Irretrievably Broken

Autumn Klein

There are many things that Autumn Klein's daughter will come to know as she gets older and reads about her mother's life and death.

She will learn that she was a well-regarded doctor — a pioneer in the subspecialty field of women's neurology.

She will know that her mom liked to needlepoint and cross-stitch. That she was a terrific baker and enjoyed reading.

But those who loved Autumn Klein want Cianna Sophia Marie Ferrante, who was 6 when her mother died, to know more:

• That Autumn had the best laugh in the world, one that would rise up from the depths of her body like pure delight.

• That she had long, ET fingers, and a tongue that could touch her own nose.

• That her favorite color was purple, and one of her favorite books was Wally Lamb's "I Know this Much is True."

• That she loved being Cianna's mother more than anything else in her life.

Autumn Klein with her nephew, Sam King.

But Dr. Klein's death didn't just take away from Cianna, now being raised by Autumn's parents, William and Lois Klein.

It cut a wide swath of loss for many people: her patients, who lost a caring doctor; her colleagues, who learned from the work she did for women with neurological problems who wanted to have children; Bob Ferrante's children, who will now know their father through prison letters, phone calls and visits; and the neurological research community, which hoped he'd help find a cure for debilitating diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Huntington's.

"He let down a lot more people than his family. He let down a whole community," said Suzanne Alexander, whose charity donated money to Ferrante's work on ALS. "He hindered important outcomes. He stalled our research. He hurt the reputation of an organization when they needed him most."

Autumn Klein in college.
A poem printed in the program from Autumn Klein's memorial service.

Dr. Karen L. Roos met Dr. Klein at Massachusetts General Hospital when she was a visiting professor in Boston and Dr. Klein was chief neurology resident of the Partners program.

They immediately hit it off.

Dr. Klein worked to dispel the myth that women with epilepsy couldn't have children and studied other issues, such as migraines in pregnancy and headaches in women caused by epidurals. She wrote a manuscript of best practices for neurologists to use to help guide them through those problems.

"There are only a handful of people in the country who have Autumn's skills," said Mike Abney, a former business manager at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC who managed Dr. Klein's team of EEG technicians. "One of the tragic things about losing Autumn is the opportunity cost to the patients, particularly women with epilepsy that she would have seen over the next 25 years of her practice."

Several patients cried when talking about her — for their own loss of a trusted physician, but for the greater loss to women everywhere.

Wende Corcoran, the vice president of a nonprofit who lives in Rhode Island, was her patient when she was still practicing at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

In March 2010, Mrs. Corcoran had a seizure in her right arm and the right side of her face while at a Chicago airport traveling for work. After more episodes she saw several neurologists, who could find nothing wrong.

"They all believed I was faking it. Every one of them," she said.

It was suggested that she see a neurologist in Boston.

Dr. Klein greeted her in the waiting room and took her back to the exam room.

"She took my hand, and she goes, 'Let me guess, the people that don't believe you are all males?'"

"I said, 'Yes, 100 percent of them.'"

"'I'm here to tell you, whatever you're having isn't registering electronically. [But] there's a lot we don't know about the brain. I believe you.'"

Dr. Klein helped her find a specialist in movement disorders, and eventually she was diagnosed with a pseudo brain tumor, a treatable condition in which the body makes too much brain and spinal fluid. Since her diagnosis, she has been seizure-free. All through the process, Dr. Klein kept in touch through emails and calls.

Sharon King, Dr. Klein's cousin and best friend since childhood, is not surprised by the patient stories.

"Autumn had this insatiable thirst for getting to know people and their stories," Ms. King said. "I lost my other half. But sometimes, I feel more loss for her patients. I feel that so deeply."

An interview with Sharon.

Cianna, who turned 8 in January, recently told her grandmother that she needed to start telling Cianna "no" more.

"She told me, 'Mommy would tell me no more often.'"

In the 22 months since Autumn died, Mrs. Klein said, Cianna has not talked about her mother and father a lot.

"She says she misses Mommy on occasion."

Not too long ago, Cianna said she missed her father, whom she hasn't seen since July 2013, when he was arrested.

One day before the trial, in their Maryland kitchen, Mrs. Klein said to Cianna, "'It must have been strange going to bed with Mommy there and you woke up the next morning, and Mommy was gone.'"

Cianna didn't really answer, and dashed out of the room as kids do.

But then she turned around and stuck her head back in.

"'I think I know what happened to Mommy,'" Cianna said. "'I think Daddy killed Mommy.'"

The grandmother explained to Cianna that her dad was in jail because "people thought he committed an adult crime," and that 12 people would decide if he did it, and when they did, she would tell Cianna what they said.

Cianna did not attend the trial, and her grandparents had been back in Towson about a week after the verdict before Cianna asked what the 12 people said.

"I said, 'They think Daddy's guilty, and Daddy's going to have to go to prison,'" Lois Klein told her. "And she said, 'Oh,' and away she went."

Autumn Klein with her cousin Sharon King.
Program from Autumn Klein's memorial service.

The custody issue for Lois and William is still not settled. They have Cianna now, but Ferrante's adult son and his wife have filed a petition for custody as well. It will probably be another year before there is a permanent answer.

"It's fun to have her in the house," Mrs. Klein said. "She keeps you moving."

A few weeks ago, out of the blue, Cianna said to her grandmother, "'Life is an adventure.'"

"'Yes, it is,'" Mrs. Klein replied.

The irony is not lost on her that she worried about her daughter's safety in school and in the world, but not at the hands of her daughter's husband.

"I prayed to God to give me one child and let me raise her right," Mrs. Klein said. "I never believed anybody would take her away from me."

Among the worst parts for Mrs. Klein is that her daughter does not get to enjoy her accomplishments.

"What she worked so hard for, she'll never see," Mrs. Klein said.

But one of Dr. Klein's best friends, Karen Kiang, said at the memorial service, on May 10, 2013, that her influence will continue.

"Even in your passing, you are still teaching, teaching all of us that our lives hang but on a fine, gossamer thread — teaching us to make sure our loved ones know how much they are loved. May we all find peace and consolation knowing that you have touched so many lives in your short time here."


Text: Paula Reed Ward

Paula Reed Ward covers the state courts system for the Post-Gazette. She previously worked at the Savannah Morning News and for the Pottsville Republican & Evening Herald. She has a master's degree in criminal justice.

Photo: Julia Rendleman

Julia Rendleman is a staff photographer at the Post-Gazette. She worked in south Louisiana and southern Illinois before coming to Pittsburgh in 2012. She enjoys working on long-term photo stories.

Other credits

Design: Kelly Mills
Editing: Lillian Thomas
Audio: Melissa Tkach