They think of her when they run. Not because she was a runner, but because she was a fighter. When they want to stop, they remember that she never did. If the hill looks too steep, they realize it’s nothing compared to what she went through.
Peter, Charlotte and Kate Cipolletti miss their sister, Emmy, dearly, but they try to not let her death hold them back. Emmy lived 24 years with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and she almost never complained. So when they want to whine, they bottle up that emotion and carry forward, just like she did.
Emmy Cipoletti was a natural around dogs. She always loved them, and they always loved her. Here, she goofs around with her pit bull Alcide. Photo courtesy the Cipolletti family“I don’t know how the heck she did it,” Peter said. “She was extraordinarily stubborn, for one thing. She had this air about her. She had this willingness to succeed, and she didn’t want to be abnormal. She didn’t see herself as someone who needed sympathy.”
Her siblings think of her when they see hawks flying overhead or a dog jogging beside them. Her passion for animals shined through every day and she had a tattoo of an elephant on the side of her body. Now her sisters have elephant tattoos that spell Faith – Emmy’s middle name – to make sure she’s always a physical part of them.
Emmy grew up as one of 10 children, but she never blended in. Standing up for what she believed in wasn’t a choice – it was the only way she knew how to live. She had four life-threatening surgeries before she was 3, but she ended up going to college, starting her own business and living a “normal” life before she died in her sleep on March 24, 2016.
Since then, Peter, Charlotte and Kate – three of her nine siblings – have decided to run the Boston Marathon together, as part of the Miles for Miracles team from Boston Children’s Hospital. Emmy’s Angels, a non-profit organization intended to give other children the same opportunity to live life as Emmy did, has raised over $40,000 on behalf of Children’s so far.
Kate has taken over Emmy’s dog-watching service and renamed it Emmy’s Barking Lot. The Cipollettis, many of whom grew up in Duxbury, are hosting a red-tie, “Hearts for Hearts” gala Feb. 11, at Duxbury Bay Maritime School, to raise awareness of HLHS and fundraise for Emmy’s Angels.
On April 17, they’ll run together in the Boston Marathon in Emmy’s honor.
“It’s really inspiring to see how strong she was,” Charlotte said. “Running this marathon is a testament to her in the fact that she really achieved goals without asking for help or showing she had any doubts. That was the kind of character Emmy was. She didn’t want her problems to be anyone else’s problems.”
A little trooper
When Emmy was in utero, her parents found out she was going to be born with a congenital heart defect, HLHS which, in layman’s terms, means she essentially would have half a heart.
Emmy got great pleasure out of interacting with all kinds of animals. Elephants and dogs were her favorites, but here she has a blast playing with a dolphin.Her parents, George and Kathy, had the choice to move forward or not, and they chose to keep going. Emmy, the eighth child, was born June 6, 1991. As soon as she was born, she was immediately removed from the birthing room and sent to an operating room.
Doctors performed the first of three operations that would eventually each save her life. The first one was to keep her alive until the three-month mark, and at that point they went back in and made sure she would get ample oxygen in her system. She made it out OK and was a healthy and happy toddler.
“She was a little trooper,” Peter said. “She was a cute little thing.”
Just before her third birthday, Emmy had a third surgery. The right side of the heart pumps non-oxygenated blood through the lungs, and the oxygenated blood comes back to the left half, which pumps it throughout the rest of the body. The left side of Emmy’s heart was missing, which means her right side was stronger than most. It did the job of both chambers and kept her alive.
Emmy went into Children’s Hospital a couple times a year for checkups throughout her childhood. She had occasional episodes, with heart palpitations and minor heart attacks, and would also go in for EKGs and valve replacements, but she never fussed about it. Her life was affected by her condition, but she never let it define her.
“Most people literally had no idea until they saw the scar on her chest,” Peter said. “They’d ask her what it was from and she’d joke around, ‘I was born with half a heart.’”
That’s how she liked to characterize her condition, but the scary part is it wasn’t an exaggeration. She literally had half a heart.
Emmy didn’t complain about her scar. She thought it was “bad-*ss,” and her siblings agreed. Emmy went to her appointments, but she never discussed them when she came home.
“The coolest thing about Emmy was that you never, ever thought about the fact that she had a heart condition,” Charlotte said. “It was something she didn’t really acknowledge. Not in a negative or unhealthy way, but she was really great at compartmentalizing those two parts of her life. She was the most courageous, independent person ever. She never let anyone else in our family know she ever thought about it.”
Emmy’s Barking Lot
Emmy had nine pets – two border collies named Blue and Penny, a pit bull named Alcide, two cats, two ferrets and two bearded dragons. Nine pets and nine siblings. The Cipolletti household was a nightmare for someone with pet allergies, but it was paradise for someone like Emmy.
