Kara Kennedy, the oldest child of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, died at a Washington-area health club, her brother said Saturday. She was 51.
Six years after she was deemed cancer-free, Kara Kennedy accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of her father, just days before Sen. Edward Kennedy died while battling a brain tumor.
However, her own lung cancer treatment — surgery and grueling chemotherapy and radiation — left her physically weakened, her brother Patrick Kennedy said. She died Friday after her daily workout.
"Her heart gave out," said Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman from Rhode Island.
"She's with dad."
Kennedy was a member of the Sport & Health fitness center, though spokeswoman Nancy Terry declined to release further details about the incident, citing member privacy.
Her ex-husband, Michael Allen, said she frequently visited the club and went swimming every day if she could. He said details about her death would be released by The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. He said funeral arrangements are being made.
"Insofar as I'm concerned her legacy is one of courage and grit and determination in the face of her own illness and in the face of many family tragedies and limitless, absolutely limitless, devotion to our children," he said.
A former Kennedy aide, Scott Ferson, recalled her as a devoted mother to her two teenage children, and someone who didn't love the political spotlight in which her father was at home.
"But she did enjoy the connection with people out on the campaign trail at events, and she certainly loved talking to people about their connection to her father," Ferson told WBUR.
Kara Kennedy was born in 1960 to Edward and Joan Bennett Kennedy, just as her father was on the campaign trail for his brother John F. Kennedy during the presidential primaries.
The late senator wrote of his oldest child in his 2009 memoir, "True Compass," that "I had never seen a more beautiful baby, nor been happier in my life."
Later, she and her brother Edward Kennedy Jr. helped run their father's 1988 U.S. Senate campaign.
Her lung cancer diagnosis came in 2002, and the prognosis was grim. But the family refused to accept that, the senator wrote. She was able to have an operation, and Edward Kennedy accompanied his daughter to chemotherapy treatments.
"Kara responded to my exhortations to have faith in herself," he wrote. "Today, nearly seven years later as I write this, Kara is a healthy, vibrant, active mother of two who is flourishing."
Her children, Grace and Max, are now teenagers.
Her two brothers have dealt with health issues of their own: Edward Kennedy Jr. lost a leg to bone cancer as a child, and Patrick Kennedy had surgery in 1988 to remove a non-cancerous tumor that was pressing against his spine.
"Her magnificent strength in her successful battle with lung cancer was a quiet inspiration to all us and provided her family and fellow patients with hope," the Edward M. Kennedy Institute said in a news release.
Five months before her death, Kara Kennedy wrote of her father and the institute named in his honor in an article published in The Boston Globe Magazine. She described Christmas 1984, when her father insisted on spending the night helping relief workers feed hungry people in the Ethiopian desert. And how each summer, the family loaded the family into a Winnebago for road trips to hike through historic battlefields and buildings.
"What mattered to my father was not the scale of an accomplishment, but that we did our share to make the world better," she wrote. "That we learned we were part of something larger than ourselves."
Kara Kennedy, a graduate of Tufts University, also worked as a filmmaker and in television. She helped produce several videos for Very Special Arts, an organization founded by her aunt Jean Kennedy Smith. She also served as a board member for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute; director emerita and national trustee of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; and a national advisory board member for the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
With reporting by The Associated Press and the WBUR Newsroom
This program aired on September 17, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.