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Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Post-Crescent

Reprinted with permission



Baby’s brief life changed world in ways he’ll never know

I am sitting in my study, staring at a blank screen. Some columns come so easy. Others are difficult, so difficult you cry while you try to write them.

I’ve put off writing this column, even though it’s been rattling in my brain for months. Perhaps because I was tired of crying, tired of being sad.

For this is good-bye to you, Patrick, my son.

And this, ink on newsprint, is my thank-you card.

My thank you to God, for the 23 minutes I spent with my son.

My thank you to Patrick, for prompting me to take a hard look at my life and make some changes.

And my thank you to the friends, colleagues and others who shared our family’s pain and eased our sorrow.

A new arrival

Most stories start at the beginning, not the ending. Let me backtrack.

My wife, Elise, and I got a surprise shortly after my 40th birthday last April.

We were expecting. No, we weren’t trying. Yes, we know what causes that.

With two kids already and a late start to child rearing, we hadn’t placed family expansion plans high on the agenda.

Once the shock wore off, we started to get excited, if not giddy, about the new arrival. I’d be bored with early retirement, right? And what do we need with free time?

Our girls, Emily, 4, and Sarah, 2, were thrilled at the prospects of a third child. They had been asking for one for months, as if it was as easy as going to the toy store.

We spent the summer being silly, going through names, fretting about re-doing rooms in the house. In August, we decided we would attempt to learn the baby’s sex and we set an appointment for a routine ultrasound examination.

I suppose I knew the news was bad the moment I looked at the silent, intent glare of the ultrasound technician. No chit chat. All business. Trouble.

Then, the talk from the doctor: Something is wrong, seriously wrong. There isn’t enough fluid in the womb, which means there’s something amiss with the baby’s organs.

Your baby is still alive, with an emphasis on the word “still,” but not for long.

Death is imminent. Come back in a few days to see if the heart is still beating.

Days turned into weeks. The baby’s heart kept beating.

The next few weeks became a blur of doctors, tests and theories.

Finally, facts replaced conjecture.

You have a boy. Your boy has Potter’s Syndrome. This means your son does not have any kidneys and he won’t grow any. He will live as long as he stays in the womb.

Once he leaves the womb, he will die, likely at birth.

There’s nothing we can do. No cure. No miracle procedure. No hope.

Get ready.

Preparing for death

What does one do these days when confronted with a great unknown?

Why, go to the Internet, of course.

We asked the great Google: Tell us about Potter’s Syndrome.

And we found a Web site,, which told us we were not alone. Others had been through the ordeal we were entering. We learned from their lives.

Have a plan, they said. When your baby comes, he may come early. And he may still be alive, if only for a very short while. Make sure you spend that time wisely.

On Nov. 2, 2003, we welcomed Patrick, named for my late father, into our lives.

He was born and placed into his mother’s arms, alive, but fading fast.

We knew this very fact made us lucky. Parents of stillborn children, and most parents of Potter’s babies, never get the chance we were given to say hello.

Our next-door neighbor, Julie, was in the hallway with our daughters. After a few minutes, they came in and said hello to their baby brother.

They gave him a powder-blue toy puppy dog, resting it next to him on his mother’s chest.

A nurse took a picture of all five of us, together for the only time, all smiling.

The girls stroked their brother’s back and patted his head. And said good-bye.

Twenty-three minutes after he arrived, Patrick died in his mother’s arms.

Our friend and associate pastor, the Rev. Jane Voigts, who left the pulpit at Appleton’s First United Methodist Church to be with us on that Sunday morning, baptized him.

Patrick had been returned to God’s hands.

Giving thanks

My boss, Publisher Ellen Leifeld, has several sayings. Here’s one that applies to what I am about to do: If your dad’s a cobbler, all the kids get shoes.

I have this wonderful, quirky job that allows me to write what I think, then put it in the newspaper and out on the Web for anyone to read.

So, recognizing my indulgence, Elise and I want to give thanks.

We’re thankful for our faith, and for having clergy and friends like Jane and the Rev. Kent Ingram, lead pastor of First United Church.

Our church family also extends to our friends and fellow parents here, as well as those we worshiped with in Montgomery, Ala., our last home.

We’re thankful for them, as well as our other friends and neighbors in the Valley and their seemingly endless supply of well wishes, food dishes and flowers.

We’re thankful for my colleagues at The Post-Crescent, who filled the gaps created by my absences throughout our ordeal. Daily papers must publish daily.

We’re blessed to have talented, dedicated health care professionals in the Valley, as embodied by the care and concern of Elise’s obstetrician, Tom Reinardy of Affinity.

We belong to an Affinity health plan, but our experience showed why we’re so lucky to have two strong systems in the Valley.

Affinity referred us often to Theda Clark Medical Center, where we received genetics counseling and extensive neo-natal tests.

Our thanks also to pediatric cardiologist Janette Strasburger of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin-Fox Valley; neonatologist Susan Sipes at Theda Clark Medical Center; and ThedaCare genetics nurse Sharon List, who gave us hard answers and facts we needed.

When the end came for Patrick, there were two others who helped: Tracy Schneider, a nurse at Affinity’s Mercy Medical Center who specializes in helping families facing such traumas, and Dan Densow of Wichmann Funeral Home.

A funny aside: I now measure time in 23-minute intervals. If I’m in a meeting or a function, and I sense that mark is near, I ask: Is what I’m doing now worth the entire time my son was alive?

I realize that’s a tad morbid. But it does help me build perspective. Time is precious. Life is short. Am I making the most of it?

I’m also trying to enjoy the blessings we have, particularly Emily and Sarah. We have two wonderful children and, through them, we’re always young.

And we’re moving on. That means taking risks and living life again.

Which brings me to this piece of news. We’re expecting again, due in September. All of our early test results are good.

Sadly, on April 4, 2004, Andrew announced in a follow-up column that the expected new arrival had died after 15 weeks. To read the column, click here.


More information about Patrick’s brief life can also be found by clicking here.


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