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Death of blogger mom's daughter prompts outpouring from Internet community

April 12, 2009|Esmeralda Bermudez
  • "It still smells like her. It still has that Madeline smell," said Heather Spohr, seated next to husband Mike, as she held her baby's dress.
"It still smells like her. It still has that Madeline smell,"… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Madeline Alice Spohr was born at 4:22 p.m. and weighed 3 pounds, 1 ounce. She came out crying and pink. . . . She is responding to treatment for heart and lung problems, but she has a long road ahead.

So began Heather Spohr's journey in November 2007 to chronicle the story of her firstborn child on her blog. Madeline was born early, at 29 weeks, and doctors did not expect her to survive. But she did. And over the months, through Spohr's blog entries, the little one in Brentwood charmed bloggers and readers from Kentucky to Canada with her fluttery lashes and sassy personality.

Many of her fans were mothers, like Spohr, who turned to the Internet for parenting support or a good laugh after a long day of chasing their own children around the house. They followed Maddie daily through naps, park strolls, birthday parties and, now and then, bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia. They suggested home remedies and bathing tricks.

On Tuesday, the "mommy bloggers," as they are commonly known in the blogosphere, were shocked to learn that 17-month-old Maddie had died unexpectedly after being rushed to the hospital with a cough and congestion.

Maddie and I rode to the hospital with the lights on and the sirens blaring, it was surreal, Spohr wrote in her last entry, a day before a friend logged on to announce Maddie's death.

Overnight, the news spread across cyberspace, and hundreds mobilized nationwide, using their blogs and other social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to help the Spohrs. Spohr's own site, The Spohrs Are Multiplying, crashed because of the outpouring.

Within two days, Maddie's Internet followers donated more than $20,000 in her name to the March of Dimes, a nonprofit the Spohr family champions. Through the Web, they organized everything from food deliveries to the Spohrs' home to funeral preparations. Nearly 30 March of Dimes walkathon teams were formed, some in far-flung places such as Spanish Fort, Ala., and Caledonia, Mich., to walk on behalf of Maddie.

Some turned their blogs purple -- the signature color of the March of Dimes -- as a tribute; they organized purple balloon releases and began to sell purple Maddie T-shirts and bracelets. They did all this for a family hardly any of them knew in person, a family they befriended through the Web.

"We all put ourselves in Heather's shoes," said Megan Hook, a blogger from Camarillo and mother of three boys. "We all interact daily or several times a day online, through Twitter, through chats, through blogs and comments. It could have been any one of us."

Two thousand miles away in Kentucky, Dawn Schnee, a blogger and mother of one, awoke Wednesday morning to hear the news.

"I was horrified," she said. "I remember I sat on my couch and screamed so loud I must have scared my child."

After moving to Kentucky as a new mom nearly two years ago, Schnee found solace in reading other mothers' (and sometimes fathers') blogs. Spohr's sense of humor as a parent stood out and helped Schnee not to feel so alone. In February, she met Spohr in person at a blogging conference.

"It was so nice to hear that echo of 'I hear you and I understand,' " Schnee said.

On Saturday, Spohr and her husband, Mike, sat on their couch far from the computer. The home that would come alive daily with Maddie's laughter was mostly quiet. Spohr tightly held one of her daughter's favorite dolls and kept a few of her baby clothes by her side, including a bright yellow dress she wore recently to a birthday party.

"It still smells like her," Spohr said. "When I feel empty, I like to hold it all in my arms and remember her."

The 29-year-old started her blog to update family and friends through her difficult pregnancy, and ultimately, to show Maddie the entries when she grew old enough to understand her improbable story as a preemie baby.

She says it may be a while before she returns to the blogosphere.

"When I do, I will have to figure out what my identity is now," she said.

Friends and family will gather to pay tribute to Maddie at her funeral service Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. in the Old North Chapel at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills.

Then the couple plan to walk with a team to honor Maddie at the March of Dimes' March for Babies walk April 25 at Exposition Park.

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esmeralda.bermudez@ latimes.com

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