Editor’s note: Most of this was written during the pregame Sept. 30 before the Hawkeyes’ game at Michigan State.
I opened my computer to start the day and up popped a text from my daughter. She ran in the Kinnick Stadium 5K or whatever race that finished in Kinnick Stadium. She sent a photo with her and her boyfriend, Ethan, at the finish somewhere near midfield in Kinnick.
In the background was the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. My daughter is 20 and the Stead just opened, but the association stopped me cold.
And most of this came out.
The University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital features everyone has produced this year punctured me sometime in late September.
The features on Fox and ESPN, when everyone at Kinnick — fans, players, coaches, officials, press — turns and waves to the children’s hospital at the end of the first quarter of Iowa games at Kinnick Stadium, they took me back to some wide-eyed days of tubes and needles and beeps and fear and hope.
I’m 30 years old. I’m a sportswriter at the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque. I received a bit of a promotion to cover the Hawkeyes. This was a big deal for me at the time. Still is, even after losing to Purdue last week.
Rewind a little bit. I was 29 when the Packers won the 1997 Super Bowl. The TH sent me to New Orleans to cover it. And hey, the Packers won. It was, you know, fun.
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I’m pushing 30, my wife, Becky, was a little younger and also a Packers fan. Hey, let’s have a kid.
So, our daughter Devin is a Packers baby.
On the day labor started, we were caught totally flat footed and that is not us. It was late summer and warm. Labor Day, ironically. Becky and I spent the day in whatever the big mall in the Quad Cities was. We lived in Dubuque at the time, so we went to my parents for dinner. I watched whatever football there was with my dad. Becky was in another room talking. She was 29 weeks pregnant.
I just felt something was wrong, so I went to check on her. (I know that sounds crazy, but something flashed in my mind. Maybe Midwest Fatalism, I don’t know.) She was feeling ill and we soon found out things were happening . . . way too soon.
We immediately went to the emergency room at Mercy Medical Center in Dubuque. Becky was able to hold off delivery for a while, but the drugs could only do so much. My daughter was coming. At just 29 weeks. We started doing that math. We didn’t know what was happening. I remember not being able to swallow and not being able to cry.
The doctors did an ultrasound. They said she’d maybe be 3.5 pounds.
That sounded small. We had no idea how small. This fact sat on our chests. You hear the words, and you really don’t know what to expect.
Devin was born on Sept. 3, 1997 at 9:03 p.m.,
She had to stay at Mercy. She needed constant monitoring and she was in an incubator. No laying on mom’s chest for that first pic. We weren’t allowed to hold her for a while. We didn’t think we should. She was just so delicate, so new, so fragile.
Things stabilized and I went back to work. I had to. Not because of the work, but because my mind kept clipping and buzzing to the scene where my baby had a giant needle in her head because it was helping her live. For babies born that small, nurses have to go anywhere they can for the IV. I think I asked if that was OK 1,000 times. Every time, I got a gentle reassurance. I’m not sure I could hear.
I think it was Sept. 17. The Hawkeyes hosted to Tulsa. Tavian Banks set the single-game rushing record.
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This was pre-cell phone, at least for me it was. So, I got a phone call in the Kinnick press box. No, never good. No one is calling you at work to invite you our for a beer or to say they love you. With phonecalls, you just kind of know. On the other end was my friend Jim Leitner, who was running the TH desk that day. He talked to my wife or mom or dad and they said things had taken a bit of a turn for the worse for Devin (breathing issues — very common for preemies) and that she was on her way to the UIHC in an ambulance.
Becky couldn’t get a hold of me. She had her family and my family keeping her legs moving and heart comforted. My little daughter was baptized just before staff bustled her into the back of the ambulance for a ride to Iowa City.
I cut the coverage short and we were lucky enough to be able to spend the night at my friend John Shipley’s apartment in Iowa City. My mind kept turning over.
Devin spent just over a week in the neonatal unit at the UIHC. Becky lived in the Ronald McDonald’s House.
The neonatal staff was so kind and gentle. Things stabilized. After the short but extremely important time, Devin was breathing more easily and was well enough to return to Mercy. After another long three weeks, we were able to take our daughter home. All the machines that told us everything was fine were now turned off. It was time to eyeball it, or, as it’s known around the world, parent.
I haven’t walked in the shoes of the families who are now in the Stead Family Children’s Hospital. I can just say that when you have a sick child, you frantically pull at the words from doctors and sift for hope. There’s no peace. Your mind can become a tortured mess. You dwell on the worst possible outcomes to maybe understand what’s going on or because you’re stressed past the point of reason.
Even if hope is just a flicker, that’s where you have to try to be. I sat in our Camry with my dad when this was going on. I started to lose it. The whole “punch the steering wheel” thing. He wasn’t having that. He painted all the pictures I needed to see in that moment. It was beautiful and I’ll never forget it. He talked about playing baseball with me when I was a snotty pitcher. He talked about the beautiful times with three brothers and sisters growing up in a three-bedroom house in a bucolic Dubuque neighborhood.
(Also in the picture Devin texted me was the corner of the hospital where my dad passed away last fall. How did this place become such a thing in my life? A scary but eventually wonderful hello and a scary, heartbreaking goodbye. I guess these things happen in hospitals and not malls for a reason.)
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There has been beauty and grace in all of the Stead Family stories we’ve all watched this year. They’re all in first place.
We’ve seen that the Hawkeyes and the view into Kinnick Stadium help families forget their storms even just for an hour or three.
That is a mercy and it’s immeasurable.
Today Devin is a happy, healthy 20-year-old. She attends Kirkwood and is studying nursing.
This flowed through me like electricity the morning of Sept. 30 in East Lansing, Mich. Devin sent me a pic (I do have a cellphone this time!!!) of her and Ethan on the Kinnick field with their medals (they didn’t win and I know, it’s a medal-giving society, but we should give everyone who jogs the medal of craziness).
The Dubuque Mercy and UIHC neonatal units left indelible marks on our lives. I’m so happy to be a member of this community.
I never wanted to point the camera my way on this. But that text that day with that picture, I was just a proud dad. I’m so thankful for the chance to be a proud dad.
If nothing else, let Iowa football 2017 be known as “The Season of the Wave.”
Thank you for taking a second. No, you’re crying.
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