Saturday, September 13, 2014

Peace like a river

Our daughter Sarah lived only 4 days. Though her life was brief, it was also beautiful, and it was miraculous.

Her story starts back in early January when I found out I was pregnant. This was confusing to us because I hadn't done IVF four times like we did with Mary. We took 7 pregnancy tests, just to be sure. They were all positive.

My little miracle pregnancy progressed very normally until about 32 weeks, when I suddenly doubled in size over about 2 weeks.
32 weeks
34 weeks

I wondered idly if I had extra amniotic fluid or something that made me get so big so fast. Isaac pointed out that I was supposed to get bigger during the 3rd trimester.

During my 34-week check, a quick ultrasound to check Sarah's position (breech, with her head up by my ribs) also showed that there was WAY too much amniotic fluid surrounding her. The next day we went to see a perinatologist (a pregnancy specialist) for what I thought would be a quick chat about trying to get Sarah to turn before the delivery.

Our quick little appointment turned into a 2 1/2 hour doozy of a meeting with the doctor.

The bottom line: there was too much amniotic fluid because Sarah had something very wrong with her brain, and she wasn't swallowing the fluid like she should.

Bless that doctor, he took a long time with us, explained everything very thoroughly, and emphasized a few things:
1) The extent of her brain damage may be anywhere from mild to profound. He could not tell in much detail with just an ultrasound. His instinct, however, was that she would be more likely on the severe end of the spectrum.

2) We needed to deliver at the bigger hospital that was slightly further away. It has a higher-level neonatal ICU and he wanted us there as a precaution.

3) I should expect an early delivery. The extra fluid would trick my body into thinking it was more pregnant than it actually was. (In fact, I was already having contractions by that point).

4) He recommended further testing, and we scheduled a fetal MRI for the next week, followed by possible genetic testing.

The doctor was dead-on about #1-3.

I'll admit, that appointment was overwhelming. I'd had a very healthy, normal pregnancy up to that point, and of all the problems she could have with her little body, neurological problems were what I feared the most.

As it happened, Isaac and I had planned a weekend trip for just the two of us at a local ski resort starting that evening. We went directly from the appointment to drop Mary off with some family, then went on our trip. This allowed us a weekend together of (short) nature walks, breakfasts overlooking the river, rides on the ski lifts, and lots of time to talk about Sarah. We told our immediate family members, but with such limited information we weren't sure what to expect. We prepared ourselves to raise a mentally handicapped daughter.

That weekend we happened to listen to a talk by one of the leaders of our church, Dieter Uchtdorf, titled "Grateful in any circumstances". He said, beautifully, "those who set aside the bottle of bitterness and lift instead the goblet of gratitude can find a purifying drink of healing, peace, and understanding."

Those words set the tone for the rest of the week. We decided to be grateful for Sarah, and to love her and accept her regardless of the extent of her problems. We decided to trust God, believing that He was in control.

The timing of that ultrasound, the meeting with the specialist, and our little weekend trip proved to be miraculous.

Sunday we returned from our trip, and Monday, 35 weeks along, I started having contractions in earnest. They continued, maddeningly, on and off for two days, until Tuesday evening, when they became strong enough that I couldn't walk around any more. I finally consented to have Isaac call my doctor (who is also my uncle), who told us to go to the hospital. I went grudgingly, knowing that the contractions were just going to peter out again, as they'd been doing the last 2 days. Sure enough, they subsided almost completely on the way to the hospital.
Camber in labor. Mary imitating Camber.
I felt super frustrated with my body, and we decided to just walk around the hospital for a few minutes and then drive home if the contractions didn't start up again. As we walked toward the entrance, someone greeted us. It turned out to be my uncle's partner, Dr. C., who was going to do my delivery since my uncle couldn't deliver at the bigger hospital. Now I just felt embarrassed that this doctor had driven down to the hospital to check me when my contractions had petered out again, but there was no turning around to go home at this point.

It turns out that was a very fortuitous encounter, because when Dr. C checked me, his eyes grew wide and he said, "You're at a 9. We need to GO." Sarah was breech, and we hurried to do a C-section before she came out on her own and, potentially, got stuck.

A flurry of activity followed--Isaac in white suit and blue booties, calling/texting family and doctors, IV, spinal block, drapes, uncontrollable shaking, nerves, warm blankets, Isaac's hand in mine. Baby.

I barely knew she was out, since I couldn't see or hear her. A team started working on her right away in an adjoining room, and Isaac went back and forth from her to me, giving me updates. Not breathing on her own, but beautiful. I wouldn't see her for 3 more hours, when we dragged my barely-working legs into a wheelchair and went upstairs to the NICU to visit.

On my way to the OR
Isaac's hot OR suit
It was evident from the beginning that something was wrong. Not only could Sarah not breathe on her own--couldn't even keep her own airway open--but she lacked all the normal newborn reflexes, including a gag reflex. Bad news kept pouring in. Her movements were erratic, resembling mini-seizures. The electrical activity in her brain was abnormal. The nerves in her eyes were malformed, meaning she was likely blind. The ventricles in her brain were too big. An MRI of her brain showed a missing corpus callosum, missing sections of the hypothalamus, and general lack of development.

