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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