Two High Achievers

Kim (left) and Lisa

Kim Tracy Prince: 44, married, 2 children, from Los Angeles, freelance writer

Best friend of 22 years: Lisa Kelly, neonatologist, died ... pulmonary embolism in 2011 at age 40

“If you have a best friend and you just want to express the feelings of having a best friend, I’d say simply – celebrate it. The one thing that I am very proud of is that Lisa knew how much I loved her and I knew how much she loved me.”

How did you meet?

Lisa and I met the very first day of college during freshman orientation at Notre Dame. We were 17.  She was outgoing, friendly and a little kooky. I grew up in Connecticut, and I had never been anywhere really, so her being from the Los Angeles area was kind of exotic to me. We were both high-achieving Irish Catholic girls and we were both pre-med. The two of us, along with a group of girls from our dorm, stayed friends all through college.

After college, Lisa went to medical school and I went back to Connecticut to live with my parents. Instead of going to medical school, I became a writer. A few years later, I moved out to Los Angeles. Lisa was at USC Medical School and we got an apartment in Pasadena. I got a job at an insurance company and we lived together for about a year and a half and then she went off to do her residency in Washington D.C. She became a neonatologist and never married or had children. When she went to DC, I stayed in LA. Then she moved to Chicago. We stayed in touch by phone and letters, and eventually email. We went to our 10-year Notre Dame reunion together. When I got married in 2002, her parents came too, because I was pretty close with them. Around 2003 she moved back to Los Angeles because she got a job at Children’s Hospital.

What was the friendship like?

Lisa was my confidant. She was open, non-judgmental. I just trusted her and could be completely myself around her. I played a similar role for her. I know some secrets about her that nobody else knows still to this day. We were able to bring the stresses of our lives to each other and have them melt away. She helped me put my life in perspective. I worked at E! Entertainment Television for a while and, as we do, I got stressed out about my job, and I would tell her about my day and be all bitchy and moany about what celebrity wouldn’t grant an interview and she would be like, “Well, babies died today in my job,” and then I would shut up.

She was very fit, especially at the end of her life. She had gone through cancer and after she got through it, she did Iron Man competitions and century bike races. She was obsessed with working out and eating well, to the point where she would bring her own salad dressing to places or eat her own food before we went out to eat. I used to tease her about it because it got annoying after a while. I hate working out — though we did like to hike together.

Describe how the friendship ended.

In the fall of  2007, they found a tumor on a nerve on her ankle. She called me after she found out that it was malignant — she was on her way to have dinner with her parents to tell them — and she was falling apart. She pulled over to tell me. She needed to get it out of her system first before she told her parents, because she didn’t want to fall apart in front of them.

There was a period when she thought she was going to have to have her foot amputated. But she ended up at Sloan Kettering where they did a less invasive surgery. She lived in the medical hotel that was next door, and I went to see her in New York and wheeled her around the city on the coldest day of January. I dressed her wound, which was disgusting, even for somebody who wanted to go to medical school. I was like, “Oh! This validates my life choice right here.” We were the kind of friends who could sleep in the same bed and travel together and say anything to each other. But we were always kind. If frustrations ever got to a certain level, we were able to work it out.

Before the cancer she had not been kind to her body, devoting herself to her career and social life. She was overweight. After the surgery, she did physical therapy for her foot, but then she just kept going. She got a trainer and worked out all the time. She lost 75 pounds within eight months. She got her confidence back. She started dating more.

And then at the end of 2010, the tumor came back. She had another surgery and was super healthy again. When she died, it was a total shock. It was a pulmonary embolism, who could have known.