Emmy had a gift for keeping track of several dogs at once. She opened her own service, called Mobile Mutts, which eventually turned into The Barking Lot. It’s now called Emmy’s Barking Lot in her honor. Photos courtesy the Cipolletti familyShe was an entrepreneur by age 22, starting a dog-walking business called Mobile Mutts, which later evolved into a dog daycare and boarding facility in Hanover called The Barking Lot (now Emmy’s Barking Lot).
Kate Cipolletti used to get upset when Emmy didn’t come to family events because Emmy was too busy at work. Now that Kate has Emmy’s job, she understands what kept her occupied and has a newfound appreciation for all that Emmy did.
Emmy used to drive to Braintree and Plymouth to pick up customers’ dogs, all before the workday officially started in Hanover. Clients of Kate’s tell her that no one cared for their dog like Emmy did. No one loved their dog so unconditionally.
She used to drop dogs off at 8 p.m. and go into her clients’ houses for a quick snack and chat. That’s how close she was with them.
“She would go to beyond crazy measures to make sure these animals were taken care of,” Kate said. “She had such a big impact on the world around her. I always knew she was a fierce, feisty little thing who would fight for anything she believed in, but hearing every one of those clients talk about the impact she made on their lives was overwhelming.”
Emmy’s siblings used to call her the pack leader. One time her family wanted to go out on the boat without the dogs, but Emmy protested and insisted they join. She was mesmerized by elephants, but she wouldn’t see them in zoos or the circus because of the way they were being treated.
All 10 Cipolletti kids pose together in 2009. It was always a treat when all 10 were in the same place at the same time. Photos courtesy the Cipolletti familyCharlotte and Emmy grew up riding horses together, and Charlotte knew from a young age that Emmy had a different kind of connection with them. Emmy knew she wanted to work with animals her whole life, so she went out and made it happen.
“She was the most fiery person I’ve ever met,” Charlotte said. “If she was passionate about something, I’ve never seen somebody get so pumped up. When she was mad, she was always extremely mad. She was like a tornado in the house. She was the kind of person who always felt everything genuinely, and she always played her interactions out how she truly felt.”
That dreadful day
A month before Emmy died, she got into a car accident one morning near Exit 12 on Route 3. She had 12 animals in her car – which was nothing too unusual – and a man noticed in her rearview mirror that she wasn’t awake.
He moved his car in front of hers to keep her from going astray and ultimately likely saved her life. Doctors at Children’s don’t know exactly what happened, but they speculated that she had a breathing malfunction and passed out behind the wheel.
“That was a hell of a day,” Peter said.
Doctors and her family monitored her for the month that followed, but on March 24 she didn’t wake up. The day they had feared for years had come, and the situation was as insufferable as they’d imagined it would be.
“We just buckled down as a family and figured out how to get through it,” Peter said. “It’s just difficult. No one should ever have to go through that.”
Life is a marathon
Months have passed and their grief has dwindled a bit, but they’ll never be totally healed. The loss hit the family like an asteroid, and sometimes it feels like their world is still spinning.
But rather than staying down, they’ve chosen to turn their sorrow into something constructive, in Emmy’s honor. Charlotte, Kate and Peter are all athletic, but none of them are distance runners. They knew running the Boston Marathon would be a challenge, and that’s why they chose to do it.
“I wanted to put something in front of myself that I thought I could never do,” Charlotte said. “It’s amazing to fundraise for the hospital, but it’s also something I wanted to do to give her a nod.”
“There are some points where you just don’t want to keep running, but it’s easy to think of Emmy,” Peter said.
(From left) Emmy, Kate and Charlotte Cipolletti were inseparable, and they spent tons of time together growing up.Last year, as Emmy’s health worsened, she and her sisters were strolling down the beach. Kate turned to Emmy and recalls saying, “Hurry up, you slowpoke.”
“Emmy yelled back, ‘Must be nice to have a whole heart. I’m coming,’” Kate said. “When I feel like I can’t run anymore, I’m like, ‘Shut up, Kate. At least you have a whole heart. Let’s go.’ She’d be here to kick me in the butt.”
Sometimes they train together, and sometimes they train apart. They all agree that the marathon isn’t the end of their quest to cure HLHS. Peter and Charlotte have young patient partners who have the same syndrome, and they hope to one day make their lives infinitely easier.
“Emmy’s Angels has given us an opportunity to push back and give back as much as we can,” Peter said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding.”
They know it’s all worth it on Emmy’s behalf. Her siblings consider it ironic that her heart wasn’t full, because they think of her as the most wholehearted person they know.
She never backed down from a challenge and she stood up for what she believed in without fail. They’re trying to do the same to keep her spirit alive.
“She kept going until she literally had nothing more to give,” Kate said. “She was an all-out kind of person.”
More information about Emmy’s Angels can be found at emmysangels.org.