Tim Klein for Reader's Digest
Cori Salchert of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, sits on a hospital bed parked in the middle of her living room stroking the peach fuzz on top of her newly adopted son’s head. One-year-old Charlie is at ease in his mother’s arms, drifting off to the hum of his ventilator. His mother adopted him knowing that there was a good chance he would not live long.
Serving as foster and adoptive parents did not seem feasible for Cori and her husband, Mark, a few years ago. Both worked, and they already had eight biological children. But Cori had a passion for helping families through difficult times. As a registered nurse and a perinatal bereavement specialist, she helped families cope with the loss of a pregnancy or a newborn child. If parents were too overwhelmed with emotion to hold their sick baby, Cori would cradle the child so “no one had to die alone.”
Such times made Cori think, Wow, I would really like to take those kiddos and care for them. About five years ago, Cori was struck with an autoimmune disorder. The illness left her without a job and feeling hopeless. But it did open up the time for Cori to connect with Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin’s treatment foster-care program and foster hospice infants. Here’s Cori’s story in her own words:
In August of 2012, we received a call from the hospital asking if we would take in a two-week-old baby girl who was nameless and had no one to care for her. The baby was born without the right or left hemisphere of her brain, and doctors said there was no hope for her. She was in a vegetative state—unable to see or hear and responding only to painful stimuli.
She could have died in the hospital, wrapped in a blanket and set to the side because she was being sustained with a feeding pump. But we brought this beautiful baby home to live, and live she did.
Emmalynn lived more in 50 days than a number of folks do in a lifetime. She had not had a family, and now she was suddenly the youngest sibling of nine. We held her constantly and took her everywhere with us.
There came an evening when I knew Emmalynn was beginning to fade. The whole family was home and got to hold her and kiss her. My husband tucked her close with her little head under his chin and sang to her. Eventually, most of the family began to drift off and head to bed, but my daughter Charity and I stayed awake with her.
I was snuggling Emmalynn into my furry, warm bathrobe, holding her on my chest and singing “Jesus Loves Me” to her, when it occurred to me that I had not heard her breathe for a few minutes. I leaned her back and saw that this beautiful creature was gone. She’d left this world hearing my heartbeat. She didn’t suffer, she wasn’t in pain, and she most certainly wasn’t alone.
Two years later, we took in four-month-old Charlie. Charlie has a life-limiting diagnosis but is not necessarily considered terminal. However, children with this type of brain damage typically die by age two. Charlie is already on life support and has been resuscitated at least ten times in the past year. He now has an altered plan of care, and should he code again, we will not resort to doing compressions and using a defibrillator—this time, we will let him go.
As in Emmalynn’s case, we do everything we can to love Charlie, and we take him on adventures with us everywhere we can.
What a gift it is to be a part of these babies’ lives, to have the ability to ease their suffering, to cherish and love them even though they aren’t able to give anything tangible back or even smile in return for our efforts.
We invest deeply, and we ache terribly when these kids die, but our hearts are like stained-glass windows. Those windows are made of broken glass that has been forged back together, and those windows are even stronger and more beautiful for having been broken.