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The Leaven - Colby's Story

Newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas
October 18, 2002
Colby's story
By Bethanne Scholl
Special to the Leaven

It was not yet 6 a.m. when the phone rang. Father Harry Schneider was quick to answer it.

Scott Stanfield was on the other end of the line.

It was time, he said.

It was the feast of the Assumption - a day full of Masses and other responsibilities for the Overland Park pastor.

But Aug. 15 was also to be Colby Reed Stanfield's first - and last - day on earth.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

"I remember thanking God for letting this work out," said Father Harry. "We had a priest from India visiting Holy Spirit - Father Arul - and he was able to take the 7 and 8:30 Masses.

"I was more nervous than anything. I wondered what was going to happen, and I was anxious that I might be queasy at the sight of blood."

Father Harry had been asked to baptize Scott and Nancy Stanfield's second child, Colby. Father Harry showered, shaved, and headed for the hospital.

BEGINNINGS

Nancy Stanfield was in the 16th week of pregnancy when she had a routine Alpha Fetal Protein test early this spring. The results came back abnormal, and the doctors determined that the baby had an open neural tube defect. Nancy was scheduled to meet with a maternal fetal medicine group one week later for a level two sonogram.

An Internet user, Nancy began searching the Web for some explanation of what might be happening with her pregnancy.

"One of the things I kept going back to was that an open neural tube defect was anencephaly," said Nancy.

"It hit me really hard. I logged off. I just couldn't think about it anymore."

Anencephaly is a condition estimated to occur in about one of every 1,000 pregnancies. The neural tube that normally closes between 21 and 28 days of conception to form the brain and the spinal cord does not. Hence, the name open neural tube defect. The skull stops growing, leaving the brain exposed and undeveloped.

While a tiny number of babies born with anencephaly live for up to several months, the majority will not live to birth. Babies that do live for a brief while are generally blind, deaf, unconscious, and are thought to be unable to feel pain.

With all this in mind, Nancy headed out for her appointment a week later. Her husband, Scott, and her mother went with her.

"When they were doing the sonogram, the doctor got really quiet," said Nancy. "Usually you can see the profile of the baby's face, but it was really difficult for me to see. The [perinatologist] just started measuring the baby's legs and asked who our [obstetrician] was."

"This baby has a really bad problem," the doctor said. "It has anencephaly."

"That's when I started to cry," said Nancy.

The perinatologist quickly stopped the sonogram without finding out the sex of the child and led the family to another room. There, she gave them a book about grief and losing a child with fetal birth defects.

Scott said he knew something was very wrong even before the perinatologist mentioned anencephaly.

"I knew it was bad when she got quiet," said Scott.

They left the office that day under the impression that Nancy would be induced in the fifth month of pregnancy. They would meet with their own doctor, Brenda Lofton, the next day.

THE DECISION

"One of the first questions Dr. Lofton asked us was, 'What do you understand is going to happen?'" said Nancy.

It was then that it became clear that the perinatologist had not given them the whole picture. Nancy would not automatically be induced, as they had thought. Instead, the couple was told that they had a decision to make: Nancy could carry the baby until as close to term as she could at which point she would then have a C-section, or a man in town who performed partial-birth abortions could terminate the pregnancy.

But Lofton, a Catholic, explained to the Stanfields that Nancy's desire to baptize and have a funeral for the baby would not be possible if they chose to abort.

"My mouth dropped to the ground," said Nancy. "We really thought I would be induced."

"'I can't carry this baby!' I said. I couldn't imagine going to work every day being pregnant and having people asking when I was due. I didn't want to face people. I wanted to stay at home with my family," she added.

Lofton suggested she could arrange for Nancy to take some time to process and plan. She also explained that many women do choose to carry the baby to term. The parents then spend as much time as is possible with their newborns, even holding and dressing them.

"I feel very fortunate that our doctor is Catholic," said Nancy. "We were so thankful she told us a couple of stories of other parents who chose to have their babies."

It was a Friday and Lofton told the couple to take the weekend or longer to make a decision.

