Between life and death
That could have been all that separated Ellen Carroll on June 24 from her dying daughter for more than three hours.
But the mother may never know how long her 24-year-old daughter Sarena was alive. The mother may never know how long her daughter was dead before she was told the grave news.
But each day she demands answers; those may never come, either.
“I've talked with a number of doctors, health care professionals. I'm trying to find out how or why this could happen? No one can come up with a reason,” Ellen Carroll said. “… They're saying this is the most horrible story they've probably ever heard.”
The worst call
Ellen Carroll writes three letters a day and sends them to anyone she believes can help her find answers – doctors, nurses, media – to why she couldn't see her daughter prior to her untimely death.
So far, those that do have answers have not responded.
Ellen Carroll arrived at Inova Lansdowne after receiving the worst call of her life on June 24.
Sarena Carroll's live-in boyfriend, Ben, informed her mother that her daughter, while serving house arrest inside her Ashburn apartment for larceny, had been found unconscious, clinging to life by a Loudoun County Sheriff's Office correctional deputy.
The deputy, who got into the apartment after obtaining a key from the property manager, found Sarena at about 1 p.m. By 1:30 p.m., she was at Inova's emergency room, according to a Loudoun Sheriff's Office spokesperson.
Too distraught to drive, Ellen Carroll and Sarena's sister, Elianne, relied on a Great Falls fireman to drive them to Lansdowne.
But the time that Sarena Carroll's family arrived – and stayed – at the hospital is a bone of contention between the mother, the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office and Inova officials.
County detectives say they were never told by the hospital's staff that Ellen Carroll was in a waiting room.
Inova officials, forbidden by privacy laws, could only say that because Sarena was serving house arrest, it was deputies' responsibility to inform the family of her condition.
“In some circumstances ... local law enforcement takes direct control and supervision of access to patients. That was the case in this situation,” said Tony Raker, Inova Health Systems public relations and crisis communications manager.
A long wait
Ellen Carroll says she sat in three different waiting rooms at Inova Lansdowne, begging staff to tell her the condition of her daughter, to let her see her daughter. She's adamant on the details of that ill-fated day.
“Nothing. Nothing. I was ignored,” Ellen Carroll said. “When I first got to the hospital, they didn't even have a record of her … I said 'She may be dying, you've got to find her.'”
Two hours after Sarena arrived at the hospital, at 3:30 p.m., an emergency room doctor told Loudoun deputies that Sarena was alive, but in critical condition and being moved to the intensive care unit, a Loudoun Sheriff's Office spokesperson said.
At 5:01 p.m., Sarena Carroll was pronounced dead. The cause of her death has not been determined by the Office of the Medical Examiner.
Ellen Carroll said her daughter had suffered a seizure months prior to her death during an MRI exam.
Loudoun detectives say they didn't find out that Sarena's mother was at the hospital until after her daughter's body had been taken to the morgue. Sarena's young age and undetermined cause of death warranted her body to be given to the medical examiner for an autopsy, they said.
Detectives also said once Sarena's body was turned over for an autopsy, the case and the responsibility became that of the medical examiner.
The autopsy is another distressing point for the mother. Sarena was an organ donor, and Ellen Carroll believes had she been consulted, her daughter could have saved countless lives.
“We would have donated anything and everything,” she said. “[Sarena] wanted to.”
Loudoun detectives say Ellen Carroll arrived at the hospital after her daughter's death. They said only after they were contacted by an attorney did they know Ellen Carroll wanted to see her daughter.
Out of respect for the family, a detective said he called the medical examiner with the request. After all, he said, Sarena Carroll's boyfriend, who was her emergency contact, had been allowed to see her while she was in the hospital; he believed the same right should be afforded the mother.
But Ellen Carroll remembers a different version of events.
After contacting an attorney to get access to her daughter, the mother said an intensive care nurse sneaked into a waiting room to tell her the news.
“She said 'I know you want to see her. But she's in a body bag and she's blue,'” Ellen Carroll said.
The mother said she had prior contact with an Inova doctor before finding out of her daughter's death.
“He came in and he starts talking and I said 'I know you what you're probably going to say is very important and I'm going to want to know it, but right now I want to see my daughter. I don't even know if she's here or not,'” she said. “... He gets up and leaves and I never see him again. I don't know who he is,” she said.
Ellen Carroll said the only contact she's had with the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office was an hour after arriving at the hospital, when a deputy told her Sarena was serving house arrest.
“All I wanted to do was hold her hand. I brought her into the world, but the next time I got to see her was at the funeral home ...” Ellen Carroll said.
Ellen Carroll knows she can't make the events of June 24 any better. But, she says, she continues to move forward for others.
“I'm doing this for other people, for other mothers that this may have happened to in the past, so that it doesn't happen again,” Ellen Carroll said. “That's really what's bolstered me on … I have a purpose now.”
Still, each day the mother plays over the events in her head.
“Now, I'm so upset with myself that I didn't just bust down doors. I have that guilt …,” she said.
Ellen Carroll misses her having her daughter's vivacious spirit to get her through each day.
“We called her 'Winkemos' because she absolutely twinkled from the inside out,” she said.
A fashion guru and artist, Sarena loved the color purple, and dressing her mother each day with the latest designers.
“I didn't know about fashion until Serena became a teenager. She dressed me. I would take pictures of clothing or shoes before I bought them and sent them to her to see if she liked them,” she said.
Born at the Carroll home in Los Angeles, Calif., Serena later went on to graduate from The New School in Fairfax. Ellen Carroll homeschooled her daughter on and off prior to high school.
When Sarena wasn't creating art, she was teaching yoga alongside her mother, who founded the Great Falls Yoga Institute.
“She was just into so much,” Ellen Carroll said.