I found myself standing where I had never stood before. I was in the operating room and my wife was on my right and my new little baby girl was on my left. I looked at my wife and she was unconscious. She was laying on an operating table, motionless after an emergency C-section. I looked at my new little baby girl and she appeared to be lifeless. The doctors and nurses surrounded her pale white body and kept trying to help her breathe. She was not breathing. She was not moving. I was standing where I had never stood before. I felt totally helpless. I just kept whispering over and over: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, please help our little baby girl live!”
Let me back up a bit. If you have been following our story, this is the third article. To sum up the first two articles, my wife Amy lost a baby in 2006, had several surgeries, an ectopic pregnancy, and was told that we might not be able to have any more children. Doubting that we could get pregnant again, we were surprised when a positive pregnancy test came back in December, 2007. Our next baby would be due in August, 2008. We were excited, and yet apprehensive because we knew that our pregnancies don’t always turn out okay. On August 5, 2008, when Ellie entered this world, our fears became reality. Would we really loose another child?
I have never felt more helpless in my life as my wife remained unconscious for that first hour after the birth. It is hard to put into words, but I felt an aloneness I had never felt before. Those first few hours were heart-wrenching. We did not know if she was going to make it.
My wife woke up from the anesthesia about an hour after the C-section. The first words out of her mouth were: “Is she okay?” Honestly, I didn’t know what to tell Amy. The accurate answer was: “No, she was not okay,” but I feared that my wife was not in an emotional state to accept that answer, so I told her what any doctor would have probably told her: “We don’t know yet. They are working on her.” And that was the truth. We only knew that they were working on her.
I did not get to hold my daughter those first few hours of her life. We were not able to name her right away. We would eventually name her Ellen Jo (Ellie).
What had happened? Without going into too much medical detail, Ellie lost about fifty to sixty percent of her blood during the last few minutes before she entered this world. All of her organs were damaged due to the blood loss.
About two hours after the emergency C-section, a doctor met with us. She was kind and yet I appreciated how straight forward she was with the prognosis. We were given really bad news. The doctor told us that there was a high probability that Ellie would die. She then added that if Ellie did live, she would at best be severely brain damaged. Worst case scenario: death. Best case scenario: severely brain damaged. The doctor stated that Ellie might die that day, she might die tomorrow. If she lived beyond the first few days, then most likely she would survive but would live with severe damages to her brain, heart, liver, and kidneys. The doctor told us that it was really too early to tell what was going to happen, so we just needed to wait and see.
I am going to share something that might not make sense to anyone unless they have gone through it. The pain I was feeling in this moment was even greater than when we had lost Claire two years before. When we were told that Claire had died in Amy’s womb, it was devastating, but we could start the grieving process when we realized that Claire was dead. With Ellie, it was an agonizing game of waiting. With Claire, there was no more hope. With Ellie, there was little hope, but that hope was wrapped up in the likely death of another daughter. And to have a little hope is sometimes more agonizing than to have no hope at all. We would all chose to have hope whenever we can, but we also fear that the hope we have will be taken from us. We did not want God to take another baby from us. We just couldn’t even comprehend what that would have felt like.
Ellie did live through that first day. A breathing machine helped her breathe. Oxygen was pumped into her lungs. The first time we saw her in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, she was wrapped up in countless cords. She was given at least seven different blood transfusions over the next few days to restore the blood to her body. We constantly asked ourselves, would she live? Or would she die?
Christians have a certain kind of faith that can remain untested for decades, and then when something really horrible happens in our lives, we then show ourselves what true faith really looks like. Christians never ask to be tested. And some Christians never experience the amount of testing that others experience. Why is that? The reasons might be endless. It is a mystery as to why certain Christians seem to go through life without having to go through any serious trials, and yet other Christians are given horrible tragedies to go through.
God knows why this happened to Ellie, and we had to keep reminding ourselves that even though we felt totally out of control, that God was in control of our lives. Now, to some of you, that might sound like a cliché, but when you are going through a tragedy, it is not a cliché. It is reality for the Christian. It is necessary to remind yourself that there is a God who cares about you and wants what is best for you. You might not want to hear it from other people because from other people it sounds like a cliché, but you will secretly tell your heart those words in order to feel comfort.
