Stacie Crimm called her brother with astonishing news.
“You're not going to believe this,” she said.
She laughed and cried all at once that day in March as she explained that five pregnancy tests showed she would be having a child. It was a joyous surprise at age 41 but even more so because she'd been told she would never be able to get pregnant, said her brother, Ray Phillips.
But even as she shopped for clothes for the child she longed to hold in her arms, she knew something was not right.
She sent 159 text messages about her pregnancy to her brother in the months that followed. Many were joyful but then the bone-chilling messages came in during the predawn hours. She said severe headaches and double vision tortured her while tremors wracked her entire body.
“I'm worried about this baby,” she texted.
“I hope I live long enough to have this baby,” said another message. “Bubba, if anything happens to me, you take this child.”
Initially, she and her brother used the Internet to try to diagnose her illness. The single mother-to-be had been exposed to mold while she was remodeling her home and her symptoms seemed to match up to mold exposure.
At her family's encouragement, she visited a number of doctors. In July, a CT scan revealed that she had head and neck cancer.
Now she had to choose between her life and her baby's life. Phillips said she agonized only for a while before deciding against taking potentially lifesaving chemotherapy in hopes that she would soon hold a healthy baby in her arms.
The turning point
Crimm collapsed at her home in Ryan and was rushed to OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City on Aug. 16. Doctors said that the invasive tumor had begun wrapping around the brain stem, slowing squeezing the life out of Crimm.
But on a beautiful sunny morning two days later, Crimm felt good enough to sit on the edge of her hospital bed to visit with her brother. He returned to his medical equipment business in Edmond with a lighter heart.
At noon, the baby's heart rate plummeted. Then Crimm's heart stopped 90 minutes later. With “code blue” issued, doctors and nurses rushed to resuscitate her and decided it was best to take the 2-pound, 1-ounce baby, Dottie Mae, by C-section.
Phillips raced back to the hospital, where the baby was in neonatal intensive care and the mother was in intensive care in a separate building.
“Sister was dying right there. She was gasping,” he said. “The human body fights death.”
A mother's will
Crimm's will was so strong she got off the ventilator and was no longer under sedation after several days.
“There was still a lot of hope at that point,” said Jennifer Phillips, Ray Phillips' wife.
Doctors told the family that a treatment plan developed for Crimm could offer a small chance of surviving the aggressive cancer.
“The cancer was such that it had crossed one of her eyes and it had destroyed the muscle behind her eye. It paralyzed her throat. When she did talk, she was hard to understand. As far as her mind, she was there,” Ray Phillips said.
But Crimm's improvement was short-lived. She often fell unconscious and hadn't been able to sign Dottie's birth certificate. She hadn't named the father so Phillips gained guardianship because she frequently told him that if she didn't survive, she wanted him and his wife to raise the baby with the four children they already had at home.
“I think she's a miracle. I just want to do right by her and do what Stacie asked,” Jennifer Phillips said.
A nurse's determination
On Sept. 8, Crimm stopped breathing and once again was resuscitated. Hospital doctors and nurses warned the family that she likely was dying.
“Her heart had stopped. She quit breathing. She was technically dead, and then they brought her back,” said Ray Phillips.
But she had not yet held the baby whose life she had chosen above her own.
She'd never touched the golden fluff of fuzz framing her baby Dottie's angelic face. Never counted those fingers as tiny and perfect as a doll's. Never looked into those dark blue eyes.
But a quiet yet determined nurse and mother, Agi Beo, couldn't bear to think of Crimm's emotional pain.
“She was in the last stage with the brain tumor. And she never got to see the baby,” Beo said.
“This baby was everything she had in this world.”
With Crimm's death imminent, Beo worked with nurse Jetsy Jacob to step up their questioning of the family, healthcare professionals and disease experts about Crimm's condition, including her staph infection. They talked to Neoflight, the medical center's neonatal transport team, about using a capsule-like ICU to safely move Dottie.
When his sister regained consciousness later that day, Phillips asked what she thought about possibly seeing Dottie. Crimm's eyes popped open and she raised her hands as if to ask where was her child.
Nurses wheeled Dottie down the hallway to her mother moments later. Phillips said doctors, nurses and others clad in protective gear gathered as nurses carefully lifted the baby from the incubator under her mother's watchful eye.
They placed the baby on her mother's chest. Mother and child gazed into each other's eyes for several minutes. She smiled at the baby who at last lay in her arms.
No one said a word. No one had a dry eye.
Stacie Crimm died three days later.
Last week, Ray Phillips fulfilled his last promise to his sister. Healthy, 5-pound Dottie went home to live with Ray and Jennifer Phillips and her four new siblings.