The Baby Who Refused to Die: 11 Hours in Room 407

Doctors said Austin Gerstenslager had zero chance of survival at birth, so his parents waited for him to slowly die. And that's when this story actually begins.

At 12:17 p.m. Austin Luke Gerstenslager was born. His left eye was fused shut. The length of a school ruler, he weighed one pound, nine ounces.

He doesn’t look that bad, thought Dr. Vazquez.

The baby’s color was good. Chip swore he heard him cry.

Placed in an Isolette—a mobile incubator of sorts—Austin was wheeled to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Then Dr. Vazquez and a team went to work. They slid a tube down his throat. They coated his lungs with surfactant (a chemical many premature babies lack) to prevent them from collapsing. They placed him on an oscillator, a machine that breathes for him. He was on pure oxygen.

Austin did not respond well.

The oxygen saturation level in his blood hovered near 55 percent. It should have been 90 percent by then. Dr. Vazquez wasn’t surprised. Austin’s lung tissue had probably stopped developing a couple weeks after Keri’s water broke, he reasoned.

Dr. Vazquez went to the recovery room where Keri was waking to speak with her and Chip.

“Zero chance of survival,” Dr. Vazquez said when pushed for odds. Even if Austin is put on life support, his organs would fail, he told Chip.

Jodi Johnson, the nurse who cared for Keri that day, heard it all. She couldn’t help herself; she began to cry.

Dr. Vazquez handed Austin to Keri. The Gerstenslagers had agreed weeks before not to turn their infant into a science experiment just to ease their guilt. They’d tried to save him, and it didn’t work. It was time to let him go. If he was going to die, he’d leave this earth cradled in his mother’s arms—at peace and in no pain.

She was afraid he’d die in someone else’s arms.

“The most beautiful 26-week-old baby I’ve ever seen,” Johnson told Keri.

By 1:30 p.m., Chip, Keri, and Austin had returned to Room 407.

Keri held Austin close. “I love you … we love you,” she whispered to him.

Chip reached out to the Reverend Don King at their parish, St. Michael’s. Fifteen minutes later, the priest arrived. With a shell full of water, King performed a brief ceremony. “Austin Luke, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I baptize you,” he said.


In the next few hours, Chip’s parents, brother, and sister, and Keri’s mother came into Room 407 to meet and say goodbye to Austin. Keri wouldn’t let anyone hold him. She was afraid he’d die in someone else’s arms.

Alone again, Chip and Keri admired their baby as he snuggled into Keri’s chest.

“Look at his blond eyebrows,” Keri cooed.

“His hair, his fingernails.”

The end, they believed, was coming soon. And that was OK.

The only sound in the room was an occasional beep from Keri’s IV line. NICU nurse Melissa Giannini popped in every so often to check Austin’s heartbeat. When it was time for him to die, his heart rate would begin to slow.

After four hours, Austin was still breathing. His heart thumped at a healthy 120 beats per minute. He moved his head when Keri’s IV beeped. He wrapped his fingers and toes around the fingers of his parents. The Gerstenslagers wondered, Were they doing the right thing?

They summoned Dr. Vazquez. “Sometimes it just takes a while,” he explained. Austin had a strong heart, he told them. If they second-guessed their decision, even five years down the road, Dr. Vazquez told the Gerstenslagers they could call him.

Chip thought about making funeral arrangements. They’d have Austin cremated. Giannini placed a stethoscope on Austin’s chest. He tried to swat it away. Four hours became five, then six. Still 120 beats per minute.

What the hell is going on? Chip thought.

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17 thoughts on “The Baby Who Refused to Die: 11 Hours in Room 407

  1. What a great story and beautiful ending. Yet, there are so many babies out there , neglected, abused, tortured and murdered. Why the GOP continues to fight birth control, including the morning after pill, that prevents hundred’s of thousands of abortions every year,I don’t understand. It defies common sense. Children are born, without any one in their lives, abandoned to loveless foster homes. When are they going to do something about that ? If they really cared, they would be putting their financial resources there. Instead, Republicans, are making it a priority, to steal the food out of children’s mouths, with our tax money. They prefer to use it for their ongoing political circus. 35 billion, could have helped the 6000 child abuse cases, that haven’t even been investigated yet ,in Arizona alone. How do they know they haven’t been murdered, if they haven’t even investigated ? Gov. Jan Brewer doesn’t want to spend a penny more, to find out. Sick. In Florida, nine children have died on Sen. Radel’s watch. The Republican senator, was too busy snorting cocaine.

    1. Really? You read a heartwarming story about a baby’s near miraculous survival and you feel the need to turn it into a political diatribe?

  2. if this is not a MIRACLE…tell me what it is. Cause i know Only GOD could have saved Austin ;) Thank you for keep filling my <3 with Hope!

  3. Only through the divine power of God has this beautiful child made it. May he grow up to be healthy and strong.

  4. My prayers are with you!!! From a fellow long-term NICU mom (212 days) of a 24 weeker…My sweet Lil’ Miss was exactly the same size…12 inches long & only 1lb. 9oz. at birth!! I understand what you have gone through, are going through and will go through!! Taking one day at a time, faith and hope will be my prayers for you & your sweet guy!! God bless!!

    1. It wasn’t that this little one was doing better off of machines than with .. God can make miracles happen when technology can’t. Best wishes to your family and especially your little one.

      1. Thank you for the well wishes Jim!! I couldn’t agree with you more!!

  5. Austin is a miracle! Your wonderful story brought back memories for me. My twin boys were born prematurely and spent time in the NICU. One of my sons weighed 1 lb, 3 ozs and was 12 inches at birth. He spent 3 1/2 months in the NICU. My sons are now 22 years old, one is in graduate school and the other (the 1 pounder) is in his senior year of college!

  6. The touch of a mother is so powerful. Im a NICU mom twice over, all though neither of my sons were as early as Austin it still touches me in a way nothing else can.

  7. This sounds like kangaroo care. In my opinion, Keri saved her son’s life. Without her continual embrace, he may not have been the miracle he became. I wish you all the best.

  8. That’s a great story.This story makes me think of my mother and father. They has given me a lot.Thaks to all the mom and dad in the world!

  9. We share a similar story. But August 18th Austins birthday is our baby girls 18th birthday. Must be something about that day. Makes them strong.We loved your story.

  10. Keep the faith, mom and dad. . . . You are truely blessed ! So too, is Austin.

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