“Don’t Let My Baby Die!” Ensign, Dec. 2001, 22
I was six and one-half months along in an uneventful pregnancy and anxious to know if our baby was a girl or a boy. As the technician started the ultrasound, I saw a change come over her face. She stopped talking, began taking many pictures, and soon brought in several doctors. I could hear them discussing our baby, a boy, but I couldn’t make out much of what they were saying. Obviously there was something wrong. In my mind I began to play out scenarios: my baby with no arm or with Down syndrome. I satisfied myself that I could accept any manner of deformity, but I kept praying, “Please, don’t let my baby die!”
I telephoned my husband, who rushed over, and the doctor called us into his office. He told us that our baby’s skull had not fully developed. He sent us to a specialist to confirm the diagnosis. She explained that our son had an encephalocele, meaning his brain was not fully contained in his skull. He also had a hole in his heart. She said he had no chance of survival and encouraged us to end the pregnancy immediately. I had confidence in this specialist, but I also knew there were such things as miracles. There wasn’t any question in my mind that I would try to carry our baby to term. If there was a miracle to be dispensed, I wanted to be ready. I prayed in my heart for Heavenly Father to spare our child.
My husband and I returned home with broken hearts. I just kept thinking, I can’t believe this is happening! We had to start planning a funeral for our unborn child! After prayerfully considering the matter, we resolved, “This is our son. If he is to die, we will hold him in our arms as long as he lives, and we will love him.” That night I couldn’t sleep. I finally poured out my heart to Heavenly Father. I sincerely needed His help to accept this challenge. I felt compelled to read from the teachings of Joseph Smith, knowing of the trials he and his wife Emma faced with the loss of six infant children. I felt a peace come over me, and I knew this could be an important spiritual experience in our lives.
We spent the next two months physically and emotionally preparing for the cesarean birth of our son. We decided to name him Christopher Austin—Christopher after his father, and Austin meaning “exalted.” I felt so close to him. If he didn’t move for a while and then I felt a little kick, I imagined he was saying, “I’m still here, Mom.”
Finally the day for the C-section came. All I hoped for was one hour to meet our special child, but the doctor really thought that was too high an expectation. I knew what was about to happen would be a life-altering experience. I also knew that I would be given the strength to handle everything that was about to unfold. As my obstetrician, Dr. David Wolf, and a family friend and Church member, Dr. Rod Poling, entered the room, I felt a calmness. With my husband by my side, the surgery began. I still hoped that everything would be fine with our baby. I watched my husband’s face as he watched the surgery. I waited to hear the baby’s cry, but there was no cry—only a tiny squeak as they handed the baby to the nurse.
Immediately several nurses started working on him, taking footprints and suctioning out his mouth. After a couple of minutes, Dr. Poling urged the nurses to hand the baby to us so we could say good-bye. They laid him next to my head. His receding forehead and prominent nose made him look like a wise little elf. I kissed my baby, held him close, and told him I loved him. Then my husband and Dr. Poling gave him a blessing in which they named him.
Our little son was fading fast. His body was a purplish-black color, and his heartbeat was slowing. In an effort to give us a few more minutes, Dr. Poling brought over some oxygen and blew a little under our baby’s nose. Within minutes, Christopher turned a pinkish color and his heart rate climbed. We knew this would be temporary but were excited about the possibility that the family members and friends in the waiting room could meet our son.
As the doctor finished the surgery, my husband and I held Christopher. He did not make a noise. He could not move his body. He only opened one eye at a time, yet his presence said so much to us. After about 40 minutes, Christopher and I were wheeled to the recovery room. Our friends and relatives crowded around to see our baby. There were oohs and aahs and some tears. The precious few minutes turned into hours, and it seemed like a dream. A nurse came and said she needed to weigh and clean the baby. I reluctantly let him go. I was transferred to a room, and the nurse brought Christopher back to us. Our 19.25-inch, 4-pound 14-ounce baby was back in my arms.