Ellie ended up spending two weeks in the Intensive Care Unit reserved for infants (called the NICU). That first week was one of the longest weeks of my entire life. I didn’t feel like eating. I couldn’t sleep at night. It was like we were on an eternal roller coaster ride: the doctor would enter our room and give us some great news that would give us hope and we would feel great; but then a few hours later the doctor would present bad news and we would feel like crawling into a hole.
The first week after Ellie was born, as I would walk the halls alone in the NICU, I could feel the presence of angels like I have never felt before. It was like a loving and compassionate pressure being placed upon me. Yet, I must also say that as I walked those halls, there was one time that I felt an extreme darkness come over me. The only way I could explain it would be to say that I felt death walking the halls. Now, those of you who know me know that I am a fairly logical and analytical person who does not make decisions based solely on my emotions. But some of those walks through the halls in the NICU were almost more than I could handle. My eyes started watering and I would weep silently as I would feel the presence of angels around me. Those first several nights, there was a battle raging. The battle was in its most severe level those first several nights. I could feel the spiritual warfare above me like I have never felt it before.
The night I had the feeling of death come over me was one of the most terrifying nights I have had in my life. The feelings of despair and hopelessness overwhelmed my entire being. The grip of death was trying to firmly wrap its unnatural fingers around my little child, and it was more than I could take. It was in this moment that God placed a Scripture verse in my mind: “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). In this Old Testament story, the prophet Elijah is surrounded by an evil army whose main objective is to kill Elijah. This should have scared Elijah. But God opened up Elijah’s spiritual eyes and allowed him to see a heavenly army that was much larger than the earthly army. Elijah was protected because God is more powerful than evil. It was on that night that God was whispering to my ear: “Evil will not win. Death will not call Ellie’s name. God will be glorified through this little girl’s life. She will make it.”
I really needed to hear that truth from the Bible. I needed to be reminded that as the fighting was taking place over little Ellie’s life, there were more angels fighting on behalf of her than demons fighting to destroy her young life.
Now, those of you who are skeptical of the supernatural might say right now that all this happened because of some medical problems. Yes, on paper, that is true. But sometimes, the supernatural occurs when the medical profession says otherwise.
When one of the doctors talked with us, he said that when he was first given her numbers over the first few hours of her life: her kidney numbers, livers numbers, other numbers that measure the level of toxicity in your body, he wrote her off as a lost cause. He told us that he didn’t even know why he was coming out to see her, because, loosing half of her blood at birth filled her body with gases that were incompatible with life. That phrase has stuck with me. He told us that Ellie’s numbers were incompatible with life. And yet somehow she lived!
It was at those moments that we had to remind ourselves that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” God is on our side and He is a great God who can do anything when we can’t do anything. This became my theme for our stay in the NICU. I would sit down in the hospital room and think about how God can do anything when I cannot do anything about this. I would walk the halls of the hospital and whisper to myself that God can do anything when I cannot do anything and therefore feel so helpless. I am the kind of person who loves to have control over my life and make sure that everything is in order and that everything is handled in a right and timely manner. But here, I had to give my daughter’s life over to my heavenly father. It was the hardest act I have ever had to do, and that is saying something because I lost another daughter a couple of years before this.
One week after the traumatic birth of Ellie, we were still not sure if she was going to make it. The toxins were still overwhelming her body; therefore, her kidneys were not fully functioning. It was on this day that I surrendered my daughter over to God and told Him that He had control over her life. And I meant it. I might have said it at other times, but I didn’t really mean it. It was an empty prayer. But in this moment, I laid my entire heart bare before God and gave her up. Amazingly, the very next day she started to progress. Her kidney numbers started to go in the right direction. The joy that filled our souls when we read her kidney numbers can only be explained by a welling up of pressure inside your chest and letting it just explode with an enthusiastic breath of refreshment.
