When Samuel Forrest of Armenia heard a baby crying from outside his wife’s hospital room, he knew his life would change forever. Not only had he become a father, but he would soon receive some unexpected news about his newborn son.
“This pediatrician walks out of the room with a little bundle — that was Leo,” Forrest said. “She had his face covered up and hospital authorities wouldn’t let me see him or my wife. When the doctor came out, he said ‘there’s a real problem with your son.’
Forrest followed doctors and nurses into a room where he’d finally get to meet his baby.
“When I walked into the room they all turned to me and said ‘Leo has Down syndrome,” he told ABC News. “I had a few moments of shock.”
After the news had sunk in, Forrest held Leo for the very first time.
“They took me in see him and I looked at this guy and I said, he’s beautiful — he’s perfect and I’m absolutely keeping him.”
Soon Forrest walked into his wife’s hospital room with Leo in his arms. Her reaction was unlike one he ever expected. “I got the ultimatum right then,” he said. “She told me if I kept him then we would get a divorce.”…..
….Despite his wife’s warnings, Forrest said he never had a doubt in his mind that he would hold onto his son.
….”What happens when a baby like this is born here, they will tell you that you don’t have to keep them,” [Forrest] said. “My wife had already decided, so all of this was done behind my back.”…. - from ABC News.
When I read the story about baby Leo Forrest, a wave of unhappy memories washed over me. Thirteen years ago, I was in his father Samuel’s shoes. My husband and I welcomed our third daughter, in the sterile setting of an emergency C-section. He informed me in Spanish,”They think that Christina is a mongoloid” (an outdated term for Down syndrome). He never gave me an outright, “it’s me or the baby” ultimatum, he refused to hold Christina, calling her the “little alien.” His family kept telling me the diagnosis was wrong.
My family was shocked and unthinking, copied pages off the Internet on how to abort a baby with Down syndrome (those were the top websites you found in a search on Down syndrome in 2002!) The nurses in the hospital whispered about me behind my back, but never offered me counseling from the chaplain, another mom of a baby with special needs, or any resources on how to care for or nurse the baby. Thanks be to God for my fellow homeschooling friends who joyfully showed up at the hospital with corned beef and cabbage to celebrate my baby born just before St Patrick’s Day.
The loving support continued at home where friends met me on my front porch as I arrived with my new baby ready, to cook dinner and “ooh and aah” over her. My pastor offered the phone number of a mother of ten whose youngest daughter had Down syndrome. That phone call was the lifeline I needed. I peppered Nancy with questions about her daughter’s education, work and friendships, finding great relief in the fact that twenty year old Patty had a high school degree, work she loved, and so many friends that she had to rent a catering hall for her 21st birthday.
But I was still feeling alone as my husband was finding reasons to leave me. He wouldn’t say it was because of Christina’s Down syndrome but I could see that he was in panic mode. In his native South America, poverty meant that such children were not educated or given life-saving surgery. As a result, many die young and fail to reach their potential much like people with Down syndrome in the US before deinstitutionalization. The mother of Leo lives in Armenia, a nation with orphanages just like the infamous Willowbrook institution, exposed by famed reporter Geraldo Rivera in his 1972 documentary, “Willowbrook, the Last Great Disgrace.”
Our story ended happily; two men in our family spoke to my husband privately reminding him that God chose him to father Christina as surely as He chose me to mother her. And we know that God never hands us a vocation without offering the grace to complete the mission. The last dozen years have seen my youngest daughter blossom into a vibrant young lady and a devoted “daddy’s girl.” They spend every waking minute together and their unhappy beginning is a long-lost memory. To me, it remains a reminder of how fortunate we were to be surrounded by faithful family and friends who called out our courage in that crucial moment.
But not everyone is so fortunate.
Leo’s mother chose to institutionalize him and left her husband Samuel with the terrible choice to end their marriage if he wanted to raise their son. Thankfully the poverty of Armenia, has been countered by the outpouring of generosity from concerned people around the world. A Go Fund Me site set up to support Samuel so he can dedicate himself to nurturing Leo during his first year of life, has over $357,000 in it.
Samuel and Leo will return to his native New Zealand where he will be greeted by parent advocates of children with Down syndrome who will support him as he nurtures his son and fulfills his promise to prevent this type of crisis. Like Samuel, I vowed to be the supportive mother present at the bedside of new moms faced with an unexpected pre-natal or post-natal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
The medical community was not open to that type of intervention in 2002, so I formed KIDS Keep Infants with Down Syndrome with Eileen Haupt: another mom in my shoes. We reach out to such parents in the media and in our annual meeting when we prepare to join the March for Life. Together, parents of children with Down syndrome, thanks to the Internet, are making the rejection of beautiful children like Leo and Christina a thing of the past.
Leticia Velasquez blogs about Christina at Cause of Our Joy and has edited a book of such stories from parents of special needs children A Special Mother is Born. Disponible en espanol - Ha nacido una madre especial.