Family recounts heartbreak in tragic death of 7 year old

Family and friends of 7-year-old Savanna Jessie will say farewell today during funeral services, while hanging onto beloved memories of her time with them and the joy she brought into their lives.

The Columbus first-grader died Feb. 1 after being diagnosed with Influenza B, strep throat and scarlet fever. Tests are pending to determine the official cause of Savanna’s death, but her story has become part of national news coverage on the toll this year’s flu season is taking among children.

Strains of the flu claimed the lives of 136 Indiana residents as of Jan. 27, including three people under the age of 24, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

“I never thought it could happen to us,” said Savanna’s father, Matt Jessie. “This has been devastating.”

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Until a few days before her death, Savanna was a healthy child, her father said. The Columbus Signature Academy — Lincoln Elementary School student had not been ill over the past four years, Jessie said.

But on Jan. 29, Savanna wasn’t feeling well and stayed home from school, Jessie said.

By the next day, she was running a fever, which the family treated with over-the-counter analgesics, he said. As her fever continued to fluctuate up and down, Jessie decided to take Savanna to the Columbus Regional Hospital emergency room the evening of Jan. 30.

The doctor did a strep throat test, although he diagnosed her with strep before the results could come back, Savanna’s father said.

With the choice of receiving a shot of antibiotics or 10 days worth of medicine, Savanna took the “big girl” option and agreed to the shot, Jessie said.

After they returned to the Jessie home in the 900 block of Fourth Street, Savanna continued to run a fever Jan. 31.

“I told her, ‘Get your coat on, baby, we got to go back,’” Jessie said.

Initially, Savanna balked because she thought another shot was in the works, but she agreed and the two went back to the hospital emergency department, where she was running a 104-degree temperature, he said.

After a flu test came back positive, Savanna received an intravenous for fluids, more fever reducers, a high dose of steroids and Tamiflu at the hospital, Jessie said.

She also received pain medication and more antibiotics, her father said.

A short time afterward, Savanna perked up as her temperature lowered into the normal range, Jessie said.

“She was sitting up, laughing with me. We were talking and playing, talking about the television in the room,” he said.

Savanna was released from the emergency department, and later the family noticed in the paperwork that she also had been diagnosed with scarlet fever, her father said.

On the way home, Jessie asked Savanna if she was hungry, and his daughter asked for a cheeseburger, french fries and a Sprite from a drive-thru, which she ate at home. She then told her father she was tired and wanted to go to bed.

Her father said he kissed her goodnight, then went back in later to check on her, determining she wasn’t running a fever and seemed fine.

Jessie said he went to bed, and his wife Jordan told him she also checked on Savanna and she was sound asleep.

When Matt Jessie woke up the next morning, he went in to check on Savanna and found her laying on her back in the top bunk bed of her bedroom, but she wasn’t covered up, he said. Checking her legs to see if she was cold without being covered, Jessie realized his daughter wasn’t moving — or breathing.

“I started CPR, and I called to my wife to call 911,” Jessie said.

He kept doing CPR until police and first responders arrived and a relative drove him to the hospital, where Savanna was pronounced dead by the Bartholomew County Coroner’s office.

Although Jessie said he has talked to others about Savanna’s death, he acknowledged that he is holding much of his grief inside, and is unsure how he is actually dealing with the aftermath of losing his child.

“I never thought in a million lifetimes that anything like this could happen,” he said.

Community responds

As the community and family and friends have come together to provide food, gift cards and support, Jessie said he was deeply appreciative of everything people were doing to help. An online fundraising site has raised more than $8,500 to help pay for funeral expenses, and donations continue to come in.

At her funeral today, two of Savanna’s favorite songs will be played — “Sugar” by Maroon 5 and “Rest High on the Mountain” by Vince Gill, Jessie said.

Savanna was remembered Monday by her classmates and staff at CSA Lincoln with a balloon release.

After the girl’s death, classmates decided they wanted to write notes to Savanna, principal Brett Findley said.

Teachers and staff members collected the notes and helped the first-graders attach them to bright yellow balloons — the color signifying Savanna’s bright personality, he said.

The classmates and their teacher, Lori Cash, and other staff members released the balloons in an afternoon ceremony as a way to send their messages to Savanna, Findley said.

Since CSA Lincoln is a project-based learning school, the first-graders had already been working on a pets project as part of their studies, partnering with the Bartholomew County Humane Society, the principal said.

The project will now be conducted in memory of Savanna, as her family has requested that donations be given to the humane society in her memory.

Savanna’s obituary mentioned that she loved to draw and color and loved her stuffed animals and school, and also her cats and dogs.

Cash described Savanna as a bright and vibrant girl who could light up the first-grade classroom with her smile and the twinkle in her eyes.

“She was always eager to learn and to do her best at school,” Cash said in a written statement following the announcement of Savanna’s death. “We will truly miss this kind-hearted and enthusiastic young lady. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.”

Findley described Savanna as a child who had a smile that reached ear to ear.

“She loved school and made everyone’s day brighter,” he said. “Every time I came into her classroom, she always gave me a hug. She gave the best hugs. Our school family will miss her deeply.”

Dad’s memories

Savanna’s father said he will always remember his daughter’s beautiful smile, and how she brought sunshine into every room she entered.

Jessie said he is grateful for the times he had to sit down and draw and color pictures with his daughter, and the times they would spend together “making stuff.”

Savanna had been looking forward to her first year of soccer this spring, her father said.

She had been in gymnastics, but wanted to play soccer because her favorite speed was running, not walking, he said.

This past summer, Savanna saw the ocean in Florida for the first time, something that her father remembers as a special time for the family.

“She loved the ocean,” he said.

In December, the Republic published a photo of Savanna grinning widely — with two front teeth missing — as the Indiana Pacers and Fever cheerleaders were distributing presents during a Christmas event at The Commons in downtown Columbus.

Her father said the photo showed what had been Savanna’s Christmas wish in 2017.

“All she wanted for Christmas was her two front teeth,” he said.

Services for Savanna Jessie

Savanna Jessie was born on Sept. 27, 2010 in Indianapolis, the daughter of Matthew T. Jessie and Tasha Wooten.

Survivors from her immediate family include her father and stepmother, Matthew and Jordan Jessie of Columbus; her mother, Tasha Wooten of Columbus; sisters, Madison Jessie and Abriannah Jessie; brothers, Jayden Jessie, Kaleb Jessie, Xander Wooten, Carson Turner and Keegan Tempest.

Services for Savanna Jessie will be at 2 p.m. today at Barkes, Weaver, & Glick Funeral Home, 1029 Washington St. Friends may call from 12:30 p.m. today until time of service at the funeral home.

Memorial contributions may be given to the Bartholomew County Humane Society.

Online condolences may be shared at barkesweaverglick.com, where a video tribute is available.

How to help

An online drive to help Matt and Jordan Jessie raise money for funeral and burial costs of 7-year-old Savanna Jessie can be found at

youcaring.com/mattandjordonjessie-1085809

Their $8,500 goal had been surpassed with $8,940 from 200 donors as of 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.