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.
They’d thought long and hard about the fine line between selfish and selfless decisions.
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.