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Angel Among Us

Charlotte Figi, 2006-2020

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If there has been a defining theme of this awful year, so far, it has been death. COVID-19 has accelerated the usual pace by which tragedy has swept across our nation, taking precedence over standard fare like opioids, gun violence and suicide. One notable passing in recent weeks received little to no attention in the media, which is also experiencing one of its worst years. But we will take a few minutes to memorialize her in this column, because this column might not exist if not for her.

Charlotte Figi was 13 years old when she took her final, failing breaths at a hospital in Colorado Springs, Colo., on April 7. It was an epileptic seizure that killed her, and it was the seizures that brought her and her family to Colorado to begin with. Dravet syndrome may very well be the most brutal form of epilepsy. Figi had her first seizure when she was only three months old, and she was having as many as 300 every week by the time she was five.

Her parents searched high and low, far and wide, for a solution—any solution that could help their daughter. They found it in the form of cannabis, specifically CBD oil, which reduced the number of seizures by 99 percent. It was a revelatory moment in medical science, and it’s impossible to guess how many others benefited, especially children. That strain was originally called “Hippie’s Disappointment,” due to its miniscule concentration of THC, but it was later reborn as “Charlotte’s Web,” and her story became the foundation of the medical marijuana movement in this country. We couldn’t ask for a better spokesperson.

Cannabis helped her greatly, but there is no cure for the condition. She tested negative for the coronavirus when she was first admitted to the PICU; she was discharged two days later, which was a fatal yet common error in this harsh new reality. The extreme fever that typifies COVID-19 likely triggered her final seizure on April 7, and she died in the arms of her parents. Her tiny body, already weakened by years of illness, was no match for the great scourge of our time, but all things considered, a seizure was probably a more humane death than the slow, solitary suffocation that has claimed most of its victims. Figi’s family lingered with symptoms for nearly a month, but they did not qualify for testing. We can only speculate as to whether more prompt action could have saved her life, but all of that is academic now.

Her life was widely documented, but outside of her local news and the canna-centric press, her death was only mentioned in passing—although the New York Times did a nice feature on her. The lack of attention is understandable; we are all preoccupied right now. It cannot be stated forcefully enough, though, that Charlotte Figi changed the world, very much for the better. She did more than anyone else to humanize the case for cannabis as medicine. Her image countered the prevailing stereotypes of users, and even the most hardened skeptics could not deny the results she achieved.

There’s no way to know for sure, but the odds are good that the movement would not have expanded far beyond her adopted home state (and certainly not in Florida) had the Figi family not shown such courage in defying the law, moving across the country, and allowing her story to be told. The young lady’s legacy will endure through kids who will never know who she was. RIP

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