Despite all this, on the outside, she was beautiful. She even had a head of adorable light brown hair. Her perfect little features belied all the neurological problems she had. She never cried, since she was on a ventilator, and never seemed to be in distress.

We held her for the first time about 24 hours after her birth. Aaaaaand...we cried. A lot.
Because, despite everything, we were in love.

Thursday evening we had the Meeting. All the needed tests had been done, and we met with our wonderful neonatologist, Dr. M, who had spent much of the day discussing Sarah's case with other doctors, reading the MRI report, and researching her case. She explained the following:

1) The problems in Sarah's brain looked more consistent with some kind of global injury rather than a malformation--meaning some kind of damage has occurred, rather than a genetic or chromosomal defect.

2) The damage probably happened sometime during the second trimester, halting the development of her brain from that point onward.

3) Ultimately, Sarah's condition was not survivable. The damage had been present for long enough that there was no hope for recovery of function from this point onward. And unable to breathe, swallow, see, hear, or move well on her own, she would have poor quality of life should we choose to prolong her life.

I think Dr. M, who had been present at Sarah's birth, knew pretty much from the beginning what the outcome would be. She had determined from the beginning to give us the best experience with Sarah possible, while hinting at the severity of what she saw and never giving us false hope.

We knew this was coming, and hoped and prayed that the decision we would have to make that night would feel clear. It did.

In the end, we all agreed that taking Sarah off the ventilator and allowing her to pass away was the best course of action. I was fine in this conversation up until this point. Then I started plowing through the tissues. Because obviously I wasn't going to not be there while she died, but that meant I'd have to be there when she died. It was a task that felt utterly overwhelming.

We decided that Saturday would be the day. My family all drove into town on Friday; Isaac's family is already local. I was discharged from the hospital that day as well. I tried not to dwell too much on the thought that I was leaving the hospital without my daughter, while I listened to other babies crying in rooms near mine. I was once that mom. I'd had Mary, she was healthy, and I brought her home with me. I had that experience. This time I was going to have a different experience.

Friday night we drove back to the hospital for one final visit with Sarah. Her nurse, knowing that I'm also a nurse, offered to let me do some of Sarah's cares for the evening. So I awkwardly took her temperature (keep in mind, I always took care of adults, never newborns), changed her diaper, weighed her, and gave her a bath. Isaac and I both held her for a long time as well.
Giving Sarah a bath

That night is one of my best memories of Sarah. One of the hardest things about having a baby in the NICU is that someone else is generally your child's caregiver. I showed up for visits, but I was never the one taking care of her. I longed to just feel like her mom. That night I had my chance. Also, something changed in us during our time with Sarah that night. Usually visiting her just made us sad (my personal habit was to burst into tears every time I saw her), but during this evening, the grief dissolved into peace. I started to think that maybe, maybe, Saturday would be okay.

There's something else about Sarah that I find hard to explain. There was a spirit about her. She didn't feel like less of a person to me because of her neurological problems. Rather, it felt like she was too good, too pure to stay here long. I am convinced that she was aware of us, despite her sensory limitations.

Saturday morning we dressed Sarah in her beautiful white blessing dress, after disconnecting her from all tubes except the ventilator. The NICU had a large room set aside for our purposes that day, where we met our families. Isaac gave Sarah a name and a blessing (a tradition in our church), and then all of our immediate family members took turns holding her.

A photographer drove over an hour each way to volunteer her time to take these beautiful pictures of us with Sarah both before and after we took her off the ventilator (there's a national organization of photographers that volunteer for things like this). Bless her.
Mary meeting Sarah for the first time. This was just before she poked Sarah in the eye and said, "Eye?"
She has newborn anatomy down pat.
Me and my girls.
Then everyone left us alone, except a few hospital staff, and the time came that we'd initially been dreading. At first, when we decided to take Sarah off the ventilator and let her pass away, that seemed like the most traumatizing thing I could possibly imagine. That morning, though, a feeling of peace permeated the room. I almost felt a sense of anticipation, because we were sending her home. It felt right.

One of our fears was that she would linger for hours. She had been taking a lot of breaths on her own, beyond the help she received from the ventilator. Dr. M prepared us for the possibility that, if she kept breathing well on her own, we might have to wait for her to be overcome by her secretions before she would succumb. We sedated her slightly beforehand so she wouldn't struggle too much or become uncomfortable with the process. But, as it turned out, she stopped breathing almost right away. She didn't have enough strength to keep her own airway open without the ventilator in place.

It took maybe 45 minutes to an hour for her heart to stop completely, and during that time we held her, admired her little face without the ventilator, and told her we love her. By the way, I thought my tear ducts would have dried out by then, after the week we'd had, but those things just kept producing! Remarkable.
I decided to leave out the pictures where we're crying.
Didn't want to make it awkward for you all.

