In the Valley of Vision
Pregnancy had been particularly sweet for Texarkana natives Jordan and Mitch James, following a struggle with fertility. Months of fear and anguish over the possibility of never becoming parents had turned into a pregnancy marked by gratefulness and pure joy. The couple had finally become pregnant; beyond their wildest dreams, they were being blessed with twins. However, it was the week of Thanksgiving, the time of year when it begins to smell like fall and the air turns crisp, that the joy of a long-awaited pregnancy took an unexpected turn. At just six months (27 weeks) gestation, the pregnancy was cut shockingly short.
November is National Prematurity Awareness Month, and Jordan and Mitch gave us a peak into their life-altering moment ten years ago when they were forever changed with the premature birth of their twins, Hank and Margot.
“I remember that day, even what it smelled like because it was during the change of the seasons,” Jordan recalled. “Mitch was at work, and I had gone to the grocery store. I had a small amount of blood, so insignificant one might have ignored it. My due date was February 16 (2012), so we weren’t expecting a delivery for three more months. I called the doctor’s office, and they said we should probably come in to get checked. The monitors detected contractions, and they told me I was in labor. I said, ‘No, I don’t think I am.’ And Dr. Jay (Dr. Sudheer Jayaprabhu) said, ‘You are.’”
“We checked into the hospital, and they did all they could to try and stop the labor,” Jordan said. “A magnesium IV is common to stop labor. They tried it. I remember they even tilted my bed in a head down position in an effort for sheer gravity to hold them in. The doctors knew the babies were coming and really wanted me to deliver in Little Rock at UAMS, but there was such a bad storm that night, they couldn’t airlift us. They considered taking us by ambulance, but the roads were flooded. We found out later that I-30 closed that night in Benton with water over the interstate. All the helicopters were grounded, but I was number one on the flight list to go as soon as the storm broke. That never happened. I had them in the middle of the night before we could ever leave.”
Mitch, a nurse anesthetist at CHRISTUS St. Michael, was familiar with emergency procedures on the medical side, but not yet familiar with his role as a dad. While Dr. Jay prepared for emergency surgery, Mitch helped his anesthesia colleague get Jordan to sleep. “I was scared, but went into work mode,” Mitch said. “Being able to help my partner get Jordan to sleep helped give me a focus and a task. I heard the babies cry, and that was the sound I was waiting for.”
Twelve hours after being admitted to the hospital, Hank and Margot James were born on November 22, 2011, at CHRISTUS St. Michael. Margot was born first, weighing one pound fifteen ounces, and Hank came second, weighing two pounds six ounces. “They were so tiny,” Mitch remembers. “They could fit in the palm of my hand.” Both babies were intubated in the operating room before being taken upstairs to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Having been under general anesthesia for the c-section (a practice common with high-risk deliveries) Jordan was not able to see the babies for several hours. “When I woke up after the delivery, they told me the babies were intubated and upstairs in the NICU. They showed me pictures,” Jordan recalled. “There were cords and tubes. It wasn’t the way that I wanted to see my babies, but I thought they looked pretty good. However, a picture doesn’t reflect size well because there is often no scale. So, when I was finally able to go to the NICU and see them in person, it was a shock. They were just so small. They were in individual isolettes that were keeping them warm and machines breathing for them. One of a premie’s main issues is lung development. At this stage, they are not ready to breathe on their own. They were so red because their skin wasn’t ready to be out (of the womb). They were still supposed to be inside, growing. I keep calling the babies ‘them’ because at this stage of the pregnancy, we had not picked names yet. We thought there was still so much time left to decide, so for five days after they were born, they were ‘Baby A’ and ‘Baby B.’”
Hank and Margot spent the next several months in the NICU. Hank was there three months and Margot was there four months. At that time, Mitch and Jordan grew to deeply appreciate the nursing staff who cared for their tiny twins. Jordan described how significant NICU nurses are to new, often devastated, parents. “The nurses are not only physically caring for the babies, they are involved in a tremendous amount of care for the parents. I was a mother who couldn’t quite bear the thought that she’d put her children in this position. We still don’t know why I went into labor early, but there were such feelings of guilt — the instinct that I should have been able to carry them all the way so they wouldn’t have to be in this position. The nurses helped sort out those doubts and encouraged us when things seemed to get worse before they got better. Those nurses saw us through it all. We laughed a lot and cried a lot. We loved them, and they loved us.”
One of their former nurses, Jessica Jez, worked in the NICU at CHRISTUS St. Michael during the James’ stay. “I knew I loved this couple when I met them!” Jessica said. “As a NICU nurse, you never know what you’ll walk in to when coming to work. That morning, I remember walking in, and they had delivered overnight. For most NICU parents, this area is uncharted territory, and it’s up to the nurse to help navigate them through some tough-to-see situations. It really takes compassion, empathy and a lot of patience to be what the family needs during a traumatic time… Mitch and Jordan were awesome in learning and listening to the suggestions about what was best for their babies’ development. Hank and Margot are testimonies in their lives of how the whole team at St. Michael NICU love and are dedicated to giving the best care to our babies.”
