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.

From by Tim Botos from Reader's Digest Magazine | August 2013

The Baby Who Refused to Die: 11 Hours in Room 407Courtesy Keri Gerstenslager
It was shortly before noon on August 18, 2012, a Saturday.

A half-dozen nurses and assistants wheeled the mother and her unborn baby out of Room 407 in the birth center of Aultman Hospital in Canton, Ohio. The bed glided across glossy tiled floors, en route to an emergency cesarean section.

Tears slid down Keri Gerstenslager’s cheeks. It was 14 weeks before her due date. Even worse, her water had broken six weeks earlier and had slowed the fetus’s development. Doctors and nurses converged on Austin after his birth. They threw everything that technology and medicine could offer at the tiny baby. Nothing seemed to help. Everyone concluded that his lungs were not mature enough to keep him alive.

Roger Vazquez, MD, the neonatologist who treated Austin, said he had zero chance of survival.

The Gerstenslager family had prepared for this moment. They’d memorized survival rates of premature babies born at various intervals of gestation. They’d examined their faith. They’d thought long and hard about the fine line between selfish and selfless decisions.

So after much soul-searching by his parents, baby Austin was removed from life support. He was taken back to Room 407. Together there, Keri and her husband, Chip, held their baby and waited for him to slowly die.

And that’s when this story actually begins.


Chip, 43, and Keri Gerstenslager, 34, already had two children. Keri had had no trouble conceiving either of her blond daughters, Kendra, six, and Erika, three.

“We just felt we were supposed to have another baby,” Keri said. They decided to try for No. 3. But pregnancy didn’t happen as easily for the couple this time. They ultimately tried in vitro, and it was successful. In February 2012, Keri began her pregnancy with three embryos growing inside her.

After a few months, though, she lost two. At 20 weeks, with one baby left, her water broke.

Keri prepared to go into labor, but it didn’t progress. Doctors put her on bed rest to save the third and final fetus. She took a leave from her job as an occupational therapist at Mercy Medical Center. She drank gallons of fluids to boost her amniotic fluid.

“Why me?!” she yelled at God, while cooped up in bed.


Keri read up on survival rates of premature babies. But those statistics were for “ideal” situations in which the mom’s water had not broken. On a calendar, Keri marked off each day that she remained pregnant. Her goal: Make it to the 26th week—August 18, to be exact. If she got that far, the Gerstenslagers would try everything within reason to save their baby’s life.

They would name him Austin and had selected the middle name of Luke, from the Bible. St. Luke is the patron saint of physicians and surgeons. “We felt he was going to need that. He was probably going to have a lot of physicians involved in his life,” Keri said.

With all but one day crossed off her calendar, Keri went into labor on August 17, a Friday. Her contractions were four minutes apart.

The couple arrived at Aultman Hospital at noon that Friday. Keri landed in Room 407, an antepartum suite for expectant moms with pregnancy complications. An ultrasound revealed that Austin’s measurements were more in line with a 23-week-old, not a 26-weeker. The lack of amniotic fluid had stunted him.

Keri tried to keep that baby inside her. A fetus develops exponentially with each week it’s inside a womb. The next day, no matter how it turned out, she would reach her self-imposed minimum of 26 weeks, right on the nose.

She made it—barely.

With a fetal heart-rate monitor connected to Keri’s stomach, doctors and nurses watched Austin’s heartbeat. At about 10:30 the next morning, his rate dipped. It’s called a decelerating heartbeat—a sign that the baby is in distress.

Labor and delivery nurse Jodi Johnson, who has three sons of her own, tried to reassure Keri. So did Chip. Then Keri’s obstetrician, Steven

Willard, entered the room. He told her she had to deliver immediately.

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  • Your Comments

    • Net

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

    • Jay McHue

      Both before and after birth, choose LIFE and fight for it!

    • Collette Susman

      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!!

      • Jim

        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.

    • Jeanie

      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!

    • Nicolle

      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.

    • spersephone

      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.

    • Violet

      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!

    • Beckie Grabau

      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.

    • Granny Linda

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

    • Birgit Putteman

      <3, love stories of hope!