NASHVILLE — The mother of Meghan Santiago, an Army wife who delivered her third child by emergency cesarean section after suffering a traumatic brain injury, wept softly as she followed her daughter’s hospital bed to an operating room on Oct. 6.
A long line of doctors and nurses at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center stood at attention in the hallway, as well as uniformed members of the U.S. Army from Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
Santiago’s bed rolled by all of them in a solemn ritual called an “honor walk.”
That’s because 33-year-old Santiago, who had been declared brain dead, was about to donate her organs before being taken off life support.
Her husband, Joseph Santiago–a sergeant with the U.S. Army Special Forces division at Fort Campbell–was being held for Meghan’s murder.
Incredibly moving video shows #Army wife #MeghanSantiago, who delivered 3rd child by C-section after traumatic brain injury, on way to surgery for organ donation. Her husband Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Santiago is charged with murder. Meghan’s mom wept quietly. pic.twitter.com/7bnY1GPfsV— Mary Murphy (@MurphyPIX) October 11, 2021
“She was small enough she could donate to children,” Meghan’s cousin, Kristin Varcak, told PIX11 News about the family’s decision to save other lives by harvesting the petite mom’s organs.
Kristin Varcak pushed Santiago’s mother, Andrea, in a wheelchair during the honor walk.
The tearful mother suffered a stroke last year and was now about to lose her only child.
Varcak and her sister, Emily, drove 12 hours with their aunt from Spring Hill, Florida after Vanderbilt tracked them down to notify them about Meghan’s condition.
Riding with them was family friend Sandra Budowski, a domestic violence survivor Santiago contacted by on Facebook Messenger on Friday, Sept. 24, three days before she sustained her fatal injury.
“She talked to me that she was in an abusive relationship and would I assist her in getting out,” Budowski told PIX11. “And I said, ‘Yeah!’ I was ready to go right then.”
But the worried young wife, who was 32 weeks pregnant and already had a 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, wanted to wait just over a week.
“He was supposed to go off to training the seventh,” Budowski said, referring to Santiago’s husband. “And she wanted to wait until the seventh,” she said, meaning October 7.
Santiago had met her husband when she was working at a doctor’s office in Florida with her mother. After their son was born, Joseph Santiago was assigned to military duties in Germany for several years, taking his family with him, before they all returned to the United States.
When the Santiagos ended up in military housing at Fort Campbell, Meghan’s family had a difficult time reaching her.
“He basically isolated her from all of us,” said Kristin Varcak. “Even her mother had a hard time communicating with her. I don’t think she even had her own phone.”
And so Meghan used social media, in the form of Facebook Messenger, in a desperate effort to leave an abusive marriage, according to the family friend that grew up with her in Florida.
“She asked me, because I was a survivor,” Budowski said.
“I told her not to worry about anything, about packing anything,” Budowski recalled. “I told her just to go with the clothes on her back.”
“I’ve known Meghan since age 12,” Budowski added. “Right out of high school, she worked with me and her mother at the doctor’s office. And she ended up meeting the husband, having babies. She was happy-go-lucky. So full of life!
The U.S. Army isn’t giving out much information about what happened in the Santiago household at Fort Campbell on Monday, September 27, but the family knows Meghan suffered brain trauma and Sgt. Joseph Santiago, assigned to 5th Special Forces group, was arrested the next day.
Fort Campbell issued a statement saying, “This tragic event has shaken our entire unit. We take all allegations of domestic violence seriously, and we will provide every resource to ensure a thorough investigation.”
Vanderbilt University Medical Center had to notify Meghan Santiago’s next of kin using social media, because her cousin didn’t recognize the number that was constantly calling her from Tennessee. She thought it was a telemarketer.
“Finally, they had reached me through a message on Facebook, asking me to call them,” Emily Varcak said.
When Santiago’s mother and cousins arrived at the Nashville hospital with the family friend, Emily Varcak recalls it was shocking to see Santiago swollen, with so many tubes in her body.
“They just said she’s in grave condition, and there’s no chance of her being Meghan again,” Varcak shared.
Meghan’s mother and cousins were able to visit her two older children, who were placed in foster care, and also the newborn, Caitlin, who remained in Neonatal Intensive Care at Vanderbilt.
“We did see the baby,” Emily Varcak said, “and she was so cute. She looks just like her mother.”
The Varcaks have now set up a GoFundMe for Santiago’s children and hope to start a foundation in her honor.
They are wearing specially made T-shirts with the words, “Her Fight is My Fight.”
There’s a purple ribbon on the shirts, the color for Domestic Violence Month, and Meghan’s name is printed on the ribbon.
Video of Meghan Santiago’s honor walk at Vanderbilt Hospital has drawn a huge response on Facebook, with current and former military wives posting that domestic violence is a pervasive problem among their ranks, often coupled with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
One woman posted a photo of the young mom with the caption: “This is Meghan. Her story will not go untold.”