Coping with every parent’s nightmare
Martins hope sharing son’s loss can build SIDS awareness
Shelly Martin remembers the dark days that followed the death of her infant son, Sam, as an endless twilight so filled with grief and guilt that her thoughts briefly turned to suicide.
"I had to tell myself that wasn't an option that it would only make it harder for my family," she said. "There were days I didn't even want to get out of bed. It got to the point Mike had to take me to the hospital. I was dehydrated and anemic. I didn't care."
That pain followed the loss of Shelly and Mike Martin's 5-week-old son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Sudden defines not only the unexpected death of the babies who die from the syndrome but also the changes in the parents lives, changes so devastating that the Martins now divide their lives between the days before their son's death and those that followed.
The suddenness started with what seemed a routine and tender moment early one morning in January 2001.
"He had been fussy about 3 o'clock in the morning," she said. "I picked him up and finally got him settled down. When I woke up about 5 o'clock, I knew immediately something was wrong."
Sometime in the previous two hours Sam died in her arms. Shelly, a paramedic for Johnson County MedAct, and her husband, Mike, the assistant fire chief for the De Soto Volunteer Fire Department, were trained not to accept death without a fight. But their best effort, those of emergency medical responders and those of the Overland Park Regional Medical Center staff could not revive the baby.
"We had all the training," Shelly said. "We did all the right things. But we still couldn't save him.
"Once a true SIDS event starts, there is nothing you can do. One of the books I read said it is almost like those babies are determined to die."
That hard reality was an understanding Shelly and Mike gained only after difficult struggles. Their immediate response was to blame themselves for Sam's death, they said.
"I was a paramedic," Shelly said. "I thought, 'I should have noticed something, I should have known what to do to save his life.'"
Shelly took two months of leave from work as she battled depression after Sam's death. She returned for one month and then took another month off.
Mike was her rock, Shelly said. He supported her and insisted she take care of herself. It took more than five months before she regained some emotional normalcy, she said.
"It was June or July before I could go a day without crying," she said. "I got to the point I could walk into a grocery story and not break down because I'd think, 'I should be buying diapers or baby food.'"
At that time, Shelly found it was her turn to help Mike, who had a delayed response to the tragedy.
"We helped each other through it," he said.
Couples who lose children to SIDS have higher divorce rates. The Martins, however, found the tragic event strengthened their bond. The couple married after Sam's death.
MedAct refers parents who have lost children to SIDS to the SIDS Resources Inc., Shelly said. The hospital provided the couple with a book written for parents in their situation. They saw a counselor and joined a support group of other couples who had lost children.
"We were the only parent who had a SIDS baby, but we all had buried a child," Mike said.
Mike and Shelly will serve as the honorary chair family of the SIDS Art Stroll, an annual fund-raiser for the Kansas City metropolitan area chapter of SIDS Resources. The Art Stroll is part of the larger Plaza Art Fair and will be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the corner of J.C. Nichols and Ward parkways.
The goal is to raise money for the organization's outreach programs, increase awareness of what SIDS is and isn't, and to educate parents of newborns of possible preventive measures, the Martins said. There are a lot of misconceptions about the syndrome, the couple said. In the 20 months since their son's death, well-meaning people have shared their theories, the couple said.
In truth, there is no known cause of SIDS, Shelly said. The diagnosis is only made after investigations or autopsies have excluded all other causes of death in infants one week to 12 months of age, Shelly said.
There are no predictors or symptoms parents can detect before a SIDS event. Sam was a healthy baby, the Martins said. He'd had a good checkup and was putting on weight.
"That's what makes it so difficult," Mike said. "There was no warning or treatment. We didn't have any of that with our son. He was here one day and then gone."
Probably, the best evidence of the strength of Mike and Shelly's character and their relationship is their 4-month-old daughter, Abigail.
"We like the chaos around the house," Shelly said. "Nobody will ever replace Sam. She's his baby sister, and she has her very own angel watching her."
Experts on SIDS disagree on what her older brother's death means for Abigail, Mike said. Some say she is at higher risk, others say the risk is lower and still others say it is the same as the general population, he said.
Their daughter sleeps with apnea monitors that sound alarms when Abigail's heart or breathing rates fall below certain levels. The Martins are aware the monitors are mostly for them because little or nothing could be done if Abigail had a true SIDS event.
Real peace of mind will come with Abigail's first birthday, Mike said.
"You don't want her to grow up fast because she's so much fun being this little, but you want to see her be a year old," he said.
As a paramedic, Shelly said she had been called to SIDS scenes in the past. She knows it could happen again. Although it's not something she looked forward to, Shelly said her career was providential.
"I've played out many scenarios in my head," she said. "I'll probably be better equipped to help that family. I will be in a position to tell them I know what they are going through and what decisions they will have to make.
"I think I can deal with it. I can share my tragedy to help some other family deal with theirs."
Their love for Sam and the pain of his loss will always be with them, the Martins said. But Shelly has gained a measure of perspective in the last 20 months. She has been reassured Sam didn't suffer in his death and found solace that his last minutes were spent in her arms.
"I find comfort in that," she said. "He was close to the two people who loved him the most."