She was a blessing to many, a remarkable woman who'd survived a brain tumor with deep faith and abiding humor. Then, in a devastating instant, she was gone.
Shock mixed with heart-rending grief continued to spread Tuesday with the news that 23-year-old McKenna Winnie of Saddle Brook had been killed in a traffic accident in South Jersey.
The Rutgers University research assistant was headed east on Route 619 in Upper Pittsgrove Township (Salem County) late Monday morning when her car collided with a tractor-trailer heading south at the intersection of Route 77, according to New Jersey State Police.
They were investigating the crash.
"She had a beautiful heart for loving others and bringing joy," wrote Rev. Christopher B. Wolf of the First Reformed Church of Saddle Brook. "She lived a life of and was seeking a career of serving others. Girl Scouts, church, caring for family and friends -- she was always there."
Loved ones and friends had rallied around Winnie, a human services major who'd only just begun her sophomore year at the University of Delaware when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2017.
It began with persistent arm pain that spread, Winnie told UDaily. She returned home for a checkup, followed by a series of examinations and tests.
A brain MRI found the problem.
Surgeons removed a precancerous tumor, after which Winnie undertook -- and completed -- an ardous and challenging rehabilitation. Not only was walking, sitting and standing difficult -- "it literally hurt to think," Winnie told UDaily.
The side of her head had recently been shaved for the surgery when she Skyped with an assistant professor who ended up hiring Winnie as an undergrad research assistant.
The going was tough, but the pride of Saddle Brook Middle/High School (Class of 2016) pushed through the physical challenges of college, work and everyday life buoyed by the love of family, friends, classmates and co-workers.
"[I]t made a huge impact on my mental health during a time when I was overwhelmed with fear and anxiety and needed someone to talk to,” she told UDaily.
Winnie not only survived. She thrived.
She interned with a teen program in Wilmington, helped expand a Delaware youth program, mentored for Teachers of Tomorrow and worked as a research assistant on a national initiative to assist individuals with disabilities.
She also was graduated from UD last year with a Bachelor of Science degree in human services.
Winnie took a position with the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research and was working on her Master's degree in public policy and public health at Rutgers.
The promise is part of what makes her passing so unfathomable for those who knew her.
"Even when she faced her own health issues, we all sat in her hospital room laughing and telling stories," said Wolf, the pastor.
He quoted lyrics from a song by Christian and gospel icon Natalie Grant:
“This is what it means to be held. How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life, and you survive. This is what it is to be loved, and to know that the promise was -- when everything fell, we'd be held."
"Please hold the Winnie family in your prayers," the pastor asked.
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