Two days after Kansas mom Casi Rott gave birth to triplets, she woke up at 4 a.m. with a sharp pain in her chest and a racing heartbeat.
Her devoted husband Joey rushed her to the hospital where a CT scan showed she had a blood clot in her lungs. After additional tests and two days in the hospital, she was released.
“We thought we had it behind us,” says Joey, 34. “She felt really good when she left.”
The couple immediately went to the NICU to hold their babies – Asher, Levi and Piper – for a few short hours and then made the two-and-a-half hour drive back to their farmhouse in Clay Center, Kansas, to see their two older daughters, Tenley, 2 and Chloe, 6.
“It wasn’t too bad when we left the babies because we planned on going back to the hospital the next day,” Joey tells PEOPLE.
But things didn’t go as planned.
Casi, 36, died the following day on Feb. 8 from the blood clot.
“My emotions were numb,” Joey says of his wife’s death. “It didn t feel real at all. It was for sure the worst moment of my life.”
Her Final Moments
Casi, a school secretary and gifted artist, was thrilled to be home after spending a couple days in the hospital following the discovering of a blood clot. She didn’t waste a minute when she walked through the front door. Cookies went into the oven, she started pumping breast milk, did a load of laundry and folded the babies’ clothes in the nursery.
“She was getting back into the rhythm,” says Joey.
When Joey went to pick up the couple’s two older daughters from daycare, he told them he had a surprise waiting for them at home.
“The girls were so excited to see [Casi],” he recalls. “Casi was crying too because she was so excited.”
But just minutes after the family reunited, Casi’s chest pains returned. She sat down to rest, but the symptoms didn’t go away – so they rushed to the hospital again.
While Joey frantically drove them to the emergency room, Casi lost consciousness in the car.
“I was trying to wake her up,” he says. “The [doctors] worked on her for a long time, but there wasn’t a whole lot they could do.”
Rewriting the Script
Four months after Casi’s tragic death, Joey is left raising the couple’s five beautiful children.
“Every week is getting better,” he says. “I have so much support from my family and the community.”
His parents – Barbara, 61, and Chuck, 60 – live just seven miles away and come over every day to help out with the little ones.
“It’s very bittersweet,” says Barbara, a nurse who saved up enough vacation and comp days at work to help out for a few months. “She really was a daughter to me.”
She says her son, who did a diaper change “here and there” when Chloe and Tenley were babies, now does everything.
“He’s the mom and the dad,” she adds.
A GoFundMe page was set up by Joey’s friend Hilary Thompson and has reached $154,000.
His garage is also filled with donations, including clothing, baby food and soap.
Friends, family and neighbors have all lent their support. On an afternoon in May, one neighbor drops off chicken noodle soup, fresh strawberries and cake.
“I’m so grateful for all this help,” he says. “I can’t do it on my own.”
Keeping Casi’s Memory Alive
Casi and Joey spent years building their dream house, which they bought at an auction in 2008.
“Casi is all over this house,” he says. “She designed the curtains and created almost every piece of artwork on the wall.”
Her clothes still hang in the closet the couple shared.
“I haven’t been able to get rid of her things,” Joey says. “It’s just too hard.”
Just a couple hours before she died, Casi hung up a yellow painting with white text that reads, “You’re my sunshine.”
Her artwork is just one of the many things that Joey will make sure to tell his children about.
Pictures of Casi are displayed throughout the house, and just the other day, 2-year-old Tenley said, “I miss mom.”
“After Tenley was born, Casi said, ‘If something every happens to me, just make sure the kids know how much I love them.’ That stuck in my head,” Joey shares. “That’s the one thing I’m going to make sure I tell them all the time.”