Upon Hank’s discharge from the hospital, they noticed his eye was protruding a bit from his head. “The doctors referred us to a pediatric ophthalmologist in Shreveport. He was able to look and immediately know there was something behind Hank’s eye in his head,” Jordan said. “We were sent to the pediatric ICU in Shreveport where we spent the next eight days identifying what it was and how to treat it. All the while, Margot was still in the NICU in Texarkana. They discovered a golf-ball-sized growth in Hank’s head, and he was just about seven pounds at this point. So, it was huge for his small size. It was a hemangioma, which is a mass with blood vessels running through it. About half the time, these respond well to an oral beta-blocker. The alternative was radiation. For the next eight days we stayed in the Shreveport pediatric ICU waiting to see if his would in fact shrink from the medication. It did. We were sent home, and he stayed on that medication for a year. That was followed by two years of doctor’s visits to make sure it did not grow back. This medical issue was not even related to the prematurity but can’t be skipped because it was so significant and defining in this season of our lives.”
Returning from Shreveport, there was news from the NICU in Texarkana. Margot was not eating, and it didn’t look like she was going to anytime soon. “The first year wasn’t normal,” Mitch added. “They released Margot a month after Hank from the NICU, but she still had a feeding tube. They let her go home because I was a nurse and felt we could safely handle an NG tube (feeding tube through the nose). For the entire first year, Margot was tube fed. There were countless visits to feeding clinics, gastroenterologist appointments, physical therapists and swallow studies. It’s another thing no one could ever really figure out. She never took a bottle well enough to stay nourished. She kept the feeding tube for a year until she could start eating solids. Hank and Margot are now completely healthy, with no long-term effects from their prematurity. We know we are fortunate and know that this is so often not the case (for others).”
“We basically didn’t sleep that first year!” Jordan said. “The nighttime really stands out in my memory because the darkness was like the valley we were experiencing. This valley is just one scenario. People suffer all sorts of darkness in their lives, and I can see it now—a diagnosis you weren’t expecting, a phone call there’s been an accident, the loss of a child, the death of a spouse, long roads of chronic illness, battles with depression and addiction, loneliness, difficult relationships, sometimes just the plain old weariness of life. Please be encouraged by this...
You, LORD, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light.”
Psalm 18:28 (NIV)
There’s an analogy about sorrow being like a dark room at night and how you initially cannot see at all. You just stare into the darkness and might even shut your eyes, feeling like it’s useless. But if you will keep your eyes open and keep looking, you begin to see the thin line of light under the door. Gradually, you can make out the outline of the bedpost. Then, as your eyes adjust, you can see the shape of the dresser. The point is, don’t close your eyes in the darkness and give up. If you will just keep your eyes open, you’ll eventually see some light.
I know that isn’t easy. The truth is, I was so angry and scared that I closed my eyes in the darkness. I even stopped praying for my own children in the hospital. I was too tired, and in my pride felt ‘too busy.’ One day Mitch would be up, and I would be down, then the next day I would be up, and he would be down. We were always frustrated at the other for not being on the same page. That time is now a source of sweetness in our marriage, something that bonds us together. Like we’ve been to battle side by side. But at the moment, when it felt like I could not even pray, there were people who did that for us. There were people who loved us, and some people that didn’t even know us, that carried that burden for us. It has changed my appreciation for community. They drug us along when we couldn’t see the end in sight. Our parents, our families, our neighbors, our friends, they helped us limp along. We are meant to be intertwined like this—to help bear each other’s burdens. I really think Texarkana is special in this way. I hope we pass that down to the next generation in our community—to see each other, to truly love each other, root for one another and to carry each other.”
Jordan explained, “I could not see that my heart was hard until God leveled me to the ground. I finally came to the end of myself. My heart was convicted of pride and self-sufficiency. Our family still believes in wise planning and hard work, but the clarity that was gained is that it is not a choice between hard work or helpless surrender to God. It’s not either/or... it’s both/and. The years after were the sweetest of our lives. Watching Hank and Margot grow into who God made them, and the joy of watching their remarkable bond as twins, I would not trade that valley for anything. We are grateful for those gritty days that changed our lives. God changed our hearts. Our family is forever huddled at the feet of Jesus.”
The James’ family of five now includes three-year-old little brother, Shepherd (Shep), named for the Good Shepherd who led them through their valley. Hank and Margot are adoring older siblings. This month, the twins celebrate their tenth birthday, and Mitch and Jordan not only celebrate these two miracles but also their loving community of support and their loving God… the Good Shepherd who gifted them vision to see Him more clearly.
A Puritan Prayer from The Valley of Vision
by Arthur Bennett
LORD, HIGH AND HOLY, MEEK AND LOWLY,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
Hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness,
thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow,
thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty,
thy glory in my valley.