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Despite illness, Courtney Carter looked for deeper meaning and inspired others

Despite being stricken with lupus, Courtney Carter never stopped happily achieving.
Published Dec. 4, 2014

LARGO — Courtney Carter launched her own YouTube channel 2 1/2 years ago, full of fashion tips and narrated with the bubbly patter of a high school girl chatting with close friends.

She was 17 then, on the way to a career in marketing and communications and who-knows-what. She admired Oprah Winfrey and Tyra Banks and envisioned creating a television show one day that would blend inner substance with a fresh, eminently presentable look on a Target budget.

She produced 99 such videos, many of them prefaced with advertisements by large corporations, despite classes at Florida State University and a severe form of lupus, an autoimmune disease. Ms. Carter devoted a few of her videos to discussing the physical toll her illness had taken and the limitations it presented. She did so in order to emphasize the capabilities that remained, which in her case were numerous.

Ms. Carter, whose story already reflected accomplishment and not just dreams, died Nov. 23 at Shands at the University of Florida. She was 19.

"Lupus is something that I have. I am not lupus," Ms. Carter told her viewers in July. "Lupus does not define me. I define me."

Despite exhaustion, pain and hospitalizations that could last weeks at a time, Ms. Carter held down mostly A's in high school and college. The teenager led orderly routines, a necessity in balancing classes with her Alpha Gamma Delta sorority activities and an internship at a communications firm.

A good piano and guitar player herself, she loved Mariah Carey as well as hip-hip music that "my husband and I can't really tolerate," said Dr. Charmaine Carter, 50, a physician and her mother.

Ms. Carter kept the family in stitches with stories she made up on the spot, especially one about Rudolph the reindeer that got sillier with each improvised paragraph. With her parents and two younger siblings, she maintained a tradition of exchanging handmade Christmas cards.

She disliked liars, drama queens, motorcyclists who zip between cars and grocery shoppers who plop down dozens of items in the express lane. She also found people who publicly feud on social media annoying.

"Like, how old are you?" Ms. Carter asked in a June video, My Top 10 Pet Peeves.

Courtney Elizabeth Carter was born in 1995 in St. Petersburg. She grew up in Largo, the daughter of a doctor and a lawyer who runs a recruiting firm. Symptoms of illness began appearing in seventh grade. A strong tennis player, her wrists ached and she had trouble holding on to her racket.

Knee and ankle problems followed. "It was as if there was shattered glass inside her ankle joint," her mother said.

Doctors diagnosed lupus, which causes the immune system to attack healthy cells of the joints, skin and internal organs. She entered St. Petersburg High's International Baccalaureate program as a freshman, earning mostly A's despite spending part of the first semester in the hospital, her mother said.

She transferred to St. Petersburg Catholic, where she became a cheerleader. As a junior she contracted shingles, in which "your body just burns to the bone," Ms. Carter said in one of her videos. From a hospital bed, she emailed photos of her math homework to her teacher.

In June, she marked two years of YouTube videos, which she had slickly edited and backed with music. Ms. Carter derived income from the videos, which she sprinkled with references to the clothes and accessories she often displayed — such as clothes by Target or the polka dot and pink iPhone case by Kate Spade, and the place it occupied in her Michael Kors handbag.

Several videos seem inspired by Alpha Gamma Delta, such as what to wear to orientations (a "nice sundress," or a skirt with a nice top), or open house day (good shorts or chinos and comfortable shoes).

On Nov. 12, Ms. Carter complained of worsening headaches, shortness of breath and fatigue. She collapsed that day. At the hospital, doctors measured her blood platelet count at 6,000, a sign of severe anemia. A normal count ranges from 150,000 to 450,000.

Yet when visited by Rachel Elkin, her sorority "big sister," she stayed focused on asking about how Elkin was doing.

"She was honestly the most inspiring and positive person I have ever met," said Elkin, 20.

In a YouTube video made in July, My Story + Positivity: Keep On Keepin On, Ms. Carter reminds viewers, "I can decide what I want to do. I decide who I want to be and so can you." With a big smile and a wagging index finger, she drives the point home.

"I'm telling you guys, so can you."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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