Sometimes gifts come to us as something we’ve been longing for, sometimes as a complete surprise. Sometimes they arrive in our life wrapped in struggle and less than ideal circumstances. That was the case a few years ago as my friends, Suzanne and Gary, expected their first child.
Like any first-time parents, Suzanne and Gary were getting used to the idea of adding a child to their household. The questions, fears and anticipation were just beginning for them. They didn’t get to experience much of the “normal” anxieties, butterflies and planning that most parents do. Instead, Suzanne was diagnosed with a sudden, severe onset of pre-eclampsia, something that could not only endanger the baby’s life, but her life as well. They were only 23 weeks along.
Suzanne was admitted to the High-Risk Unit at University of Cincinnati Hospital and was told she would not be leaving until she delivered. The goal was to get her to 28 weeks. However, there were complications with the baby’s blood flow and heart rate inconsistencies. Both of their lives were at risk and it was necessary to perform an emergency C-section at only 27 weeks. Their son, Caleb, was born with a long list of complications and challenges ahead, at a mere 1.29 lbs and 11.5 inches long.
Caleb was instantly rushed off to the NICU. Suzanne was barely able to catch a glimpse of her son, and it was more than a day before she would be able to do so. With Caleb’s complications—being on an oscillating ventilator the first few days before being able to handle a regular one—it was over a week before Suzanne could hold her newborn son.
Of course, the doctors had to prepare them for the long list of challenges they would probably face and a few very serious ones that were also possible. By no means were there guarantees at this point. It wasn’t when he’d be able to come home, but if. Caleb had plenty of hurdles to overcome to get to that point.
Over the coming weeks, he faced a possible heart surgery, but medications closed the hole he had in his heart. He contracted MRSA (a drug-resistant staff infection). Initial success of weaning his breathing onto a CPAP was set back, but eventually he was able to move back to the ventilator and then finally just oxygen. A detached retina. Extreme difficulty in moving him from tube feedings to a bottle. Even then he would often stop breathing during feeding.
The time in NICU was counted in weeks. Countless other newborns were coming and going in that time. Some came in for a brief stay and were able to go home, and others would never get that opportunity. Despite the challenges, Caleb fought on. It was around this time, at about 2 1/2 months old, that I was able to photograph Caleb in the NICU. Even though he was still so small and there were so many challenges, he had been very slowly growing over those first weeks. Caleb had been there so long, the NICU nurses and doctors had formed quite the fan club.
Just over 4 months after his early arrival, Suzanne and Gary could finally bring Caleb home.
This was just the beginning though. Naturally the coming months and years would see a variety of challenges and possible setbacks. The doctors still warned that developmental and learning disabilities—Cerebral Palsy, eye problems and speech and motor skill issues—were all possible in the future. Fortunately, some of the most serious issues have not been a problem.
Caleb is now 6 1/2 years old and in first grade. There have been plenty of struggles along the way with eating, growing, motor skills and a host of other things that require monitoring and ongoing specialists. But through it all, Suzanne and Gary still enjoy parenthood. Caleb has been an amazing gift to them, and to others as well. Caleb can light up a room and the face of anyone that meets him. He also now gets to play big brother to his little sister, Isabella.
Caleb’s story is so much more than overcoming these challenges. Suzanne and Gary still get to experience the joy and struggle of being parents. The experience with Caleb has been a vehicle to discover new faith for both of them, and Caleb has been full of wonderful surprises along the way. As he grew, Caleb quickly showed that what he lacks in some areas, he has made up for in others. He has a tremendous gift for learning and comprehension. Testing at the genius level with 2% of the population. Reading at a third grade level in the first grade. Playing the violin. Learning the periodic table. He also has a passion for Astronomy and is happy to tell you all about the Solar System.
Sometimes gifts come to us as something we’ve been longing for, sometimes as a complete surprise. Sometimes they arrive in our life wrapped in struggle and less than ideal circumstances. Sometimes they’re wrapped in all of the above.
To view more of Darrin’s photography, please visit darrinballman.com.