the ability to recognize what the kids are doing for other kids is the beautiful part of it,” he says. “We have kids that are really serving others. Anytime we can have that shine, it’s a model for other students.”
He said the award will be not only a lasting legacy but an inspiration to other students.
“It’s something every school needs,” he says. “I’ve told kids that to me, how you treat people and how you carry yourselves is more important than any test grade you’re going to get. How we treat others is a foundation for a good student, a good citizen, a good family member. We’re really honored to be able to celebrate Anna’s life by holding up kids that really model what she was all about.”