A mother's grief turns into a Judge's inspiration

Brad Schmitt The Tennessean Published 10:00 p.m. CT Jun. 18, 2017 Updated 5:48 a.m. CT Jun. 19, 2017

A mother's grief turns into a judge's inspiration

A month after her daughter died, Melissa Blackburn ended up in the back of an ambulance.

She was gasping for air. Couldn’t breathe.

It was too much.

Then a lawyer, Blackburn got overwhelmed by her colleagues’ sympathy on her first day back to the Metro courthouse.

“Every time you look at somebody, they give you this look: ‘How are you?’ ”

Her daughter, Liz Kurtz, died Oct. 26, 2004, after she had a heart attack in the shower. A senior at Father Ryan High School, Kurtz had been taking anti-depressants, which caused a seizure that led to the heart attack.

Blackburn still cries when she talks about Liz. It’s an open wound that’s still not healed more than 12 years later.

But the grieving mother found a purpose in helping others deal with the depression that cost her daughter her life.

Blackburn now serves as judge over Nashville’s mental health court. And she thinks she brings an empathy and perspective that spur more healing for her defendants — and maybe for herself.

“I see them more as clients than defendants,” she said. “I feel like we’re doing good things for good people.”

A crash and an early arrival

Blackburn, 58, met her first husband, Brian Kurtz, when they were both working at McClure’s clothing store in Belle Meade in her junior year of high school. The two dated andgot married while she was in college and he was on his way to medical school.

They had problems getting pregnant, needing dozens of fertility shots, doctors’ appointments and tests to do so. He found out first.

Blackburn got a dozen roses from her husband in June 1985. The card said simply, “Yes.”

The pregnancy proved to be tricky. At first, there were twins, but a few weeks later, Blackburn lost one of the babies.

“It was upsetting after everything we’d been through,” she said. “You’re on pins and needles that you may lose the other one, too.”

Shortly after that, Blackburn, in sweat pants on her way to an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet, got in a car accident. Rear ended at a red light.

The crash sparked early contractions, and the expectant mother was put on home bed rest for the duration of her pregnancy.

Baby Liz arrived on Christmas Eve — seven weeks early. Liz, born 4 pounds, 5 ounces, stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit for two weeks.

Muddin' in Mom's Range Rover

Liz got a sister 18 months later, and the two girls grew up happy, playing on their grandparents’ farm, watching tadpoles grow into frogs, riding the tractor, playing in the barn, making sugar cookies with mom and Gramma Mitchell.

Blackburn got divorced when Liz was 8, and both girls grew up with their mom.

Toward the end of elementary school, Liz started making C's. She had a learning difference, some problems studying, problems feeling comfortable in school, Blackburn said.

Liz ended up at Westminster, a church school for children with learning differences. Then she went to Father Ryan High School, where Liz flourished.

At 16, the girl showed a rebellious streak, once taking her mom’s Range Rover mudding. Blackburn made the girl work the summer between her sophomore and junior years to pay for repairs and mud removal.

Eventually, Liz approached her mom.

“She said, ‘Mom, I’m the person who everyone talks to when they have a problem. I want to talk to someone,’ ” Blackburn said.

“I said, ‘What do you want to talk about?’ ‘I just want to talk to someone.’ ”

Within months, Liz was taking anti-depressants.

The night before she died, Liz came downstairs to say goodnight to her mother.

There has been an accident

Blackburn sensed something was wrong.

“I said, ‘You seem a little different. Have you taken something? Are you feeling OK?’ She seemed a little jittery.”

Liz hugged her mom and told her everything was fine.

Blackburn, by then remarried to Nashville attorney Gary Blackburn, went to sleep and got up early the next morning: She had to be in court in Memphis by 9 a.m.

She got a call from her husband when she was about halfway to Memphis.

There has been an accident.

Blackburn steered her black BMW convertible off the next exit on I-40. Then she put on her flashers, punched the accelerator and drove back to Nashville about 100 miles an hour.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God”

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God” went through her head the whole way.

When she pulled into the cul-de-sac, police officers were everywhere.

Blackburn ran into the house. Four of her friends gently pushed her back out.

Her husband had found Liz about 7 a.m. lying in the shower, not moving.

An autopsy later revealed one of the anti-depressants caused a seizure, which caused a heart attack.

The funeral was three days later.

'You can't move because of the grief'

“I just remember it was a blur, visitation at the (Father Ryan) cathedral, people stood for hours and hours,” she said. “It was horrible.”

For months, Blackburn relived her daughter’s death in her head, again and again, wondering if there was something different she could’ve done.

“Why didn’t I do something different instead of letting her go to bed? I couldn’t have been in that shower. There’s nothing I could’ve done. But still, you wonder.”

Then the panic attacks started.

“I’d hear a song or something. You totally lose it. You can’t breathe, you can’t move because of the grief.”

The couple took a walk on a beach boardwalk on the first anniversary of Liz’s death. Hundreds of monarch butterflies came out of the dunes that morning.

“That was overwhelming,” Blackburn said, her voice catching. “Every time I see a butterfly, I think of her.”

The most painful day came when the Father Ryan community gathered to add Liz’s name to a memorial wall of students who had died while attending the school.

“We did appreciate the recognition,” Blackburn said, “but it was just so gut wrenching.”

Her husband started working for a Nashville mayoral candidate, and Blackburn raised$700,000 for the campaign. That led to a fundraiser job at Habitat for Humanity.

Then there was an opening on Nashville’s bench in 2011, for the mental health and veterans courts. And something clicked for Blackburn.

“I could make the biggest impact,” she said.

“It’s important because it’s part of who I am, and it’s in my fabric. It’s affected how I make decisions, my thought process. It’s how as a judge I come to who I am.”

The death still haunts her

Blackburn often has defendants, their family members and caregivers appear together in front of her. She often encourages defendants to call the court for help when prescriptions

run out or when other problems arise. She often tells defendants they are worthwhile and that they matter.

And Blackburn will send them to jail if they repeatedly violate probation or refuse to ask for help.

But sometimes, she says, defendants just need to hear they’re important.

“I feel like we’re making differences in people’s lives.”

Blackburn has met with grief counselors and has worked through some pain with her friends.

But there are many days when she can’t stop her mind from drifting to her daughter’s death.

“I still think of that night. I will as long as I’m alive.”

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A mother's grief turns into a Judge's inspiration

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