Christy's Story August 1, 2014 16:22

My story begins in 2004 when I was pregnant with twins and enjoying every minute dreaming of what life would be like with them. We had already started decorating the nursery and purchased a double stroller, car seats, baby gear and about every book written on the subject of twins. I was considered high risk because it was a twin pregnancy but everything seemed to be going fine. On the afternoon of June 30th, 2004, 24 weeks pregnant, I went to a regularly scheduled checkup. I was a Senior Programmer/Project Manager for BellSouth at the time and I had been on my feet an unusual amount that day. I was tired but nothing was strange about that. I was ready for the usual routine check and follow up in two weeks. This time though, the ultrasound technician said she wanted to get a second opinion. A Physician’s Assistant came in the room and confirmed the ultrasound tech’s concerns. They said I had a shortened cervix and I needed to go to the hospital right away. My husband had just had oral surgery that day and was in no condition to drive. So, I went home, packed some things and drove us to the hospital.

Upon arrival, I was immediately admitted, given IV administration of Magnesium and put in “Trundelenburg position” (basically the bed was inclined at about a 30 degree angle) for two days. It felt like torture. The weight of the babies pushing down on my chest and the magnesium were an awful combination. I was scheduled for an emergency cerclage for Friday morning but never saw a doctor until the morning of the surgery. Friday morning, the high risk perinatologist finally came in to check on me before surgery. He said I did not have a shortened cervix anymore but they would go ahead and do the cerclage anyway for extra protection and I would be home by the weekend. There were no complications during the surgery; however, that evening, after the surgery, the sack for Alexis ruptured. For the next two and a half weeks I was on restricted bedrest in the hospital. I was told to drink a lot of water and hopefully the sac would get back to normal level. During this time, I was able to get injections of surfactant to help the twin’s lungs develop. Unfortunately, the amniotic fluid leaking out triggered contractions. After holding off labor for so long, the doctor decided to deliver the twins at 26 weeks and six days.

Born so premature at 2 lbs/14 inches each, they still seemed healthy. They were initially breathing on their own, both with 8/9 Apgars. We have a picture of Alexis holding onto my husband’s finger just after she was born. We were encouraged it would be a long road but they should do okay. Because of the c-section, it was policy that I had to go back to my hospital room to recover for 12 hours. I was going crazy to see my babies. It seemed like all of my family had been up to see them but me. Thirty minutes before my 12 hour restriction was over, I received a call from one of the NICU doctors. I was told that Alexis had taken a turn for the worse and I needed to come right away.

For the next five hours, my husband and I (along with family and friends rotating) gathered around sweet Alexis’ incubator. I was begging God out loud to please let her stay and pleading with her to fight harder. I remember just saying over and over “you can do this baby girl, hang in there, I’m right here, please fight!” She wasn’t getting any better. Then, I remembered an article that I had read from the Reader’s Digest while on bed rest. It was the story of a set of preemie twins who were having a very difficult time until they were placed in the same incubator. Then, they began to recover and thrive. Alexis and Mason were in two separate rooms and down the hall from each other. I begged and pleaded with the doctors to let them be put together. In a great act of compassion toward me, the doctors agreed and we took all of her wires and tubes and wheeled her down next to her brother. With their help, I laid Alexis next to her little baby brother. Finally, their sweet spirits (so strong I could feel them) were together next to me just as they had been the months before in pregnancy. I waited for her to rebound. I waited for a miracle. At this point, I began to understand she wasn’t going to make it. The doctors and nurses had granted me this amazing kindness so that we could all be together to say goodbye. I prayed over them but I have no idea what I said. I remember vividly the agonizing crying of my mother when Alexis passed. I remember thinking that she was getting out what I felt inside, but I could not cry. I could barely breathe. I remember just wanting all those wires, tubes and tape off of Alexis. They weren’t doing any good any more. As a first time parent, it was such a shock to lay eyes on my children for the first time. To become a bereaved parent on the same day, was more than I could process. We all took turns holding her and then went to a private room where we were able to bathe her and spend more time together but I could not bring myself to say goodbye. I just told her I would see her again.

One of the hardest things I ever had to do was leave the hospital without the babies I had when I checked in.

In the months following, my son had to fight hard to hang on to his life. There was no time to grieve the loss of Alexis because we were terrified of losing Mason too. That is one thing any parent who has experienced a loss can tell you. You develop a hyper sense of what is at stake and the worst that can happen. That sensitivity remains with me to this day. Mason was in the NICU for 3 months and I was by his side from 11 in the morning until 11 at night. I was only kicked out for the nurses’ shift changes. He had battles with a brain bleed, hydrocephalus, urinary tract infections, necrotizing entercolitis scares, and more. One week before his due date, we finally had our homecoming day. Tara, one of our favorite nurses, who worked trying to save Alexis and routinely watched over Mason, made a special trip to see us off. It was the most glorious day I can recall. We were overjoyed at the victory to finally leave the hospital with our son. Mason left the NICU with a diagnosis of Auditory Neuropathy. At the age of four, he received a cochlear implant and he is a happy, thriving ten year old today.

In 2009, my husband and I welcomed our third child into the world. Meredith Alyson Zeigler was born full term with no complications in pregnancy or delivery. The middle name Alyson is the combination of the names Alexis and Mason. Both Mason and Meredith know about Alexis and ask about her from time to time. I sometimes find myself staring at them both and wondering what she would have looked like today.

