Within 24 hours of giving birth to her third son, neurologist Jessica Crowder learned she was terminally ill.
Her husband, Jason Crowder, noticed the swelling in her abdomen was not going down. A radiologist, he examined her and discovered a swollen liver. Tests followed and then a diagnosis.
Jessica, who was 33 years old at the time, was told she had Stage 4 colon cancer. Doctors gave her three months to live, six months at most.
“She was determined to see those little boys grow up and to have a mommy when they were young,” Jason said Thursday, more than six years after she was diagnosed and two days after her death at age 39.
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Jessica was always driven to excel. She earned straight A’s in school as a child in Fort Payne, Alabama.
Her father, John Walker, said: “She just always went above and beyond at everything she did. She was the kind of person who would come home on Fridays after school, run to her room and do her homework before she did anything else. That was kind of unusual.”
She loved animals, especially turtles, and she loved to draw. When a family pet died, her father said, she drew a likeness of the pet to process her grief.
She and her two younger sisters, Jennifer and Juliet, also loved to play soccer. Jessica was a state champion in high school, where she held all the scoring and assist records at graduation.
Although she was shy and introverted, her drive to excel was unrivaled.
“The thing I can say about Jessica,” said her middle sister, Jennifer Weber, “being the second child, going through classes and sports, I just had a lot to live up to. All the teachers knew her as the best in the class.
“I looked up to her so much. She was the strongest person. Everything that she did she excelled at. She had the type of nature that she was going to be, not just the best, but she was very strong-willed.”
She attended Birmingham Southern College on academic and soccer scholarships, joining the U.S. Air Force in her junior year. The Air Force wanted her to train as a pilot, her father said, but she was determined to be a doctor.
Love on sight
Jason Crowder remembers the first time he saw her. She was standing in the foyer of a medical building at the University of South Alabama, where both of them were about to start medical school. He can still picture her there, with blonde hair and blue eyes in a blue sun dress. He fell in love on the spot.
Jessica finished her residency in 2007, moving to Biloxi to work as a neurologist at Keesler Air Force Base. Her husband joined her when he finished his residency a year later, establishing a private practice. Fraternal twins Jackson and Jett were born in 2009, followed by Jace in 2010.
After the cancer diagnosis, Jessica was determined to continue life as a doctor and a mother. She poured her heart into her boys, all the while undergoing chemotherapy every two weeks.
Her mother moved in with the family to help with chores. Her father drove from Alabama every two weeks to take her to chemotherapy. They never discussed her cancer. The boys did not know she was sick.
She wanted to give them a happy childhood. She took them for walks on the beach, watched their soccer games, helped them with homework. All the while, she continued work as a neurologist. She rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.
Jason is awed by her accomplishments in the face of a terminal illness. She was one of those doctors who took the time to get to know her patients and listen to them.
Maj. Nathan Sumner, chief of neurology at Keesler Air Force Base, said Jessica was one of the most compassionate doctors he ever met. Her patients loved her. He said she also exemplified the Air Force value of service before self.
Her husband said: “She was a physician, but she was always a mother first. It was all about loving the boys, continuing their lives and protecting them as much as she could from her illness and diagnosis so that they wouldn’t worry.”
The family took lots of photos. Every six months, she compiled the pictures in books with captions, one for each boy, so they could remember her and the time the family enjoyed together.
She also took up painting. Her artwork hangs all over the house, including a beach landscape she fashioned with sand dollar accents from one of their memorable beach walks.
Finally, this year, Jessica and Jason had to tell the boys their mother had cancer. They cried and asked if she would die.
They told the children, “Yes, at some point, Mommy is going to die, but she will always be with you and she will be your guardian angel forever.”
This summer, she finally mentioned her illness to her father. He asked if she planned to vote for Trump or Clinton. She said, “Well, I won’t be around when the election comes.” Her father did not know what to say.
Jessica determined she wanted to live through Christmas, though, and she did. She was still able to talk to her family and hug her boys. It was not until a day later that she began drifting away.
Before she died, she hugged and kissed each of her three boys and told them she loved them.
Jason said, “She put her arms around me. She said, ‘I love you. It’s OK.’ Then she said, “It’s so beautiful,’ and passed away.”