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Courtney and Zachary Vanderham share their journey of losing their firstborn son and how that experience is helping shape the future of care for critically ill babies.
Courtney Vanderham's pregnancy seemed relatively uneventful – there was never an indication that she and her husband should worry about the birth of their son. But, the minute Bennett was born, their world turned upside down.
"You're expecting the best moment ever, the moment everyone talks about when your baby comes out, screaming with his first breath," recalled Zachary. Like outsiders looking in on someone else's life, the couple remembers the state of shock they were in when Bennett was born. They watched medical staff rush in to start working on baby Bennett, hooking him up to tubes and machines and running all sorts of tests.
Doctors in their hometown ran a battery of tests on Bennett for two days, and decided that it was best for him to be transported several hours away to Cook Children's for further evaluation. Cook Children's has the only Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Tarrant County, which means we are able to care for the smallest and most medically fragile newborn babies.
From the moment they arrived at Cook Children's, the Vanderhams knew that they had come to the right place. Chad Barber, M.D., was the neonatologist on call that evening, and he carefully walked them through the next few days of testing and evaluation. However, in a candid conversation they will never forget, Dr. Barber discussed the realities of the situation with the Vanderhams and they knew that this week was the only one they would ever share with their son. The news was devastating, but Courtney and Zachary were grateful for the team of doctors, nurses and staff that were by their side every step of the way.
Zachary reflects on the moment he found one of Bennett's nurses crying in another room,"It was touching to know she cared about what had just happened; there wasn't a disconnect, Bennett wasn't just another patient or a number."
As they said goodbye to their son, Courtney wondered how they would move forward. "A lot of friends say that [Bennett] changed more lives in one week that most of us will our whole lives. It's all a choice: we could choose to feel sorry for ourselves or choose to find a better, healthier way to handle it. This was our way: to make something good out of something bad."
The Vanderhams slowly made their way through the grieving process, realizing that sometimes family and friends, who hadn't experienced the tragic loss of a child, didn't understand how to treat them or what to say.
Talking about their journey with Bennett could be a conversation stopper, but they choose to make it a learning opportunity instead. Courtney and Zachary want to connect with and comfort others going through similar situations. They want to reassure others that it's OK to ask about a child who has passed, to be a silent listener or to just be there to give a hug.
"When people ask how many kids we have, we always say two. Bennett will always be our first born," said Zachary.
Courtney and Zachary set up the Bennett Stephen Vanderham Endowed Fund as a challenge grant to encourage other donors to participate and grow the fund as well. The Vanderhams are especially grateful for the matching funds that have already come in to support Benett's fund.
One donor in particular, Kenneth Aboussie of Stonelake Capital, was touched by the story and the realization that his own healthy child isn't everyone's reality."We are stewards of God's resources and this seems like a great way to steward God's resources wisely. Having recently had a son, I cannot imagine the loss which they have experienced and I'm touched by what Zachary and Courtney are doing in memory of Bennett."
The goal of the Bennett Stephen Vanderham Endowed Fund is to enhance the delivery of excellent nursing care in the Cook Children's NICU by providing for nursing research and evidence-based practices for high-risk neonates, like Bennett. The fund will initially focus on ensuring cooling and seizure protocols become best practices and standards of care for all referring facilities that refer and transfer these critically ill patients.
Through their journey these past few years, Courtney and Zachary have laid the foundation for a lifetime of resources to fund programming throughout this community. Their generosity, and the kindness of matching donors, will help to ensure that other families don't have to endure what they did. Bennett's legacy will live on for years to come.
Your generosity does not go unnoticed by others. It is emulated by those who realize its value to the community. It is revered by those who care for our patients because it enables them to do what they do best. And it is appreciated by every patient and every family who benefits from it.
Thank you from each family, patient, nurse, physician and staff member whose life you will have touched with your generosity.