A brief, struggling life has a lasting impact.
by Sondra Brunsting
From the moment of conception, he entered a combat zone, every cell of his body at war with toxic poisons, imperiled by an inadequate supply of oxygen and faulty nutrition. His was the womb of compromise, more than a warm cocoon in which to struggle to survive. His birth and his newborn life were destined to be complicated. Little did I imagine that God was preparing this tiny warrior to dramatically transform my life.
Struggle for life
I will never forget the phone call that shattered the calm of my empty-nested serenity. My then-unmarried twenty-seven-year old daughter, a neo-natal intensive care nurse, was falling in love with a struggling newborn whose post-surgical tummy looked like a map.
Following a difficult birth, transfer to an Intensive Care facility, and immediate surgery, this baby was critically battle fatigued. He was hospitalized for the first seven months of life and abandoned by a family overwhelmed with their own issues, so he became a ward of the state. His life was doomed to be compromised lifelong with gastro-intestinal issues, infection, and a dysfunctional liver.
My daughter’s words stunned me. “What would you think if I told you I was about to become a foster parent? There is an abandoned baby on our unit who is very sick. It’s possible that the state would grant custody to a single foster mother who could provide medical care. What do you think?”
Brain-numbed and tongue-bridled, I struggled to grasp the full picture. This baby is about to enter and alter my daughter’s life, 24/7, and I am asked, “What do you think ?” Thankfully, I never answered that question honestly.
Newly retired and enjoying a surprisingly rich experience as empty-nesters, my husband and I had struggled to keep our lives as uncomplicated as possible. We lived what I thought was a well-ordered life, filled with ministry to others. Caring and compassion were priorities; however, there were limits on the extent to which we would go if it threatened our serenity.
The tsunami of this phone call attempted to upset the balance. After all, our daughter, Meghan, was a single woman with a full-time job. How could, and why, should she have to deal with the tragic fallout of others’ irresponsible lifestyles?
Respectfully dodging my carefully stated concerns, my daughter forged ahead with a passion.
Within three months, Meghan became a licensed foster mom, assuming a responsibility most would run from. Two thousand miles away, her concerned but intrigued parents pondered deeply as our family entered the world of the medically fragile, opening our hearts to Nicky,* a desperately sick little boy.
Within two days of Nicky’s hospital discharge, I was Colorado-bound. The airport welcome will forever be etched in my memory, with my beautiful, smiling daughter awaiting my arrival outside the gate.
As I approached, my eyes focused on the tiny child nestled in her arms. A long tube hung from his body, attached to a purse-like pouch slung over Meghan’s shoulder. Meg’s Colorado tan emphasized the peachy-yellow skin tones of Nicky’s face and eyes, a haunting golden frame to coal black eyes wide with wonder.
Reminiscent of the malnourished infants of Africa, Nicky was tragically beautiful. I instinctively reached out to him, cautiously intimidated by tubing dangling from unknown sources. As my hands encircled his frail torso, I startled to feel my hands pressuring unseen clamps and tubing under Nicky’s bright red Elmo t-shirt. Though an experienced nurse myself, I felt queasy at the precarious fragility of this infant’s reality.
Nicky’s prognosis was at best poor. Seven months of life in an incubator had delayed development of large motor skills. Having developed an aversion to anything placed in his mouth, Nicky would not eat.
Every eight hours, fluids and medications were pumped through a central line into a cardiac vein. A gastric tube in the stomach provided nourishment. It was essential that Nicky learn to eat, as long-term dependence on a central line had tremendously compromised his liver.
By his first birthday, Nicky had endured fifteen surgeries, six hospitalizations, and more pain than many will experience in a lifetime. We prayed for a miracle, our most significant hope resting in the deep conviction that God had plans for this treasured life.
At what point did my fears submit to embrace the challenge? When did this eleven-pound life wrap his arms around my heart? What was it about his tiny, frail body, his huge dark eyes, the toothless smile that birthed a heart-melting dimple? Was it the fact that his life was a maze of contradictions?