I found out on a Thursday afternoon. I was at home working in my home office. My son was home, and my husband, coincidentally, had been recovering from pneumonia, so he was home as well. My phone rang, and the caller ID came up and said it was Lisa. So, I was all chirpy, “Hi.” It was her father. He had used her phone to call me. He said, “Lisa has passed away,” just very simply like that. I gave the phone to my husband and said, “I think you need to take this call.” I collapsed to the floor, crying. My son was only six at the time, so of course, he was like, “Mummy, mummy, what’s happening?” And then my husband had a bit of conversation and got off the phone and said, “That really sucks.” I asked, “What do you mean?’ He thought that Lisa’s father was telling us that Lisa’s mother had passed away. So there was this horrible few minutes of confusion. And then, after I collected myself, I called her father back and, without asking directly, I tried to clarify the situation. It was Lisa who had passed away. She had been getting ready in the morning and collapsed on her bed. I don’t remember what the time of death was, but it was when she was home alone — she lived in a house by herself with a little dog. Her housekeeper came that day and found her and called her parents.

How did you cope with her loss?

At first, I was very functional, though I got very sick with the flu, and who knows if that was attached to the shock and the grief. I helped her family go through her things at her house. I gave a eulogy at her funeral. My college friends from around the country came and I helped orchestrate that and we all stayed at Lisa’s house. Eventually, I quit my job. It took a year, but my job was increasingly more miserable and I felt that I shouldn’t be doing a thing that I hated not knowing how much time I had left.

I was very alone in my grief. It was such a singular thing and something I wasn’t prepared for. Lisa had set up a book club and we met once a month. Eventually, women in the group stopped talking about her and I remember feeling so resentful, like, “How dare you forget her.” On the anniversary of her death, we had book club. I was the only one who went to the cemetery to pay my respects. With the benefit of time, I came to terms with everyone grieving in her own way, but then I was just so angry and special, like I was the one who was the most sad and most affected.

I have another group of friends I have known since I was 14. So I am lucky, I still have other close relationships like that in my life, but they are not her. If I have a party, they can’t come and help me set up like Lisa would and they are not a part of my kid’s lives and they are not here with me, day in and day out. Sometimes when I call Lisa my best friend, I feel like I am betraying them, even though they totally get it. I can’t really replace her, though I think I have been trying to and failing and feeling awful about it and lonely. So the best I can do is honor her and keep her memory alive for myself and for my kids.

I learned you could die at any moment, so you should probably make the most of your life. That is a pretty clear and obvious message. We also got a landline in case I collapse and my children can’t rouse me or find my phone. And my husband and I did our will and trust. We have two boys that are 10 and 8 and we didn’t have that. That was stupid. Those are practical matters. But I definitely am braver in my life when I’m faced with something difficult, because of that lesson of losing her and not having enough time.


Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your friendship?

In a very real way there are probably hundreds of children that are alive because of Lisa and her work. She saved a lot of lives. So that’s a really big deal. There were people at her funeral who were parents of children that she had saved, which is amazing. She started a database tracking premature babies, following them for years. So she has a professional legacy. At USC, they have an endowed fellowship in her name. But, in a less tangible way, I think it’s the spirit of adventure and determination that somehow she just found a way to do everything she wanted to do. She was a very, very busy person, but she always had time to be a good friend.

If you have a best friend and you just want to express the feelings of having a best friend, I’d say simply – celebrate it. That’s the word. The one thing that I am very proud of is that Lisa knew how much I loved her and I knew how much she loved me. And I am so grateful to have that. It was very obvious and clear in our lives. When I spoke at her funeral, I wanted people to know you should do that with your friends if you love them. Make sure that that’s how you are with everybody. That’s what I would want somebody reading my story to take away from it.

I have no regrets. I guess that’s the point. It’s not like I wish I could tell her now that I love her, because I knew it. I know she knew.

Before Friendship Dialogues was a gleam in founder Ellen Pearlman’s eyes, a group of over two dozen women answered her online plea for women who had lost a female best friend. Ellen is eternally grateful to all the women, including Kim, for opening their hearts to her and sharing their personal stories of love and loss. It was through this process that the seeds for Friendship Dialogues were planted. Thank you!