What I remember most, though, is the feeling of peace. Nothing about the experience seemed horrible. Sarah's passing was beautiful and serene, as was her life. Reflecting back over our time with her, it felt like a privilege. Back to the gratitude thing--I felt profoundly grateful for our time with her, and to God for blessing our family so much with such a beautiful person. In our church, we believe that families are forever. That belief became very real to me as she left us that day. I felt--and feel--an assurance that we will see her again.
I don't want to downplay the grief or the sadness of sending this girl back home so soon. But Sarah's life was a string of miracles, and the last one was this: that day, we left the hospital smiling.


  1. Oh Camber, those words and pictures are so beautiful and I could feel the Spirit while reading this.

  2. Camber just beautifully said; I rosy that the peace are do Shirlene

  3. Oh Camber, I love you! I have always been amazed by your faith and your positive attitude! Thank you for sharing the story of your sweet Sarah. What a blessing she was to so many. We mourn with you, our children have cried with us as we told them about her. But we echo your words- families are forever! And how thankful we are for that knowledge. You will continue to be in our thoughts and prayers.

  4. I have been waiting for this post. You always say things so well, Camber. Thank you for taking the time to write and share this. It's a beautiful story and I feel lucky to have been able to witness it. I won't ever forget your faith. Thank you!

  5. That was so beautifully written, Camber, and while I'm sure the grief may sometimes come in overwhelming waves, I am so overcome and touched by your strong faith and am grateful for the peace you have been given. Just like her sister, Sarah is absolutely beautiful. Though it's been so long since the days of nursing school, you have always remained one of my favorite people and I can't help but mourn and shed a surprising amount of tears with you. Big, big hugs today, tomorrow, and for all the days ahead.

  6. Camber I just want to echo what Holly said. I am sitting here in tears and in awe at your faith and your strength. I feel so privileged to have felt a bit of the peace and love that you described in this post--it was truly brimming with the Spirit and with joy. Sarah is absolutely beautiful and I know that she is a special spirit and was sent to a very special family for a very special reason. The Gospel is miraculous. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. You and your family will be in our prayers :).

  7. Oh, Camber and Isaac, this is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing your sacred experience - I feel privileged to have read it. (And possessed of fewer tissues than before, too!) The four of you have been in our constant prayers all month.

  8. Camber, what a beautiful testimony you shared. I hurt for you that you had to send her home so soon, but am grateful for the comfort you received. I know families are forever and she is waiting for you.

  9. Camber, this was so beautiful and touching. You are so strong and a blessed mother to have such a special daughter. What a sweet reunion you all will have one day. Love to you.

  10. Bless those perinatal specialists. Ours gave us the best advice after he diagnosed our Emma with Trisomy 18. They really set the tone with their service and manner.
    You have probably figured it out by now, but it is worth mentioning anyways, that this experience is a lot bigger than you or your family- it will touch many not only presently but those to come also. Continue to keep records. During our experience I really didn't have any living family members to confide in- everyone had perfect pregnancies that resulted with healthy babies- reading the experiences of my matriarchs was such a solace to me!

    Love you. Thinking of you and yours. Always here if you want to chat.

  11. Oh my goodness- that last picture of Sarah is the most angelic thing I can imagine.

  12. Thanks for sharing! You are amazingly strong! What a blessing to have such an assurance of peace and hope. No doubt you will continue to be blessed with tender mercies such as these from our Father as your heart heals.

  13. Blessings to you and your family. An incredible love story about this sweet sweet baby girl who stayed on this earth such a short time but brought everlasting change to your heart and life. I am better for having read your story. God bless you for sharing. Hugs, Barbara A. Whittington

  14. Sweet sweet Baby. Thank you for sharing. And thank you for the Elder Uchdorf quote, too. What a beautiful thing to have guide you.

  15. Camber, your little girl is beautiful. She has heaven reflected in her face in that last picture. I am so impressed with you and Isaac. Thank you for sharing the peace you felt throughout this journey. I cannot imagine going through what you two had to go through. But you did not just survive this experience, you endured it with admirable faith and courage. As I read this I wept for you but I was also applauding your strength. Love you guys.

  16. Thank you for writing up Sarah's beautiful story. She was lucky to be born into such a loving and amazing family. I am glad that you guys have received peace and comfort at this super difficult time.

  17. Camber. I love you. I love your strength! What a beautiful story. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing. I think my tear ducts are going to dry up now too, but I feel empowered and so grateful for you and for the gospel.

  18. I somehow stumbled onto your blog from my dear friend Holly's blog. What a sweet post. I'm so sorry about your sweet little girl. I'm sure you have felt heaven close. Our daughter only lived 6 wks and they were some of the most sacred weeks of my life. This journey through grief can be so hard. I felt so much support and love after our daughter passed away, but unfortunately, people started moving on and it was so hard. Everyone is different, but I have found that connecting with other moms of angels has helped me. The book Angel Children was incredibly helpful for me. Anyway, if you would like to follow my blog and keep in touch I would love to. My email is

  19. Camber and Isaac, I don't think I'll ever be able to express how much I look up to the two of you. I have never met someone more positive and genuinely grateful. Thank you for sharing your experience, and your faith, with us.