. . . perfection in the midst of tragic compromise
. . . newness of life facing a potential death sentence
. . . God’s very best wrapped in a package scarred by man’s bondage and self-interest
, , , a life so full of need, making a greater impact on his world than many will make in a lifetime
Nicky dramatically touched his world without saying a word, without taking a step, without writing an ABC.
In spite of the best medical care his circumstances offered; loving interventions by doctors, nurses, and therapists; and an outpouring of support from friends and family, Nicky struggled to gain weight. An enlarged liver caused pressure on vital organs and great pain. He fought relentless battles with infection.
Finally, just after his first birthday, Nicky was sent to Stanford University to be evaluated for a liver-small bowel transplant. Foster Grandma was thrilled to be asked to participate in the consult.
Regretfully, it was determined that Nicky was not a candidate for transplant surgery. For now, one issue alone could be addressed: Constant leakage and infection at the abdominal tube feeding site kept Nicky from fully benefiting from each feeding.
A minor surgical procedure might correct the problem, offering improved chances for weight gain. The medical plan: surgery, a two-day recovery with likely discharge by the end of the week.
God, however, had other plans.
Fight to survive
Though surgery appeared to be successful, Nicky could not stop bleeding due to a significantly compromised liver. By the second post-op day, he had lost half of his blood volume, with blood transfusions replacing volume lost.
Hovering on either side of his crib, we watched, prayed, and at times wrestled in silence with God as our little warrior struggled to survive. Why should this precious boy be forced to endure such incredible suffering time after time? Why should he pay the price for the mistakes of others for so long and now be faced with a death that came with fear and pain?
Our vigil continued through an endless night with little assurance that our prayers were being answered.
In the early morning hours, ever so silently, a profound sense of peace entered broken hearts, replacing our tortured grief. God had heard us. He did see Nicky and He was going to heal him, completely.
This little boy had fought for so long, been stronger than any of us could have been, and it was finally time for his reward. There would be no return to surgery with the possibility of dying on the white-covered tables he had grown to fear so much. Nicky would not have to endure a grueling hospital stay for a transplant that likely would have extended his life by five years at the most. He was going to peacefully slip away, resting in the arms of those who had grown to love him more than life itself, received into the arms of his loving Creator.
Nicky was tired, and finally God said, “You can rest.” In his last two hours on this earth, Nicky was peaceful and calm. What an honor to be a part of his reward as he was rescued by his Maker.
Our family experienced a miracle — not the one we prayed for, but one far more profound that transformed our very souls.
Today Nicky’s pacifier hangs from the rearview mirror of Meghan’s car, a constant reminder of an unbelievably creative gift from God, one we might easily have walked away from, avoiding the life-altering challenges his visit demanded. What blessings we received from this little stranger’s visit.
I will forever be grateful for an eleven-pound gift from God. He challenged my perspectives on motherhood, on suffering, and on the tyranny of life interruptions. I have learned that true joy and deep fulfillment in this earthly life can be the result of tragedies embraced.
In the past, I might have walked away from such challenges, focusing on my own agenda. In doing so, did I miss out on life in its fullness — the life God ordained for me, those things He “prepared in advance for [me] to do” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV)?
A scripture verse intrigues me: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NIV). I read this verse with fresh perspective as I ponder our journey with Nicky. Is it possible that my family experienced a visit from an angel? If we have, I thank God that we were chosen to enjoy this brief serendipity from heaven — a fragile infant who blasted his way into our hearts.
* Name has been changed.
About the Author
Sondra Brunsting is a registered nurse and graduate of the Christian Writer’s Guild. Her professional career focused on OB/gyn nursing and prenatal childbirth education, and she taught Lamaze Prenatal Childbirth classes for twelve years. Sondra has been published in The Journal of Christian Nursing and lives in Westchester, IL.