Life Stories

Life Stories: Helen Chappell's journey of life and science cut short

CorrespondentApril 27, 2014 

Helen Chappell and Eric Bowen with their dog, Pecan. In early April, the couple and their young daughter were en route to a camping trip in Virginia when Chappell fell ill. She died April 19.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ANNA GOLDSTEIN — COURTESY OF ANNA GOLDSTEIN

  • Helen Chappell

    Born: Sept. 5, 1985.

    Family: Born the first child of Cynthia and Raymond Chappell of Pittsboro, she marries Eric Bowen in 2011. In 2013, the two welcome a daughter, Ursula.

    Education: Graduates from the North Carolina School of Science and Math in 2003; graduates cum laude from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science in physics and astronomy; conducts graduate research as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., while earning a master’s in physics from the University of Colorado-Boulder.

    Career: Works as an undergraduate at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at UNC-Chapel Hill before graduate school, and in 2011 interns at the News & Observer as the Mass Media Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Takes a position as an exhibit developer at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in 2012.

    Dies: April 19, 2014.

When Helen Chappell married Eric Bowen, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham was the perfect location.

The campus was where the two science lovers first met; they were friends for years before dating. Wearing a white dress but no shoes, Chappell shouted along with Bowen the invocation, “Rah, adventure!” They saw their marriage as the continuation of one long, exciting journey.

Until a few weeks ago, it had been that journey.

Before their wedding, the couple lived in Colorado, fitting in hiking and camping while in graduate school. Rather than register for small kitchen appliances, the couple asked for financial contributions for a honeymoon spent biking across France.

“Help us take a trip,” Bowen recalled telling their friends. “We are not about things; we are about experiences.”

The newlyweds soon moved back to the Triangle to establish careers they were passionate about, hers one that combined her loves of science and writing. And the couple recently embarked on perhaps their biggest adventure – parenthood – after welcoming daughter Ursula last summer.

In early April, the family was en route to yet another escapade, a camping trip in Virginia’s Apple Orchard Falls, when Chappell fell ill. She died more than a week later at Duke University Hospital from acute respiratory distress syndrome, also known as ARDS. The trifecta of allergies, asthma and a case of the flu led to a lung infection that became systemic. She was 28.

Her best friend and maid of honor, Lauren Wagner, eulogized her as “aggressively alive.” Her loved ones struggle to make sense of her death, even after learning how difficult it is to overcome ARDS once it sets in. As a science writer, they say Chappell would want people to learn more about ARDS: It kills 1 in 3 people who develop the condition.

Passionate about teaching science

The first full day Chappell was hospitalized, April 12, marked her two-year anniversary at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. She was an exhibit developer, working with a team both to create the larger concepts behind exhibits and to break them down into manageable pieces for visitors. She wrote scripts for videos, coined the text on labels and developed interactive components for the museum’s shows.

On April Fools’ Day, Chappell also pulled what is remembered as a legendary prank by posing inflated penguins around the museum’s SECU Daily Planet theater. Security was not amused.

“She jumped in with both feet when she started working here,” said Wendy Lovelady, senior exhibit director at the museum. “She had an attitude that fit with the museum as well – a passion for science education.”

Her own science education was wrought with difficult choices. She made the decision to leave her doctoral program, where she was studying physics, with a master’s degree. Her husband said she could not tolerate what she felt was a toxic environment of one-upmanship and martyrdom – she liked her life too much.

Because she had won one of the nation’s most prestigious science graduate fellowships, friends marveled at her brave choice. Afterward, she referred to herself as a “recovering physicist.”

‘Eager to learn’

She turned to her other love: writing. In 2011, Chappell worked at the News & Observer as the summer science intern.

“She was young and inexperienced in journalism, but she had the qualities you want in a journalist,” said Richard Stradling, deputy metro editor. “She was curious; she was eager to learn new things; and she liked sharing what she learned with other people in a way they could understand, which is particularly important in science journalism.”

He recalled the way she sat in her chair, legs crossed underneath her – more like an excited kid than a grown-up, though she wrote a number of serious articles that summer. Her pieces addressed everything from endangered species to state budget cuts. She even wrote a first-person column about a meat allergy she contracted from a tick bite.

“She was fun,” Stradling said, “and that’s not true of all journalists.”

Showing her strength and fortitude

Her personal writings went beyond the N&O. In addition to a blog, last year she boldly published an article chronicling her battle with bipolar II disorder. She wrote candidly about the frightening rationality of her suicidal ideations and her fears for her family – that her husband might one day need to tap out or that her daughter who might struggle with the disease as well.

“I’m heartbroken that she had the strength and fortitude to battle this one potentially fatal disorder of bad biochemistry only to succumb to another where she was completely helpless,” said friend David J. Kroll, health care contributing writer for Forbes.com and a science writing professor at N.C. State University. He happened to be writing an article on ARDS at the time of her death.

“ARDS kills about 1 in 3 people who experience it,” Kroll said. “Yet we have no ribbons, bracelets or races for the cure.”

As the lung infection worsened, and before Chappell was sedated into unconsciousness, she communicated by writing on a dry-erase board. One of her last worries was that the staff would struggle with her breast pump. She did not want her hospitalization to mean the end of breast-feeding her daughter.

Ursula, meaning “Little Bear,” was so named as a nod both to her husband’s German grandmother and to Chappell’s love of the stars.

A fund has been established to assist Chappell’s family with her medical bills, as well as to create a scholarship for her daughter’s college education.

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