We were witnessing firsthand a miracle from God. The doctors and nurses could not believe the progress of Ellie. They were calling her their little miracle baby. 15 days after she was born, Ellie came home with us for the first time. It was a joyous moment, but also a very stressful moment too because she continued to stop breathing because her lungs had been damaged. We bought a monitor for her crib so that we could tell when she would stop breathing. The first night we took her home, she stopped breathing in the middle of the night about six times. The alarm went off each time. Yes, we were home, but we were still not out of the woods.
In every tragedy humans go through, they have an opportunity to learn something important. Now, some people do not learn from their experiences. They continue down the same path as before. But for the Christian, we must see tragedy as training to help us for later in life and for preparation for eternity. During this tragedy, God taught me two important lessons.
The Power of Passionate Prayer. People wanted to help us. And so they asked us what they could do for us. We asked people to pray for us. Because that was our only hope. Most Christians pray every day. But most of the things that we do on a regular basis can be done by our own ability. Living the “everyday life” without a real need for God can limit our genuine belief that prayer is vital to our existence. When we were hoping for God to spare the life of Ellie, prayer is truly all we had. Every Christian needs a few defining moments in their life when they realize they are out of control and need God to direct the situation.
This tragedy helped me appreciate that I have a God who hears every word I have ever spoken, and so, when I pray to Him, I must believe that He is listening. We were able to see first-hand God answer our prayers on a day by day basis. When we prayed for specific things to be healed in Ellie’s body, God specifically answered.
We asked people to pray for her liver, and it was healed.
We asked people to pray for her kidneys, and the kidneys were healed.
We asked people to pray for her breathing, and her lungs were healed.
People prayed passionately, God listened, and He responded. That helped my faith in God explode. I know that it doesn’t always work out like that, but it did in this situation, and therefore helped grow my faith like it has never grown before.
The Power of Encouraging Others When You Are Hurting. Several days into our experience in the NICU, it dawned on me: there are many more people around me who feel the same hurt. So, I started talking with the other parents and grandparents of children in the NICU. I found out that all of them were going through similar experiences. It was in these times that I tried to encourage these people around me. At first, I was so focused on my own crisis that I had blinders around my eyes and couldn’t see anything or anyone else. But eventually, God helped me see the power in helping other people who are hurting and how that can bring good medicine to your own heart.
I sat down with one grandma who had already been there a week before us with her granddaughter. Her daughter had been in a car accident and was 32 weeks pregnant. The daughter and baby lived, but she was forced to give birth pre-maturely. They were lucky to be alive. I could just see the tired look on her face as we talked. There were many times when she was the only one there holding her little granddaughter. She told me that she had not been home for two weeks and had not slept more than a couple of hours a night for those two weeks. I explained to her: “When your granddaughter gets older, she is going to have a connection with you that will be like nothing she could ever have had before. And you will be connected to her more than you will ever realize because you helped love her in these first few weeks of her life.” She looked at me and said, “You know, I just never really thought of it like that. You’re right, I bet I’m going to be her favorite grandma.” She just smiled at me and we talked a little more about how hard it is to have a child in the NICU and to actually get some rest. In the midst of the trials in your life, do you take time to focus on others and encourage them? I believe God helps us heal our wounds when we focus on others.
Those two weeks of tragedy are in the distant past. Ellie is now five years old and will be starting kindergarten this fall at Central Christian School. As far as we can tell, she is a fully functioning young lady who loves to dance, play (and sometimes fight) with her sisters, pretend to read to her stuffed-animals in her room, and eat candy.
There is not a day that goes by, that when I look at Ellie, I thank God for giving her to me, for sparing her life, for allowing me to be her daddy. Yes, I have thought about this miracle each of the 2,000 days Ellie has been on this earth. And I have a feeling that for the rest of my life whenever I look at her, I will be reminded of what a gift she is to us. Thank you God, for Ellie.
If you are interested in more details of those first few weeks, we set up a Caring Bridge website to keep friends and family up to date.