'I Really, Really Miss Her': The Smile, Light & Last Days of Congressman's Wife Who Died Suddenly

On June 13, Carol Russell heard someone calling her name and turned to see her friend and neighbor, 39-year-old Carol Barr, power walking toward her wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses.

The two chatted about how the novel coronavirus shutdown had been hard on Barr’s daughters, 9-year-old Eleanor and 7-year-old Mary Clay. “Being away from school, being away from their friends,” Russell recalls, “it was difficult for them.”

Barr also asked Russell training for marathons — and Russell offered to loan Barr several books, if she wanted to start running.

“She said, ‘But I’m 39.’ I said, ‘Carol, I didn’t run my first marathon until I was 47. So you’re not too old,’ ” Russell, 65, tells PEOPLE.

Three days later, Russell learned that Carol — the wife of Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr — had died in her Lexington home. The coroner later said Carol was in her home office and the cause of death appeared to be a heart condition called mitral valve prolapse (MVP).

When Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn arrived at the Barrs' home around 6:55 p.m. last Tuesday, he told PEOPLE, “there was no explanation” for why Carol had suddenly died. “Obviously, an autopsy was necessary,” Ginn said last week.

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, for people with MVP the heart's mitral valve has "floppy" flaps that may cause blood to "leak the wrong way."

“Have you heard of people talking about a floppy valve in the heart that doesn’t seal well and it allows blood to seep through?” Ginn explains. “That’s that valve.”

“We are all just so deeply saddened,” says Russell, who was unaware of Carol's health issue. “I woke up at 2:30 a.m. just shaken to the core. I just started crying because it’s such a huge loss for us all. All who knew Carol.”

Nick J. Hines, a 49-year-old horse owner and TVG analyst better known as “the Sarge,” met the Barr family about 14 months ago: His horse won, and he invited the family to join him in the winner’s circle.

“You know when you look at people and you know they’re a happy family? It was the perfect day,” Hines says now. Carol's death “breaks your heart, it really does. … She left us far too soon.”

As for Carol's neighbor, Russell looks back at pictures taken of herself and her friend when they attended a charity fundraiser March 7. And she thinks of their brief conversation the weekend before Carol died, with Carol smiling and enjoying the beautiful weather.

“She exuded goodness,” Russell says, calling Carol a "radiant spirit."

“It’s going to be a huge loss for Andy. She was a tremendous support to him in every way.”

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