Under Florida’s new 15-week abortion law, exceptions are allowed for fetal abnormalities that are discovered after 15 weeks. In such cases, two doctors must sign off saying the baby will die shortly after birth before an abortion can happen. This is unfortunate for babies like our son Samuel. 

Samuel was born with right-hypoplastic heart syndrome with pulmonary atresia. Pulmonary atresia is a deformity that indicates the pulmonary valve between the right ventricle and pulmonary artery has not formed properly.  Babies with this condition have a 22.6% survival rate. He also had a genetic condition called Factor V Leiden thrombophilia, an inherited disorder of blood clotting. Samuel’s birth mother learned of the congenital heart defect at her 22-week anatomy scan. His birth mother already had two boys at home, ages four and five so her boyfriend told her to get an abortion. but she was too poor to afford one, so she kept going to her prenatal appointments. Her doctor told her that she needed to deliver at a hospital that could care for the baby if he had any chance of living after he was born. 

When Samuel’s birth mother was 38 weeks gestation, she bought a greyhound bus ticket and traveled five hours to UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital where they have a Congenital Heart ICU and a world-renowned transplant surgeon for infants, Dr. Mark S Bleiweis.  Samuel was born 2 days later weighing 6 lbs, 12 ounces. He was immediately whisked off to the special ICU.

By the time Samuel was 2 weeks old, he had already has his second open heart surgery and placed on a Berlin Heart (an artificial heart that beats outside the body to circulate blood). Berlin hearts are prone to forming tiny clots in the pumping membrane area of the device. Combine this with his genetic predisposition to forming clots, you get a lethal risk for ischemic strokes. This is exactly what happened to Samuel. 

Samuel’s birth mother could not afford to stay at the hospital and away from her other two boys, so right after he received the Berlin heart she left. Samuel had no one there to advocate for him, pray for him, bond with him. Sure, he had caring nurses, well mostly, but it is just not the same as the love and commitment of parents.

Samuel was bottle-fed up until shortly after his third major stroke in late April of 2021. It was about this time that I was rolling out a first in the nation registered RN Apprenticeship in Ambulatory Women’s Health for Pregnancy Help Medical Clinics. I created this with the help of Rachel Owen, who was ED at that time Informed Choices Medical Clinics in Iowa. I wrote a $250k grant under the CARES Act to create this Super Nurse apprenticeship to help pregnancy centers recruit and train nurses at the highest level of their licensure to work in pregnancy help medical clinics.

I was asked to come to Florida and write a grant there for nearly a half a million dollars to roll out to pregnancy centers across the state; and it was awarded. This was how I came to be in a conversation with a nurse working in a clinic run by Catholic Charities in the Jacksonville area. I asked her a pretty simple question, “tell me about some of the adoption work you are doing”. To which she proceeded to tell me three stories, and the third was about a baby whose mother abandoned him at the hospital at 2 weeks of age and that he could not receive his heart transplant without an adoptive family. 

I learned that the hospital had never reached out to Catholic Charities to assist them before. They usually place children in the state medical foster system. In Samuel’s case, he would be immunocompromised after receiving a transplant and could not be around other small children. The three strokes he already had also indicated that he would need developmental assistance. They wanted a family that lived within one hour of Shands in Gainesville, that were not looking for their first child, and not intimidated by all of the medical needs. That was a tall order!

I went home and told Borge about this baby, but nothing else. Two days later, I asked him, “what about us?”. He said “NO”. So, I prayed. I asked God to burden my husband with this if this child was supposed to be ours. I kept my mouth shut about it and five days later, Borge sits next to me in my office and is crying! I asked, “what is wrong with you?!”. He said, “I don’t know, I just keep thinking about this baby.” Then he said, “we haven’t even met him yet.” Then the phone rang and it was the adoption counselor with Catholic Charities calling in that very moment. She said “[my nurse] tells me you may be interested in this baby.” To which we replied, “well we have not even met him yet.” Within two hours we were at Shands Hospital meeting him.

It was honestly the worst day to probably meet a baby. He had tubes and wires coming from everywhere and because he had started vomiting a third of his bottle feedings and they did not want him to lose weight before a transplant, they were placing a NJ tube while we were visiting him. He was screaming, it was heartbreaking. We left shortly after and while standing in the elevator with my husband, I looked at him and said “So?” and took a deep breath, bracing for impact. I truly thought he was done, scared off by all of the medical stuff, but instead he simply smiled and said, “Well, if we’re not called for this, then what are we called for?”

We were in, we were all in. This baby would be ours. 

We rushed through the paperwork for the home study, paid for three bus tickets for birth mom to come meet us and terminate parental rights which she did on May 23, 2021, and then a judge signed the adoptive placement order. We started visiting him 5-9 hours a day combined between myself, my husband, and our two adult sons. Within 2 ½ weeks, Samuel matched for a heart again, but this time he had a family. This time he had his heart. June 14, 2021, Samuel received a heart transplant. 

This whole process happened so fast, from our yes to Samuel’s life-saving surgery, we didn’t have time to raise funds to pay the adoption fees. Calvary Community Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Pastor Jeremy Higgins heard our story and put out the call to action. In just one Sunday morning, in two services, they raised more than $10,000 to cover the adoption fees. We brought Samuel home July 27, 2021, and on December 21, 2021, he was officially ours. 

I would love to tell you more about all the miracles and God moments and healings that have occurred and keep occurring, but I would be writing many more pages. I want to encourage you to consider for a moment that selfless love returns to you 100-fold, and to consider your opportunity to love a baby that others would choose to terminate.  Your life will be truly blessed and full because of them.

Written By: Shawn M Zierke, MBA, MPH-Policy, SHRM-CP