During a six-month study abroad visit to Australia, Holly Adams enjoyed Bondi Beach at Sydney. (Contributed photo)

Holly Adams lived in Springfield for only two years. But then, she didn’t live anywhere for very long, dying April 13 at only 29 years old. 

However,  despite devastating physical challenges, Holly Nicole Adams defiantly outlived doctors’ predictions by a dozen years, and she determinedly crammed a full lifetime of experiences and accomplishments into her abbreviated stay.

Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy before age 2, Holly never was able to walk. As the cruel disease weakened and wasted her muscles, Holly was confined to a wheelchair and retained only the use of her right hand — her “mouse hand,” she called it, because she used it to direct the cursor on a computer screen to laboriously type messages letter by letter.

Holly Adams enjoyed experimenting with colors in her hair style to demonstrate her fashion sense. (Contributed photo)

Yet, says her mother, Tammy Adams: “There wasn’t anything that Holly wouldn’t try to do. If there was something she was interested in, she was going after it. She went downhill skiing (on a sled with assistance from Ski Patrol pros). She did wheelchair soccer. She took dance classes —  I would twirl her around in her chair.

“I never told her ‘You can’t do that,’” Tammy says. “I did sometimes tell her ‘Ehhh, I’m not so sure about that — but let’s see what we can do…’ And usually we would find something close enough.”

Holly spent early years in Minnesota, lived in Illinois and eventually North Carolina when Tammy convinced her employer to transfer her there because the frigid air of the Upper Midwest’s harsh winters was painful when Holly took it in through a tracheostomy tube.

“When we moved to North Carolina, Holly went through a bout of depression,” recalls Tammy. “She felt like she was being a burden.” When counseling brightened Holly’s outlook, “that was the catalyst that started her on the path of helping others. Through dealing with her own depression, she decided to help others deal with theirs.”

After an episode in 2013 put her in a coma for four days, Holly awoke with a heightened determination to become a counselor.

She volunteered with online organizations that offer encouragement to depressed individuals through personal letters, and that target at-risk youths via text messages. “If they were at risk of harming themselves or needed a safe place to stay after being assaulted or whatever, Holly would help them find resources,” her mom explains. “There were times when she had to send active rescue people to intervene before someone hurt or even killed themselves.”

Such experiences, including work with a national online organization that provides a sympathetic ear and helpful feedback to young people suffering from eating disorders, led Holly to pursue a college degree in social work at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. And that in turn led to a bold international adventure.

The family includes Holly’s two younger siblings, Alex, now 20, and Amanda, now 19. Alex developed an online relationship with an Australian girl who, when she learned of Holly’s studies, touted the idea of Holly spending a semester at Australian Catholic University. With the blessing of the study-abroad program at UNC-G, Holly enrolled at the Melbourne university, and the family packed to go with her in 2019.

Holly Adams — who could be “a little bit of a bad-ass,” according to her mom — got an arm tattoo that combined a colorful butterfly with the words “She wears her scars like a warrior for they’re a reminder she’s alive.” (Contributed photo)

“Getting to Australia was quite the logistical nightmare,” recalls Tammy. “She had an oxygen concentrator and was on a ventilator — absolutely needed it to breathe. We had a serious come-to-Jesus talk. I told her, ‘You do understand that this could go really bad flying over the Pacific, right? There’s no emergency staff aboard the plane; there’s no turning back.’ And Holly looked at me and just said, ‘We’re going!’ So we did.”

It was a display of determination and grit that Holly’s family had witnessed often. For instance, that time she got a tattoo. 

“I’m not going to lie — she was a little bit of a bad-ass,” says Tammy. “The tattoo artist — it was so funny — every couple of minutes she would say to Holly, ‘Are you OK? Am I hurting you?’ And Holly was like, ‘Look, I’ve had spinal fusion surgery — and all you’re doing is just poking me with a little needle.’”

Holly with mascot Truman the Tiger at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where a posthumous diploma will be awarded in her name this month. (Contributed photo)

Move to Missouri

After a memorable six months Down Under, Tammy and the three kids headed back to the States, where they soon learned that Tammy’s father, Edward Adams of Bolivar, had been stricken with a brain tumor. Tammy felt compelled to head to Missouri to help her mother, Melba, as her dad battled the tumor. Holly, Alex and Amanda accompanied her to Bolivar, then to Springfield in February 2020 when Tammy took a job with Bass Pro.

Holly enrolled in the University of Missouri-Columbia’s online program to complete a degree program in social work. She was due to graduate this month. Tammy says that Mizzou will confer a diploma posthumously. “She’d actually already completed all the necessary courses, but she had to take 30 hours (at Mizzou) to qualify for a degree from the university,” notes Tammy.

Holly’s pursuit ended suddenly. It was a shock, but not unexpected. And, truth to tell, overdue, according to statistics for muscular dystrophy patients.

“She knew this wasn’t going to go on forever,” says Tammy. “She’d survived several close calls over the years, and had more lives than a cat. She felt she was on borrowed time ever since she woke up from that coma. She just wanted to make the most of it — and she did.”

Melba Adams says her granddaughter “was an inspiration for us. Holly always had a great attitude and wasn’t one to ever give up. She did it all.”

Holly’s brother Alex, who kept Holly’s computer hardware and software running smoothly to allow her to communicate with the outside world, agrees: “She was able to do so much with what little she had. She did incredible work. She was very inspiring.”

Testimonials from those Holly helped

As further proof, Tammy unfolds handwritten letters written to Holly by people she’d helped with her online counseling.

“You gave me motivation to try and do well on my final exams,” wrote a grateful high school student in California. “You mentioned that becoming a therapist was your dream. I was thinking of going into the medical field. Although I’m not sure I’ll be able to, reading how you’ve progressed, although it wasn’t easy, has given me motivation to give it a shot.”

A young mother in Canada wrote to thank Holly for her encouraging correspondence: “I find writing these letters helps to keep my depression away. Especially with the Covid restrictions, these letters are very much like little visits to me.”

Tammy carefully re-folds the letters and tucks them back into her purse. After taking a deep breath and wiping a tear, she sums her feelings:

“It was an honor to have been Holly’s parent. Her thing was that she just wanted to help people. She did so much with so little — and she could not understand how people who had so much did so little with it.

“Holly was the type of person who wanted everybody to live life to its fullest. Even if it was just doing a little thing different in your routine, like driving home from work on a different route, to discover what new things you might see along the way.”

Tammy points to the lyrics to one of Holly’s favorite songs, “I Lived” by OneRepublic, especially this verse:

“I did it all

“I owned every second that this world could give

“I saw so many places, the things that I did

“With every broken bone, I swear I lived”

“Holly lived her best life,” Tammy says. “She wanted everyone to do the same. Don’t wait for the ‘perfect time.’ There is no such guarantee in life. Just do it now.”

Mike O'Brien

Mike O’Brien is a longtime newspaper reporter, editor and columnist and is also a college journalism educator in Springfield. To suggest a person who might make a subject for Lives Remembered, email him at LivesRemembered@sgfcitizen.org or obriencolumn@sbcglobal.net. More by Mike O’Brien