As family and friends of Austen Dunn work to increase awareness of the medical condition that unexpectedly took her young life two years ago, they’re comforted by others’ memories of her.
The guestbook of her online obituary is filled with descriptions of the 23-year-old who graduated from the College of William & Mary in 2015. Melanie Bell called her a “bright and shining star,” and Kemp Pettyjohn said she was “one of the most kindhearted individuals” he’d ever met.
Catherine Altman described Austen as “one of those students a teacher never forgets,” and Lisa Diskin said “the mark she made on humanity was amazing and will live on in those she loved.”
The comments offer consolation to her parents, Gary and Stacy Horner–Dunn, and her brother, Rory, who live in Fredericksburg.
But they also underscore the loss. Austen seemed completely fine, exercising daily and heating healthy foods.
“She was just a really great kid,” said her father, barely able to get the words out. “That’s the hard thing.”
It’s also the reason they’ve organized an event to raise money for research of brain aneurysms, a condition caused by a weakened wall of a blood vessel inside the brain.
Blood bulges in a vessel, producing what looks like a berry on a stem. There typically aren’t any symptoms until the aneurysm ruptures, which can be fatal in four out of 10 cases, according to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation. More than half of those who survive will be left with disabilities.
The Dunns were too distraught last September, on the first anniversary of their daughter’s death, to organize a local walk, but they raised $3,500 for a similar event in Richmond. This year, they decided to rally the many friends and co-workers who’ve supported them to create “Austen’s Communitas 5k Walk” on Saturday at Old Mill Park in Fredericksburg.
“It’s kept me busy during a really difficult time of year,” her mother said, “but it also gives me hope that maybe we can spare one parent the loss that Gary and I suffered. It would be worth the effort.”
The Dunns are veterinarians who own White Oak Animal Hospital, and they were living in King George County in September 2016. Austin was back home with them after working as a graphic artist in Washington for a year.
She had graduated from Fredericksburg Academy in 2011, then William & Mary, earning double majors in English and art. At the time of her death, she was taking classes at the University of Mary Washington so she could apply to a doctoral program.
She wanted to be a counselor and make a difference in the lives of young people, her mother said.
During her senior year of college, Austen did an independent project about “Communitas,” the idea that people who share a similar experience form a bond as a result.
Her best friend, Hope Smith, always thought 9/11 was the perfect example of the concept. No matter a person’s station in life—company executive or janitor—a tragedy like 9/11 leveled the playing field and unified everyone who went through it.
But Austen saw “Communitas” in everyday events, Smith said. When people enjoyed a movie or concert, they came together as a result of the shared experience.
It was only natural that the first walk in her memory would tap into the philosophy in which she believed.
As organizers have talked about ways to connect with other families who have lost children, they’re certain Austen would approve of efforts to increase awareness of brain aneurysms.
They’re also sure there’s one aspect she wouldn’t like.
“We joke that Austen would hate having her name in lights like this,” said Beth Hunsinger, one of her teachers when she was at Fredericksburg Academy. “She always shied away from the spotlight. But we all know that she lived her life to help others, so the walk is fitting in that way.”
Austen embraced the idea of working behind the scenes, her parents said. Her father called her a quiet leader who led her school newspaper; her mother said she was talented artistically and musically, but somewhat reserved. Her maternal grandmother had nicknamed her “baby woman” for the way she seemed mature at such a young age.
Austen and her mother had been shopping and went out to dinner that fateful day almost two years ago, then had come back to their King George home. Austen complained of a headache and nausea; she’d had a similar episode a few months earlier and been diagnosed with vascular migraines.
“It’s happening again,” she told her mother as she collapsed on the couch.
King George rescuers arrived within five minutes and took Austen to the hospital, but she spiraled quickly. Within hours, she was gone.
Her cause of death shocked others.
“I thought it happened to old people or people who had been in the hospital a long time,” said Kathy Sullivan, whose family is so close to the Dunns, they’ve vacationed together for 20 years. “I never dreamed a young person could be afflicted with the condition.”
Brain aneurysms are most common in people age 35 to 60 but can occur in children, according to the foundation. Women have them more than men, and people of color, more than twice as often as whites. Worldwide, almost half a million deaths are caused by brain aneurysms and half the victims are younger than 50, the foundation states.
Symptoms include a localized headache, weakness and numbness, vision problems and difficulty speaking. Those who experience a sudden, severe headache, vomiting, weakness or numbness should seek immediate medical attention.
The Dunns are grateful for the support since their daughter’s death. They’ve been overwhelmed by efforts from people such as Ashley Rakes, the office manager at their animal hospital, who kept the clinic operating in the days after the funeral and has helped with every detail of the walk.
“It’s been amazing,” the mother said. “I am truly humbled by the wonderful people who have surrounded us.”
Sullivan also sees the generosity from so many who have stepped up to help. That helps when she’s reminded daily of “the huge hole in our hearts” left by Austen’s absence.
“It’s just a huge credit to the Dunn family and shows how much Austen meant to all of us,” she said. “It helps to keep Austen in the forefront because she was so special.”