“Intensive Care,” Ensign, Jan. 1994, 56
Testimony meeting was running overtime. I struggled to listen, but thoughts of tiny blue baby clothes invaded my Sabbath reflections. Nine months pregnant, I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my eagerness to have this baby. Despite my daydreaming, my ears caught snatches of the last testimony—something about “outpourings of love.” Hmm. I had heard those words many times during my years in the Church. What did they mean? Nice, poetic words, I thought as I shifted in a futile attempt to find a comfortable position. I’d have to think about outpourings of love some other time—after I had the baby.
That turned out to be the next day. My husband, Robert, and I were thrilled when Ethan, a robust baby boy, arrived. Our exhilaration fizzled seven hours later when our baby was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit and put on life support with an infection raging through his tiny body and bloodstream. No one knew whether he could survive such an assault. The nurses and doctors shook their heads and said, “When babies are this sick …” They never finished the sentence.
Robert and I felt as if we’d been hurled against a concrete wall. Why had this happened? What could we do? We prayed and wept while groping to find faith and hope.
I longed to see my newborn. Because of the severity of his illness, Ethan had been transferred to the university medical center. Back home, I asked a ward member if she could tend my two-year-old son so I could visit the hospital. She said she’d check her schedule and call back in thirty minutes.
I had just settled back into my bed when the phone jangled. It was my friend offering to take my toddler for the afternoon. She also rattled off a list of women in the ward who were available for baby-sitting either day or night. Next, she gave me the names of people who were bringing dinner for the next week. I had become so absorbed in my crash course in neonatology, I hadn’t thought about the necessities of everyday life. Routine life had ceased to exist, replaced by uncertainty and fear. My friend’s thoughtful gesture reminded me that even in the midst of chaos, children have to be tended and family members continue to eat.
Meals for a week—what a relief! Help with my two-year-old son—another relief! I realized that Relief Society is aptly named. A force of Relief Society sisters mobilized to take care of my family, which allowed me to concentrate on whether my baby would live. I could focus on the next twenty-four hours, a crucial period for Ethan.
As the days crept by, the army of help grew, and Ethan’s condition deteriorated. The new diagnosis: meningitis. The new prognosis: uncertain.
Seizures began and his blood pressure plummeted. One crisis followed another. Just when we thought he was improving, he crashed. Heroic measures were repeatedly taken to keep him alive.
We rode a frightening emotional roller coaster, and ward members careened along with us. One woman, who provided child care in her home, welcomed our older son into her group each morning while I went to the hospital. Other ward members came to our home in the evenings. We returned from the gray atmosphere of intensive care to a clean yellow kitchen, tidy living room, and happy toddler. Dinners were delivered nightly at 5:30 P.M. Bags of groceries miraculously appeared on our kitchen table. Sisters volunteered to come to our house in case we were called to the hospital during the night. One woman was appointed our official spokesperson. It was her duty to apprise ward members of our baby’s condition, and all calls were routed to her home—a boon to our fragile ability to communicate.
Ward members nurtured us to an extent I had never known was possible. Though we never requested help, they went the proverbial “extra mile,” not only attending to our physical needs but meeting our emotional needs as well. They truly cared about us and our baby. They shed tears for our tiny newcomer and prayed for him.
I felt buoyed up by the hundreds of prayers offered on Ethan’s behalf. His name was placed on temple prayer rolls. My husband and another elder gave him a priesthood blessing. Even children included him in their prayers. One young mother asked what we had named the baby. Her young daughter had been asking Heavenly Father “to bless the sick Turner baby” and she wanted to know the baby’s name to use in her nightly prayers.
All prayers—whether uttered by Primary children, concerned family members, or strangers—were answered as Ethan’s condition stabilized. The crisis period passed, and I looked forward to his eventual homecoming. I bought tiny booties and began to plan his blessing day. Hope blossomed.
Then the neonatologists dropped a bomb on our frail optimism. Ethan’s brain was seriously damaged. The probable effects would be mental and physical deficits. They thought he was blind and speculated about whether his hearing had been impaired by medications. There was no way to predict what his quality of life would be.
I berated myself for being so naive as to think Ethan would be unscathed by his overwhelming illness. The booties sat in their package, unused. Like all new mothers, I had dreamed of a happy, healthy child. I had envisioned him taking first steps, drawing purple crayon portraits, and reading with me. My dreams withered. Would there be first steps? Would he ever be able to read? What did the future hold for this sweet baby?
As I pondered these questions, the stake Relief Society president came to visit. How difficult her task. What could she say to two dazed parents? How could she comfort us? This gentle sister didn’t console us with platitudes or shallow reassurances. She said she was sorry and told us she loved us. She assured us that she would pray and hope for the best. Through her simple words, we felt the Savior’s compassion and were comforted without knowing why.
As we grappled with our son’s condition, our days were marked by a curious mixture of despair and joy: despair when we received another grim prognosis, joy when Ethan was removed from the ventilator, and indescribable joy when we held him for the first time.
After four turbulent weeks, Ethan came home. He needed a monitor, numerous medications, physical therapy, and frequent appointments with physicians. But he was finally ours.
We didn’t know what life would hold for this tiny baby or how our world would change. We only knew we loved him and knew he would be well cared for—not only by doting parents but by a doting ward.
My visiting teacher had been particularly supportive and had taken on the role of coordinating the ward’s efforts in our behalf. As we neared the end of Ethan’s hospitalization, she said she might have to lessen her involvement because she was sick. Assuming she had the flu, I thanked her profusely for her help and told her to go home and get better.
A week later she was diagnosed as having cancer. I reeled as I heard the word. Cancer. She was a vital young mother, with three small children. How could she have cancer?
She had been by my side since Ethan’s birth with endless meals, telephone calls, and moral support. She had even called one evening and ordered me to go to a funny movie so I could remember how good it felt to laugh. She had surprised me with a baby shower—a much-needed opportunity to celebrate Ethan’s birth and carry on like any adoring mother. I was stunned to think this giving, energetic woman had cancer. I groped for words to express my gratitude and offered hollow words of encouragement. (Eventually, I watched her fight the ravages of her illness, triumphing despite overwhelming odds.)
I also saw my baby fight the ravages of his illness. After a joyful homecoming, I settled into my new role as a mother of two. Ethan’s first year was one of alarms when he stopped breathing, seizures, physical therapy, and medications. It was also a time of rejoicing as Ethan was greatly blessed. My pediatrician, the same doctor who had advised me not to expect too much of my sick baby, said a year later, “Ethan is a miracle. Somebody is watching over you.”
A miracle indeed! He is now six and does everything other six-year-olds do. He builds elaborate castles in the sandbox. He quarrels with his older brother. He loves backyard softball and sings “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” with gusto. He is a precious gift, and a day does not go by that I don’t thank the Lord for Ethan’s health and wholeness.
I am also thankful for the lesson I learned during Ethan’s illness. I learned about charity—the pure love of Christ.
I thought I’d learned of charity long ago. I had always been active in Relief Society and was called upon frequently to take a meal to a new mother or help a sick ward member. I threw tuna casseroles together and delivered them, congratulating myself on my willingness to serve. I occasionally grumbled about interrupting my busy schedule, and sometimes secretly questioned whether “they really needed it.” Despite my feeble attempts at service, I didn’t learn about compassionate service until I received it. Compassionate service is more than tuna casserole; it is an outpouring of love.
Oh, yes … “outpourings of love.” I remember that testimony meeting I squirmed through the day before Ethan was born. There have been many testimony meetings since then, and I still hear people talk about outpourings of love. But I no longer wonder what they mean.