The tale of Oliver Harrington has a happy ending.
It’s important to know that from the beginning, because the story of how the chubby-cheeked, blue-eyed baby lived to see his first Christmas might be too harrowing.
It’s a story about a child born premature with virtually no hope of survival. And it’s a story about answered prayers.
A year ago, when Brandi and Tyler Harrington found themselves having their third child, the Tacoma couple considered it a blessing.
Brandi, 35, is a business instructor at Central Washington University. Tyler, 34, is a physician’s assistant at Tacoma General Hospital. They had a 3-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.
Those pregnancies had been beset with complications and a few scary moments. But Brandi delivered both babies without problems.
The couple’s third child, whom they’d already named Oliver Sinclair, progressed normally until the 20-week mark, when Brandi began having contractions.
“It’s a little early but the doctors weren’t too concerned about it,” she said.
Contractions came again at 26 weeks.
“We actually spent Valentine’s Day at the doctor’s office, getting checked out because I was having such severe contractions,” Brandi said. “Being my third child, I just knew something wasn’t quite right.”
At 28 weeks, Brandi measured one week ahead in size.
“Everyone kept asking me, ‘Are you due any day now?’ I’m only 28, 29 weeks pregnant,” Brandi said. “I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought people were being rude.”
At her 32-week appointment, Brandi measured 40 to 41 weeks in size.
An ultrasound showed she had too much amniotic fluid.
“It was getting so big that it was making her belly distended, pushing on different areas and causing pain,” Tyler said.
“It got to the point where I could hardly walk,” Brandi said. “I was waddling everywhere.”
At 32 weeks, she was hospitalized overnight because of more contractions.
“My belly was so tight it was shiny,” she said. “I felt like a water balloon you couldn’t fill up anymore.”
“I’ve been in medicine for 13 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Tyler said.
A week later, Brandi was admitted again to Tacoma General. Doctors thought the baby might have a birth defect, or a hernia. Meanwhile, Brandi knew her health was beginning to suffer.
“I felt like my body just took a turn for the worse,” she said. “Everything felt like it was out of control.”
She also was in tremendous pain, the worst she’d ever felt.
“To get her pain under control, they gave the same dose (of pain medicine) I give to someone shot in the chest,” Tyler said.
Doctors told the couple they didn’t know what was wrong, but they wanted to continue her pregnancy one more week, to 34 weeks.
What the doctors didn’t know was that something was growing inside Oliver, draining him of his life and putting him and his mother in mortal danger.
Brandi didn’t want to wait any longer, and opted to have the birth by Caesarean section.
“I knew in my body and in my spirit … I don’t think I can make it,” she said. “I don’t think my body can make it. I don’t think our son is doing well.”
Their obstetrician agreed.
“Alright,” she said, “it looks like we’re having a baby today.”
“I remember sitting in that bed, shocked,” Brandi said.
Doctors told the couple Oliver had a 50 percent chance of survival at birth.
“No one knew what to expect when Oliver came,” Brandi said. “We were prepared to say goodbye to our son when he was born.”
The couple is deeply religious, and Brandi turned to their Christian faith for guidance.
She said, “The Lord spoke to me and he said, ‘I giveth and I taketh away. You have to be OK with that. You are not in control of what is going to happen.’ ”
On April 2, just before noon, Brandi entered the delivery room. Specialized equipment had been wheeled in. Members of the neonatal intensive care unit were on hand.
“When they cut me open I could feel — even with the epidural — the weight of all that water come off,” she said. “There was so much fluid in my belly. A part of me was so relieved that was over.”
Within moments Oliver was out. The 33-week preemie later weighed in at 7 pounds, 9 ounces.
“He was just this beautiful boy,” Tyler recalled. “He was big.”
But as soon as the doctors cut his umbilical cord, Oliver turned a deep blue — a sign of oxygen deprivation.
“He went from healthy baby boy to the darkest color I’ve ever seen a human,” Tyler said. “I knew we were in trouble. This was more than a baby who hasn’t taken his first breath yet.”
“I remember saying, ‘But he’s not crying,’ ” Brandi recalled.
Tyler went back and forth between his wife and his new son.
“The love of my life is on the OR table, cut open, and my son is on a table, 20 feet away, dying,” he said. “I could see it in the nurse’s eyes.”
Doctors and nurses worked furiously on the baby. A tube was put down his windpipe. Others were put in his chest and belly.
Unlike most new parents in a medical emergency, Tyler knew exactly what the doctors were doing and why.
“I didn’t have to ask,” he said.
And he knew it wasn’t looking good.
Tyler followed Oliver up to the intensive care unit for newborns.
“I was OK with that because my son needed his daddy more than I needed by husband at that point,” Brandi said.
