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.

Nurse Erica Bucklew began her shift in the NICU at 7 p.m. Austin and his parents remained in Room 407, still waiting for the end. Word about this baby had spread throughout the unit. This baby who wasn’t acting like a baby on the verge of death. “Everyone was talking about him,” Bucklew recalled. “We all waited for updates.”

Back in Room 407, the minutes and hours ticked away. Dr. Vazquez was home reading. Nurse practitioner Fran Kessler had taken over the NICU for the night. Giannini kept checking on Austin. He was going strong.

“Would you come with me next time, to meet him and his parents?” Giannini asked Kessler.

It was about 11 p.m. Kessler introduced herself to the Gerstenslagers.

“Do you mind if I peek?” she asked Keri.

Austin was snuggled in so tight that Kessler could barely see him. She lifted the blanket. Austin sucked on a pacifier. She checked his heartbeat. She could barely hear it because he was sucking on that pacifier so hard.

“He’s beautiful,” Kessler told Chip and Keri. “His heart is strong … he’s moving air. He even has a little bit of an attitude about him. Do you mind if we run a few tests? I’m not trying to change your mind. We just want to see where we are.”

Austin’s blood oxygen saturation registered 88 percent, normal. A blood gas reading showed an acceptable level of carbon dioxide in his blood. His blood was not acidotic, which meant he was getting sufficient oxygen into his body.

The clock passed midnight. Austin had lived into the next day. It was a milestone for Keri, though she couldn’t explain why.

Kessler, who’d phoned Dr. Vazquez before running the extra tests, phoned him again. He digested what she was telling him. Why is this not going according to plan? he wondered.

Kessler put Chip on the phone. “Chip, the game has changed,” Dr. Vazquez told him. Chip Gerstenslager said he will remember that sentence for the rest of his life.

It was 12:20 a.m., about 11 hours since they’d entered Room 407 to allow their baby to die. Giannini, the nurse, put Austin back into the Isolette and away she went with him to the NICU. They were going to try to save him.

Keri and Chip looked at each other. “What just happened?” he asked his wife.


An IV line was inserted into Austin’s umbilical-cord vessels. The NICU team tried the oscillator again to help him breathe. They settled on a simple CPAP, which blows a continuous stream of air into the nostrils. Austin made it through the morning and then the day.

Dr. Vazquez said he’d never been so glad to be so wrong. In his 18 years at Aultman Hospital, the physician said, nothing like this had ever happened. He still can’t make sense of it. He has shared the story with other neonatologists, and they couldn’t come up with a good explanation for Austin’s survival either.

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“By all rights, he should not have had developed lung tissue,” Dr. Vazquez said. “Most babies do what you expect, and they tend to get worse before they get better. This baby, not only was he breathing on his own for 12 hours, he was able to make sugar for himself. He did better without the technology than he did with it.”

In all, Austin spent 100 days in the hospital. His time was filled with some ups and downs, just like most of the 400 babies who come through the NICU annually. Like all of them, he’ll be more prone to physical or mental developmental problems. But his family will worry about them then, not now.

On the night before his release from the unit, Keri wrote this on her Facebook page: “As I sit holding my son in this NICU room for the last night, I worry about the next mom who will sit in this chair. A mom who this very moment probably has no idea that she will be sitting in a chair like this … I pray for her, that her outcome will be as good as ours.” (March 11, ’13) Copyright © 2013 by GateHouse Ohio Newspapers, 500 Market Ave. S., Canton Ohio 44702

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