As the day passed, many friends came. I really felt like Christopher had a mission here and would touch the lives of many. That night with Christopher near me, I could not sleep. I wanted to savor every moment. Several times that night, he choked until my husband and I figured out that he could not swallow. So periodically we suctioned out his mouth. Gradually we realized the bigger problem—if he could not swallow, he could not eat. We had already decided that we did not want to take extraordinary measures to prolong the inevitable, but I could not bear the thought of our baby starving to death. So we decided to let the doctor feed Christopher with a tube. However, when our attempts failed, we decided the best we could do was to keep his mouth moist with a wet cotton swab.
Not only was Christopher’s swallow reflex missing, but tickling the bottom of his foot often caused his toes to flex upward instead of downward. His body temperature fluctuated from 90 to 107 degrees, and his heart rate and breathing ranged just as widely. It was apparent that he was both blind and deaf since he had no response to either light or loud noises. He could, however, open his eyes and move them around. If he got both eyes open at the same time, he’d give a little cross-eyed look. I did not let Christopher out of my arms unless absolutely necessary. On several occasions when I did, he became agitated and didn’t breathe. He needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to get him breathing again.
Every person who entered that room could feel his special spirit. One nurse commented to a coworker, “It gives me goosebumps to go in that room. There is so much love in there.” We were busy answering questions about our faith and beliefs. One friend even made a little missionary name tag for Christopher in recognition of the power of his influence.
On the third day, I noticed as I swabbed Christopher’s parched lips with water that his mouth moved in response. His swallow reflex had appeared! The sucking reflex followed, and I was able to feed him. His strength increased. We had grown to accept his death, but now we faced an even more frightening prospect—what if he lived? Would he be trapped in a body requiring 24-hour-a-day care? Could our baby be a miracle who would struggle his way to some kind of normalcy? Whatever the case, I felt that all would go according to the will of the Lord and that we would do our best to rise to the occasion.
On day four I was released from the hospital with our son and a flat admission by the doctors that his care was totally beyond the scope of their art. By then we knew we were bringing him home to die; it was only a question of when. Once home, we constantly monitored his heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature. When he turned blue, we wrapped him in a heating pad and he would immediately turn pink again. When his temperature skyrocketed, we would cool him down again. Often, swallowing a mouthful of milk would make him stop breathing for an alarming amount of time. But as I watched him, I could see the fighting spirit he possessed.
On the seventh day, Christopher uttered his first sounds that through the course of the day ranged from soft cooing to little cries. At one point, our 20-month-old son, Brett, stopped what he was doing and started cooing back. For several minutes it seemed that they were carrying on some kind of musical dialogue.
That evening, as I held Christopher in my arms, with the family all together, he took his final breath. I started to resuscitate him and suddenly felt a calm, peaceful reassurance and knew it was over. Christopher Austin Belknap had served his brief mission on this earth, and we tearfully said our good-byes. As we drove to the hospital, I held him tightly against my cheek. I didn’t want to let him go. At the hospital, we had a chance to hold him one last time. Then they took him and brought back his empty clothes and blanket. I think that was the hardest part.
On Sunday we held a simple funeral service. Many of our family and friends attended, including several of the hospital staff. As Christopher’s uncles carefully shoveled dirt onto his small casket, I felt sorrow as I knew my hand would never again in mortality caress his cheek or tuck him in at night. But I also knew with assurance that I would see him again.
An autopsy revealed that the brain stem had not fully developed. The circulatory defects were so severe that the blood actually circulated backwards. The pathologist was surprised to find out the baby had lived at all.
But Christopher had lived! He never uttered a word or hardly made a sound, but what lessons he left for us! It had been a wonderful blessing to have those seven days with him. I would not trade the experience for anything. I agree with the Apostle Paul, who said in Philippians: “For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. … I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philip. 4:11–13).
“The Lord takes many away, even in infancy, that they may escape the envy of man, and the sorrows and evils of this present world; they were too pure, too lovely, to live on earth; therefore, if rightly considered, instead of mourning we have reason to rejoice as they are delivered from evil, and we shall soon have them again.”
Joseph Smith Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 196–97.