Annette Battaglia Stenstrom couldn't contain her excitement. The baby girl of her dreams was about to be born.
Never mind the heightened tension in the operating room as doctors and nurses prepared her for a hasty C-section or Annette's nagging feeling something was wrong. At exactly 8:30 p.m., she and husband Ted peered over the tent covering her belly and spied little Moreland Grace, catching a glimpse of long chocolate brown hair and instantly falling deeply in love.
Then they noticed the silence.
Annette met Ted at her best friend's wedding. She wasn't looking for love; she was just out of a bad relationship. But by the end of the week they both whispered, "I love you."
They wanted to fill their home together with love and children. Four to be exact. "It didn't happen for us," says Annette simply, belying the grueling trials and emotional ups and downs eight years of infertility treatments dealt them both.
Until that day the pregnancy test came back positive.
"I fell to my knees and I just started crying," Annette says. She immediately called Ted, but she remembers crying so hard he couldn't understand her. "We're pregnant, we're pregnant!"
News of their baby spread nationwide and into Canada to far-flung family and friends. It was a huge celebration, Annette remembers-leading right up to her baby shower at the Drake Hotel that showered her with lots of pink and purple, polka dots and stripes, hats and bows, sweet little socks and tiny ballerina shoes.
"I was so happy, I can't believe actually sitting there having a baby shower for a little girl," she remembers thinking. "I felt like I was walking on clouds."
As a high-risk pregnancy because of the infertility treatments, Ted and Annette became used to frequent ultrasounds and doctors' extra caution. Other than horrible heartburn, Annette relished her very uneventful pregnancy.
Until 24 weeks and a Level 3 ultrasound.
The ventricles in the baby's brain were slightly enlarged. Barely, Annette remembers hearing. An MRI at Children's Memorial Hospital later confirmed the ultrasound, and doctors told the couple the size would either get larger, get smaller or stay the same. For the rest of Annette's ultrasounds, nobody mentioned the ventricles again. "We figured that if it was an issue or a problem, somebody would have said something, but they didn't," Annette says.
At 30 weeks, a fetal monitor in the doctor's office registered a drop in heart rate. It bounced right back. It fell again at another visit, but again bounced back. At 34 weeks, when it dipped again, doctors decided it was time for Gigi, as Ted and Annette planned to call her, to meet her parents.
"I was just so thrilled," Annette remembers thinking. "Oh my gosh, she's going to be born." Ted's employees shooed him away from a meeting at the Merchandise Mart to Northwestern Memorial. Fetal monitors captured Gigi's heart rate falling. "And then that's when I started to get this kind of bad feeling."
In the operating room during the C-section, nurses and doctors surrounded the 3-pound, 9-ounce Gigi.
"They took her out and we didn't hear her cry," Annette says.
It seemed like an eternity to Annette, but likely only 10 to 15 minutes passed until nurses rolled Gigi to her. She wasn't breathing on her own and the medical team was awaiting a transport team to Children's Memorial Hospital, they told her.
"At that point, I threw up," Annette remembers. "That's when we knew something was horribly wrong."
Ted went with Gigi while Annette stayed behind to recover. She says he often recalls that short ride as one of the most horrific moments of his life, watching the team working on their baby, frightened beyond imagination.
He started to cry.
By 2 a.m., he was on the phone with Annette. Gigi was resting comfortably, she remembers him telling her.
Ted spent his days, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., with Gigi at Children's, then drove to Northwestern to be with his wife through the night.
Every day, he'd bring more bad news:
Her hands are webbed.
She has a kidney abnormality.
She has a club foot.
She has a cleft palate.
When doctors released Annette to be with Gigi, she rushed to Children's to find her tiny baby hooked up to a respirator and covered with tubes.
"I thought I was going to die. I remember walking into the room and the first thing I wanted to do was just turn around and run down the hall screaming. I couldn't believe this was happening," Annette recalls.
Soon guided into a private family room, as kindly and gently as she could, Annette remembers a nurse telling them their little Princess Peapod, as Ted and Annette and family dubbed her, wasn't compatible with life.
"I said, 'Does that mean she's going to die?'"
At that moment, the seed that would grow into The Peapod Project began to sprout.
"You get desperate. You are afraid people are going to forget that she was here, so we started taking all these pictures. We wanted proof that she was here, that we loved her," Annette says.
She and Ted made ink prints of her feet, molds of her hands and feet, cut off a piece of her chocolate brown hair. Children's Memorial offered the services of a professional photographer, Todd Hockberg, to document a day with Gigi. He left them with a lifetime of memories captured in black and white.
And they read to her. Every poem and every children's story they could think of, they read for hours.
"We were trying to fit an entire lifetime into 16 days."
Then another devastating blow as doctors outlined Annette and Ted's options: Gigi was deaf and blind.
"She never heard our voices, she never heard any of those stories. It just made me so sick in my heart. I just thought, oh my God, I can't believe this is happening," Annette remembers.
Doctors tried to prepare Ted and Annette for the life ahead for Gigi, kept alive only through machines. Then they gave them time to think. The couple knew the heart-breaking decision they had to make.
"I can't go home and wake up one day and say today is the day," Annette thought. "If I leave this hospital, I will never be able to come back to make this decision. It has to be today."
Ted and Annette tried to make it a normal day with Gigi. Just as they always did when they left the hospital for the night, they gave Gigi a bath, changed her clothes and her diaper.
Except this time everybody was waiting for Annette to say she was ready to remove life support. Annette remembers thinking she would never be ready.
Sinking into a reclining chair, Annette snuggling Gigi and hugging Ted, doctors disconnected the respirator.
"It only took 10 minutes, but it was the longest 10 minutes of my life," Annette says.
They kissed her, told her how much they loved her. As the breath left her tiny body, Annette noticed Gigi's face changing color. In a fleeting moment, she had second thoughts. "Oh God, I don't want to do this!" she cried.
Time of death: 6:40 p.m., May 31, 2007.
The Peapod Project
Ted and Annette waited a week and a half to hold a memorial service for Gigi. "How do you plan a funeral for a baby?" she thought.
Over the long nights that followed, Annette and Ted suffered as those 16 days played back through the darkness. They began to realize just how precious those keepsakes of Gigi's life had become to them.
Within three months, Annette channeled her anger and sadness into The Peapod Project to help other families facing life and death save those precious keepsakes, a lock of hair, a footprint, photos.
While Children's Memorial had its Heartlight bereavement program, The Peapod Project built on the effort and now keeps it fully funded.
"I knew it had to be about other people, not just us," Annette says. "My heart is so warm and so happy that we can do this for other families."
Last year, The Peapod Project provided memory boxes to 110 families, every family that needed one at Children's. This year, Annette wants to raise even more money, first to make sure Children's program will never worry about funding, then to provide memory boxes and professional photographers for families and training for staff in all Chicago-area hospitals.
One day, Annette hopes The Peapod Project will reach all Illinois hospitals, then spread nationwide.
"My life's work now is just to do this."
Tamara L. O'Shaughnessy is the editor of Chicago Parent and mom of three.