I founded Remember Georgia’s Children Foundation in 2005 because my heart ached for a way to recognize the life of my daughter. Alexis’ life on earth was so short yet she forever left an impression on the lives of those who held her, loved her and had to let go of their dreams for her. I also wanted to celebrate the miracle of my surviving son. I had this very strong urge (I believe a calling) to visit a park that didn’t exist. A cemetery didn’t fit (it was too depressing) and the parks I could find were just empty green spaces without meaning or playgrounds.

After much research, I came across The Children’s Park in Tyler, Texas. The purpose of the park was to celebrate the lives of all children – those who have passed AND those who are living, those with special needs, and those perfectly healthy. I got on the phone and contacted the founder Jennifer Carson. We talked for three hours on the phone and I knew then that this was the park I was desperately seeking.

Who Will This Park Serve

First, my passion for this park is fueled not just by my story but by the stories of other families I have met (and continue to meet) along this journey who have also lost a child (from very young to adult ages) and have never found a place that felt “right or good enough” to honor their child’s life. There are a lot of hurting folks out there that put on happy faces but inside they long to find peace, acceptance that they are not alone, and recognition that their child’s life, no matter how short, was important. Further, this park will be a place where children who have lost a sibling can come to terms with their very big emotions of grief and then go on to do what kids do best which is play. That is exactly what was described in a letter about the Tyler park.

Second, this park is so important to me because I know how important it will be to the children who will be celebrated in it. My kids talk about it daily! Children get so excited when they see their name on anything. This park will feature the individual names of thousands of children on engraved stones lining the sidewalk. As one man in Tyler, TX told us on a visit to their park, “There is just something so special about this place. You walk in and feel such a sense of peace.” It is a place children love to visit to play and feel special, a place great for long walks, great talks and quality family time.

Last but not least, this thoughtfully designed park will feature special areas for parents who are struggling and feel alone in their own journeys whether it be grieving a lost child, struggling with the challenges of a raising a special needs child or just coping with the challenges of parenting in general. We all go through times when we could really use a beautiful, safe, quiet place to process, be restored and find peace. It’s important to me that our community have a place like this.

How has the park vision and support developed

Since the beginning, I am in awe at how this story has unfolded with the right people, events and God’s perfect timing.

We would not be here today were it not for the perinatal loss director of Northside Hospital – Aimee Alexander. She encouraged me when I first told her about the idea that was on my heart and became my first board member. She has since moved to Texas, but I will never forget all that she did for me and Alexis. I know there are thousands of families in metro-Atlanta that will recognize her name. She had one of the hardest jobs imaginable and she was amazing at it.

Finding Jennifer Carson, from the Children’s Park in Tyler, was an incredible start to develop the vision but we had no money. Then, my dear friend Karen Clark had a unique opportunity come out of the blue and she chose to bless us with seed money.

Soon thereafter, I met Cherokee County Native Sandi McDoogle Anderson at Canton First United Methodist Preschool because we were the only two mothers in the “Tea and Tissues” room whose kids had a hard time separating. As she talked about her precious son Will, I knew right away that that we were kindred spirits. She is a true southern lady who loves her children with the fierceness of a mother bear. She joined the Board and has worked tirelessly by my side in meeting after meeting to make this park happen. Since joining the board she has also welcomed two beautiful girls into the world Sydney and Kathryn. Sandi brought on board her sister Alison Higgins. Ali has been instrumental to introducing us to the Cherokee County business community.

Thanks to Sandi’s introduction, we have recently added two well respected members of the community to our board: Tim and Pam Cavender (AKA – the official Mr. and Mrs. Claus to the Govenor’s Mansion). They are passionate about this cause because Pam experienced the tragic loss of her own precious baby Courtney Elizabeth in 1977. The pain of this loss remains with her to this day.

Lisa Hootselle, joined our board the same time Sandi did and has been a critical part of our success. I often refer to Lisa as my soul sister because our paths have been very similar. Though we did not know each other, we both graduated from Harrison High School in Kennesaw a year apart and her son Hayden was born the day after Mason (July 19th, 2004) also 12 weeks premature. Her daughter Maddie is also close to the same age as my daughter Meredith and they are the best of friends. Lisa was eager to help with the park out of her own immense compassion and perspective of parenthood. In 2010, Lisa, Sandi and I flew to Tyler, Texas and met with the founders of the Children’s Park there. It was an opportunity of a lifetime for us. Sadly, 5 months later, Lisa and I would share yet another bond as bereaved mothers when her three year old daughter Emma had a tragic accident. Lisa has been dedicated to the park vision from the start but now she has a complete vision of the peace and comfort that she and so many will receive to celebrate the lives of ALL of their children in the same place.

Sarah Weitzenkorn was a former TV news reporter and long-time mutual friend of Lisa and I. We were so thrilled when she caught the vision and joined our board to share her wealth of expertise in 2010. She has two beautiful children – Ben (8) and Anna (6).

Sarah has been instrumental to the progress of the Children’s Park of Georgia. She is one of the most dedicated and productive people I have ever met. When she takes on an action item it is as good as done. She also has the unique perspective of full cycle family struggles as she is now responsible for her mother who has early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

We are confident that this park will be built. It is a matter of engaging people to partner with us to their unique abilities. Some are blessed with vast resources and powerful networks while others may have time and in-kind gifts to contribute. By using our God-given gifts together, we will build something really special to encourage families and children.

For me personally, it is and amazing privilege to be a part of something so important. I am energized from every email and call I receive telling me what this place will mean to their family. A successful businessman and major contributor to the park in Tyler once told us that out of any project he has ever contributed to, the Children’s Park was the one that he was MOST proud of. I can tell you that is saying a lot. This is going to be a treasure and legacy for Georgia.