"We walked out of the office in a fog, and we didn't say much to each other," said Nancy. "And then Scott looked at me and said, 'I think we should have the baby.'"

"I was so relieved, and I said, 'I think we should, too,'" said Nancy.

'THIS IS YOUR SACRIFICE'

The Stanfields immediately called Father Harry, whom they had never talked with before. At that time, he had only been pastor at Holy Spirit for a few months.

"I remember sitting here in my office with them and listening for 15-20 minutes, not really saying much," said Father Harry. "I was thinking in my own mind about them proposing an abortion and asking me, 'Can we do that?'

"But as I sat and listened to them, I reflected back to them that it sounded as if they had made the decision to bear the child. They were holding hands and looked at each other and said, 'Yes.'"

"Looking back, two things he said stuck out to us," said Nancy. The first was something Nancy hadn't had a chance to think about yet, but that she found very reassuring.

"You'll see your baby someday," Father Harry told them gently.

"The second thing he said was that parents make sacrifices all the time for their children," said Nancy. "Some parents drive their kids to soccer practice, others make sacrifices for their education. 'This is your sacrifice,' he said."

Putting the enormity of their choice in perspective helped Nancy immensely.

"Father Harry was really good to talk to," said Nancy. "He never once preached to us. He was such a blessing."

Father Harry said he was struck by the Stanfields' courage.

"I really felt a sense of their own love for each other, their love of the child, their love of God," said Father Harry. "People of deep faith know from the beginning where their faith is: It is where their heart is. It is automatic."

NEVER MORE SURE

But making a decision and living a decision are two very different things.

Many, including Father Harry, immediately offered support and encouragement.

But some, even members of their immediate family, simply could not understand the Standfields' decision to continue a pregnancy when it was certain that the child would die soon after birth.

And while Scott and Nancy knew what they wanted and needed to do, they also needed to be able to express their feelings of fear and sorrow.

"I really wanted to sit as a family and talk this thing through," said Nancy. "I didn't really need to hear what people's opinions were if they disagreed. I just wanted them to support us and love us."

It was a friend at work who inadvertently made Nancy realize how comfortable with her decision she was. Sitting down beside her, the woman asked Nancy directly whether carrying this baby to term was really her choice.

"Nancy, are you OK with this?" she asked. "Are you really OK?"

"I told her I had never been more sure of anything in my life," said Nancy, who then realized that what she had just said was absolutely true. "I took a lot of comfort in that."

Despite the belief that their decision was the right one, each prenatal visit brought more and more questions for Dr. Lofton about the day of Colby's birth. Because of the potential for complications if Nancy were allowed to go into labor on her own, it had been decided that the baby would be delivered by Caesarean section on Sept. 18 at 1 p.m.

Childbirth is always fraught with anxiety and anticipation - but for obvious reasons, the Stanfields experienced more than their share of both.

"We were so afraid to see our baby," said Nancy. (Because the skull doesn't close up, the anencephalic baby's brain is left exposed.) "We wondered what he was going to look like. We wondered if they would put a hat on him. We wondered what would happen if the hat fell off."

Still, it wasn't all anxiety.

"We were getting excited, too," said Scott. "We were still anxious about the birth of the baby. We didn't know if he would live a day or an hour."

COUNTDOWN

By her seventh-month doctor's visit, Nancy was carrying twice the amount of amniotic fluid as usual, a not uncommon occurrence with anencephalic babies.

The doctor warned Nancy that she might not make it to the scheduled delivery date - that a premature birth was a likely possibility.

"She told me that [due to the increased amniotic fluid] my body might think it was nine months pregnant," said Nancy. "And my water could break."

The Stanfields didn't waste any time. Nancy and her mother bought a special baby-blue outfit for Colby to wear, complete with a hat. The whole family went in for a sitting with a professional photographer, who took a variety of special pregnancy photos of Nancy and then others of Nancy with Scott and their son, Brady.

They had already reserved the cemetery plot, but they made an appointment with the funeral home and scheduled an appointment with Father Harry to talk about the funeral.

