Kelly Bell had a zest for life. In her 47 years, she touched the lives of many, whether it was through local breast cancer awareness groups, local youths or her work as a dental assistant.
“She was very well-loved. She was so vibrant, so alive,” said John Bell, her husband of almost 12 years.
There were 572 signatures at the guest book at Kelly’s viewing.
“They had to add pages,” said her mother, Audrey Coffelt of Hagerstown.
Kelly’s fifth-floor room at Meritus Medical Center always was filled with visitors. Audrey and John both have big families and many nieces, nephews and family friends who kept vigil, including friends of the Bells’ children.
“That hospital room was so full all the time. ... The hospital said they’ve never seen so many visitors,” Audrey said. “I just get a lot of comfort out of all the people. She was a people person.”
Kelly was born and raised in the South End of Hagerstown, the youngest of Jack and Audrey Coffelt’s two daughters. She graduated from South Hagerstown High School in 1983 and attended the Washington County Career Studies Center for dental assisting.
Kelly’s zest for life didn’t include school, though, her mother said.
“She hated school, from the very beginning until she graduated. She just detested it,” Audrey said.
Since Kelly didn’t like school and most likely wouldn’t be going to college, Audrey suggested Kelly find a career she could be trained for at the Career Studies Center. Kelly wanted to be a hairdresser, but by the time she made her decision, the program was full.
Audrey suggested the dental assisting program, and Kelly signed up. Since it was Audrey’s suggestion, she became the scapegoat every time Kelly didn’t pass the state boards, she said with a laugh.
It took four tries, but Kelly finally passed.
“She fell in love with it,” said her father, Jack Coffelt.
During the course of her career, she worked for practices in Hagerstown, Waynesboro, Pa., and Mercersburg, Pa., as well as at one of the prisons and working with AIDS patients.
“She was way more than a dental assistant,” John said.
Kelly worked up until the last two weeks of her life. When she was taken to the hospital for the last time, she said she needed to call Family Dentistry to tell them she wouldn’t be at work.
Work provided a welcome diversion from her medical issues. It also was a good fit since she loved being around people.
Kelly was known for sitting on the porch of the Bells’ Forest Avenue home, and people would stop by to chat or passing drivers would wave and honk, John said.
“She was always on the go, thinking of something to do,” Audrey said. “She just needed to have something going on.”
John said his two daughters and Kelly’s son, who graduated from North Hagerstown High School, and their friends always were at the Bells’ house. The Bells also have two grandchildren.
“She was always the community mother,” John said. “Other mothers would see the smoke flying from our grill and knew their kids were OK. She kept a lot of kids off the street.”
Kelly always was prepared to feed a crowd, and was known for her chili, steamers, collard greens, ribs and crockpot lasagna.
She was involved with the youth group at Salem Reformed Church in Hagerstown, loved gardening, especially caring for her clematis plants, and had a passion for Zumba.
“She just lived life to the fullest. She was always content staying at home, entertaining at her house. She was laughing all the time,” said sister Traci Davis, who lives near Mercersburg.
Kelly and John met in high school at the dances that WQCM used to sponsor, even though she was a student at South High and he was at North High.
“We made eye contact. It was instant,” John said.
They each married other people. Years later, they ran into each other at Food Lion and discovered they were both divorced.
A phone conversation after that meeting was the beginning of a 16-year relationship, John said.
Kelly loved being a mother and after her divorce, focused on her son, Lynn M. Lowman Jr., who turned 20 on May 9.
“She really took that job (parenting) to heart,” Audrey said. “He always said she was awesome and gave her a thumbs up.”
“Her son — he was her life. She worried about him all the time,” Traci said. She added that Kelly always considered John’s daughters, Ariel and Sapphire, her daughters.
Kelly was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 years ago, about a month after she and John got married. Treatment included surgical removal of her breasts, 23 weeks of pre- and post-surgical chemotherapy, along with radiation. Kelly was in remission for 11 years, although Audrey said in hindsight, there were signs something was wrong.
Pain behind Kelly’s right eye, swollen ankles, fatigue, stomach discomfort and lumps in her cheeks were the early signals. A visit to an oral surgeon led him to call her radiologist, and a biopsy indicated the cancer had returned.
Audrey said her doctors, both in Hagerstown and Baltimore, never had seen the facial issues Kelly was experiencing. Appearance was important to Kelly, although she was proud of her bald head and never covered it up, but she worked to cover up the outward symptoms of the return of her disease.
“It really baffled a lot of the doctors,” Audrey said.
Chemotherapy treatments resumed and blood transfusions were needed. A high-powered chemotherapy treatment in mid-April really hit her hard.
“I think she had a lot of faith in her doctor,” Audrey said. “He told her it would be a long haul.”
The family wonders now, though, if in the back of Kelly’s mind, she knew she might not recover. April is a big month for birthdays in the family, and Kelly was insistent there be separate celebrations for the birthdays and for Easter, with lots of photographs.
Baking Christmas cookies this past holiday seemed to take on greater importance to Kelly, her mother said.
Kelly was hospitalized Sunday, April 22. Up until Wednesday, two days before she died, John said they thought she was going to pull through.
She always had wanted to see the musical “Phantom of the Opera,” and Audrey and a friend had planned to take Kelly the week she ended up in the hospital.
“Through the struggle of it all with her, there was serene calmness ... She went away peacefully. You just felt the room decompress. Lynn was holding her hand. We just didn’t want her to hurt anymore,” said John, who said Kelly opened her eyes briefly and smiled just before she died.
“She was such a bigger-than-life figure. It just doesn’t seem real,” John said.
Kelly’s bigger-than-life personality included alter egos. John called Kelly “Whugs”, short for Sugar Whugger, or Gladys, when she was acting like the nosy neighbor in the TV show “Bewitched.” Kelly called John “Choochie.”
After watching Kelly’s valiant battle against breast cancer, Traci and her daughter, Jaimee Starliper, committed to doing the Susan G. Komen Walk in Washington, D.C., in October in her honor. They started walking three to four miles a day to prepare for the three-day, 60-mile walk, Traci said.
“It’s hard. You feel so alone, then I think about all the people,” John said.
Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Kelly J. Bell, who died April 27 at the age of 47. Her obituary was published in the April 29 edition of The Herald-Mail.