With her brother’s hand gripping hers, UGA senior ”drew her last breath,” ending her six-week battle with an brain tumor

With her hand tightly held by her brother, who lay in the bed next to her, Liza Burke took her last breath and falling asleep, she would not wake up again.

The world has been following the story of Liza, the beautiful 21-year-old University of Georgia senior, who organized, for 53 friends a final, pre-graduation spring break trip to Cabo. But when she was there, she had a brain hemorrhage and was later diagnosed with an aggressive malignant brain tumor. It was her final trip ever.

When she died April 28, her mother Laura McKeithen, said that “her brother slept on the sofa and held her hand all night long. She drew her last breath with Jack holding her hand.”

Describing Liza as someone who “lived it big,” and “very authentic and unapologetically herself,” her 55-year-old mother offers this advice: “Don’t waste time worrying about stupid stuff. Just go for it.”

That’s the philosophy that drove Liza, an adventurous soul that inspired her to travel the world.

Vacationing in Cabo, Liza sent her mom photos of her doing handstands on the beach, boating and cliff diving. On her last night, the group had a beach bonfire where they sang and told stories. The next morning, after a workout with her boyfriend, she left breakfast early, telling friends that she had a blinding headache. Heading to her room for a nap, she was found hours later, unconscious in bed.

Doctors in Mexico found Liza had a brain bleed and suspecting a ruptured Arteriovenoum malformation (AVM), part of her skull was removed to slow the bleeding. Her mom immediately flew to be with Liza and brought her back to her home state of Florida, where she took her to the Mayo Clinic. Doctors there ruled out AVM and discovered she had a malignant, aggressive tumor in the brainstem.

GoFundMe / Friends Of Liza Burke

Recalling when Liza first woke from sedation, Laura said her daughter ripped the ventilator from her mouth, “They were worried she wouldn’t breathe on her own, but of course she was fine.”

The tumor, stressing the part of her brain that kept her awake, made it difficult for Liza, who kept falling in and out of sleep.

“When she was awake, she was talking a little bit, and she was communicating by squeezing my hand or wiggling her toes,” her mom said. “I asked her, ‘Liza, are you scared?’ I had been asking her all kinds of other questions and when I asked her if she was scared, she did not squeeze my hand.”

Family and friends had a few more days with Liza, who rebounded when she started what was supposed to be six-weeks of daily radiation.

She was doing squats, riding a bike and trying to walk.

But a few days later, doctors found a new hemorrhage on her brain.

Knowing Liza’s energetic spirit, her mother did not want Liza intubated again, which triggered conversations with her medical team.

Laura said wondered if the headaches Liza suffered in her freshman year were early signs of the brain tumor, and if they caught it earlier, would her daughter be okay?

GoFundMe / Friends Of Liza Burke

In a conversation with Liza’s oncologist, Laura recalled that she asked, “if we had caught this when she first told me that she thought there was something wrong in her head–do you think things could have been different?”

Looking around her decorated room, which was “full, full, full, full of pictures of her and her friends,” the oncologist replied, “Well, I can tell you one thing for sure: She wouldn’t have all of these pictures.’” Laura said he then explained to her that “We would eventually be exactly where we are right now.”

When the family learned that treatment was failing, and recommended hospice care, Laura needed to find a place where she knew her daughter would be happy.

“She would want to be somewhere beautiful, where she could be with her friends, and with her family and everybody could celebrate her, and she could be outside and enjoy the beach or the mountains,” her mother remembers thinking.

Laura found a beachfront Airbnb, confirming with the owners that they were comfortable with it being used for hospice care, and rented it for a month. Liza and her immediate family moved in on April 19, where friends and grandparents frequently gathered to visit.

In those days, Liza was alert, but she was unable to speak. Laura said that her daughter communicated with “a little gesture with her mouth or her eyelids, but she would wiggle her toes.”

GoFundMe / Friends Of Liza Burke

On April 27, everyone gathered to watch Liza’s favorite movie, Interstellar, with Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain.

After the movie was finished, Laura went to her own bedroom and said about that decision, “I knew if I was with her, I would probably drive her crazy, staring at her and squeezing her hand and squeezing her toes and kissing her.”

Sleeping hand in hand with her brother Jack, Liza died about 2 a.m. Friday.

“Liza took a final breath, sighed and transitioned into the next realm.” Laura continued, “Liza has now been reunited with her sister and they are making up for lost time!” Liza’s big sister Edie, died in 2008 from a rare genetic disorder known as MPS1.

In her online journal, filled with heartbreaking musings, Laura wrote, “If I could, I would hang onto Liza and follow her.”

On May 2, Laura received in the mail, a class project from Liza’s senior year of high school, a letter written by Liza to her future self. Her teacher promised to mail the letters to the students when they graduated college. Liza would have graduated May 12, 2023.

“It was just beautiful. It was all her,” Laura said, adding that she will read excerpts at her memorial.  

Liza was cremated and Laura plans to scatter her ashes in the mountains and maybe some in Mexico.

Remembering her daughter as a brave, fearless, adventurous and joyful young woman, Laura said, “That tumor may have taken her life, but it didn’t slow her down. She lived life.”

“Her legacy is to live life to its fullest, every day. What I want people to know is that she freaking did life well. I wish that I could do my life as well as she’s done in her life.”

Her mother is asking for contributions to The Liza and Edie Burke Education fund to “honor two sisters and the genuine, dynamic, playful and fierce way they gave back to the world.”

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