Father Harry already had the date of the C-section on his calendar, but the Stanfields warned him then that the baby might come early. They had asked him when they first spoke to him whether he would baptize the baby, and he had assured them that he would.

It was a promise Father Harry desperately hoped he would be able to keep. But now the unpredictability of the timing of the birth, the knowledge that the baby might live for only a very brief time after birth, and the fact that Father Harry was the sole priest at a large Johnson County parish, created an added layer of stress for both the couple and the priest.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Nancy's water broke a little after 4 a.m. on Aug. 15 - more than three weeks before the scheduled delivery date. The Stanfields called family, friends - and Father Harry.

Father Harry sent up a quick prayer of thanksgiving for his visiting priest, then quickly arranged for him to cover the early morning Masses for the holy day. Then he headed for the hospital, where he soon discovered he had arrived just in time.

"I was watching it all through the glass," said Father Harry.

When the C-section was concluded, the surgical team saw him standing outside the door, and they motioned him in.

"They had a little blanket and wrapped it around the baby and brought him around to Nancy," said Father Harry. "I went right to her and anointed her, and then I got the holy water and baptized the baby."

It took only a moment - fortunately.

"He stopped breathing then, but his heart continued to beat," said Father Harry.

Nancy believes that was the moment Colby left them.

"I cried out loud, 'Mama loves you, Colby. . . . Mama loves you,'" said Nancy.

Scott held Colby, while Father Harry stayed by Nancy's side. He held her hand while the surgeon closed her incision.

"I was holding her with my right hand and I had my left hand under her head," said Father Harry. "I was going to try to move out of the way when the doctor said, 'Stay right there, Father. I'll work around you.'"

When Nancy was transported back to her room, Father Harry was asked to join them and to lead the family in prayer.

"I remember thinking about what an experience this was to have on the feast of the Assumption," said Father Harry. "The feast is all about the goodness of our bodies. I prayed about the goodness of [Colby's] little body.

"I prayed, too, that just like Mary, Nancy had given life today. She also suffered with her son and held him when he died. I told them that Mary understood."

Driving home after leaving the hospital, Father Harry prayed to Mary.

"I didn't so much ask her, as I told her," said Father Harry. "Mary, this couple really did God's will like you did. Take care of them."

A TIMELESS MOMENT

After months of fearing the worst, Nancy looked at her baby boy, bruised from the C-section and minus the baby fat of a full-term baby.

And she fell in love.

"Our first son, Brady, was bald for so long," said Nancy. "Colby had dark hair across the top of his forehead, where his hairline would have started."

The Stanfields marveled at their newborn.

"I hardly cried that day," said Nancy. "We were really unprepared for how happy that day was. I felt so good. We couldn't see doing it any other way."

UNEXPECTED BLESSINGS

Although the Stanfields were unable to donate Colby's organs (his birth weight of 3 pounds, 6 ounces was almost 2 pounds shy of the weight minimum for organ donation), Colby's birth still changed lives he would never meet.

"I was profoundly touched," said Father Harry. "I abandoned the sermon I had prepared for the Mass, and I told the whole congregation about this couple's commitment to life."

A woman came up to Father Harry after the holy day Mass.

"She just took my hands and said, 'Father, your sermon helped me so much today.' And then she repeated it and squeezed my hands and left," he said.

The Stanfields, too, were changed.

While many parents blame each other after the death of a child, the Stanfields have grown closer.

"I feel like we've fallen in love all over again," said Nancy. "The talks we've had - it is a whole other level of intimacy."

"We've never asked once, 'Why us, God?'" said Scott. "This could happen to anybody. Why not us?"

OUR REFUGE AND OUR STRENGTH

"Some people think this was a hard decision for us to make. It really wasn't," said Nancy.

Nor was it a specifically Catholic one.

When Nancy was first trying to convince a family member that the decision to carry Colby was the right one, he told her she was only doing it because she had become a Catholic.

"I told him that wasn't true," said Nancy. "Even if I hadn't become a Catholic, I would have made this decision. It isn't a Catholic decision. It's a human one."

Still, being right doesn't bring Colby back.

"I miss him so much my arms literally ache," said Nancy.

 

 

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