Oliver was still having difficulty getting oxygen. An X-ray was taken. A diaphragmatic hernia was tentatively diagnosed. The condition occurs when organs in the belly, such as intestines, move up into the chest cavity through an opening.
The doctors treated Tyler like a peer. They told him Oliver’s dire condition meant he had to go to Seattle Children’s Hospital, which had the equipment and experts needed to treat a baby as sick as Oliver.
Meanwhile, a machine forced air into the newborn’s lungs.
Before Oliver left, Brandi wanted to meet her son. She knew it might be her only chance.
“If my son is alive right now, I want to meet him,” she said. “I hadn’t seen him, I hadn’t touched him, I hadn’t heard him.”
Nurses bent the rules and took her to Oliver, just an hour after his birth.
“I wanted to be the first person to call him by his name,” Brandi said.
She touched his foot and said his name, Oliver Sinclair.
“Even with a tube in his throat he started moving his tongue,” she said. “He recognized that his mom was there.”
“He had not responded to anything,” Tyler said. “He hadn’t moved anything. It was only when she called his name.”
“It was an incredible gift because I didn’t know if he would be alive the next time I saw him,” Brandi said.
A doctor at Tacoma General tried to be encouraging, but Tyler pressed him for a realistic assessment of Oliver’s chances of survival.
Maybe 1 percent, the doctor said.
That’s when Tyler realized that Oliver didn’t just have a chance of dying. He most likely was going to.
The doctor on call that day at Seattle Children’s was Robert DiGeronimo, the hospital’s NICU medical director. He saw Oliver as soon as he arrived.
“He was severely, critically ill,” DiGeronimo said. “Our thought at the time, given how sick he was, he probably had a less than 10 percent chance of surviving.”
The baby’s right lung had collapsed and he was on a ventilator.
But Oliver, it turns out, was a fighter. Two days after her son’s birth, Brandi was well enough to visit him.
Still, the baby wasn’t getting any better despite extensive testing and procedures. The hernia was ruled out. Doctors considered putting him on a heart-lung bypass machine, DiGeronimo said.
As Oliver struggled to survive, his parents were surrounded with support from their church, family, friends and co-workers.
“Whatever we needed,” Brandi said. “We felt so loved and encouraged and supported.”
Finally, doctors determined Oliver had a mass of some kind in the right lower lobe of his lung. As they considered surgery, the baby forced the issue. His body was unable to control his blood pressure.
“He got stuck,” DiGeronimo said. “He wasn’t making any progress. He needed the surgery.”
On Day 5, Oliver was prepped for the operation. It would be his last chance to live. Because Oliver’s condition was so fragile, the NICU was turned into an operating room.
“It was pretty high risk that he would even survive the surgery,” DiGeronimo said.
Brandi and Tyler knew the odds.
“We walked into that room and we kissed him and we said goodbye to our son,” she said.
“We’re not in control of this,” Tyler said. “If it’s God’s will, heal him.”
From the waiting room, the couple watched cart after cart of surgical equipment wheeled in.
“They cut his chest open, spread the ribs and pulled the tumor out,” Tyler said.
It took a surgeon 45 minutes to remove the 3-by-4-inch tumor.
“As soon as they pulled it out of his chest his color got better; he oxygenated better,” Tyler said.
“Within an hour of the operation, he significantly improved,” DiGeronimo said.
The tumor, it turned out, was using a lot of Oliver’s blood. Like a vampire, it had been sucking out his life.
A NEW HOPE
The Harringtons were able to hold their son on his ninth day of life.
With each passing day, Oliver improved. A tube could be removed, a drug could be discontinued. A week after surgery, he was breathing on his own.
On Day 16, he was well enough to return to Tacoma General.
“Everyone was shocked,” Brandi said.
On Day 27, Brandi was finally able to hold Oliver without any wires or tubes connected to him. The next day he came home.
His brother and sister, particularly Annabelle, are delighted to have a little brother.
“She is just in love with little Oliver,” Brandi said.
He will live the rest of his life with only two of the three lobes of his right lung. The remaining lung will grow to fill the space.
“Maybe not a distance runner, but he should really do well,” DiGeronimo said.
Pathologists all over the country studied the tumor but were unable to fully identify what it was.
“It’s just one of those rare things,” DiGeronimo said.
Today, Oliver is the definition of a bouncing, healthy boy. He has a 5-inch-long scar from his incision and others from various tubes. Aside from his shortened lung, his only medical complaint is acid reflux.
His parents are grateful that, despite Oliver’s minuscule chances of living, the doctors never gave up on him.
“Our faith,” Brandi said, “is strengthened so deeply in a way like only a situation like this can do.”