By Phyllis Zorn, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Brandi Atkinson was at Sonic with a friend, Michelle Emmerson, when she answered her phone to hear her mother screaming hysterically that baby Dax was not breathing.
While Emmerson drove nearly 60 miles per hour to cover the three miles to grandma’s house, Brandi called 911. As she spoke with one dispatcher, she could hear her mother screaming on the other dispatcher’s line.
“He was almost 7 months old,” Atkinson said. “My mom babysat him. He went down for a nap. She laid him in the chair, like we’ve all done. She went and did a couple errands and came back and he wasn’t breathing.”
First efforts to save Dax
Police and Life EMS quickly arrived and started working to resuscitate Dax.
Enid juvenile detective Tim Doyle recalls hearing the page while he was in his car and rushing to the scene. Patrolman Jeff Suttmiller ran inside the house and Doyle followed just behind.
Most of the time, when detectives are involved with an infant death, it happens later, after a determination is made that an investigation is needed, Doyle said. On that day, Doyle performed CPR on Dax until emergency medical technicians and firefighters arrived.
Doyle remembers it as probably the worst call he’s been on.
“It’s tough for me to think that I did everything I knew to do, and I couldn’t do enough,” Doyle said.
For Brandi Atkinson, the tragedy seemed to play out in a time warp.
“Everything was in slow motion,” Brandi said. “They worked on him in the house for a while, then worked on him in the ambulance.”
Atkinson remembers that as she watched them working on Dax, she didn’t know what to tell her husband, Ty. Emergency medical technicians worked on Dax about a half hour before taking him to Integris Bass Baptist Health Center. From there, Dax was airlifted to Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center.
The trip to Children’s
While Dax was in the helicopter headed to Oklahoma City, the Emmersons drove Brandi and Ty Atkinson to Children’s Hospital. Meanwhile, Brandi Atkinson’s cousin, who lives at Oklahoma City, rushed to the hospital to await Dax’s arrival.
“The whole way there, I was praying, ‘Just get him there, just get him there — at Children’s they can do anything,’” Brandi said.
When the Atkinsons arrived, hospital staff already were running tests on Dax. Brandi Atkinson asked a lot of questions and gleaned a lot of information about Dax’s condition. It was clear things were grave.
“It was probably 8 o’clock the next day the doctor came in and asked what I knew,” Brandi said. “I’d already asked lots of questions. I asked if I had to make a decision.”
Brandi said she could not decide to withdraw medical support from Dax. The family spent Dax’s remaining time with him.
“The nurses there were very kind and helped us all hold him and say our goodbyes,” Brandi Atkinson said.
It wasn’t easy, with all the medical equipment attached to Dax, for him to be passed around to his family.
“After everybody held him, I crawled up in bed with him just to snuggle, and it was about five minutes till he drew his last breath,” Brandi Atkinson said. “I never dreamed I was going to come back home without him. I figured I was going to stay up there a few weeks or months.”
Coming home without Dax
The kindness of the nurses meant a lot to her, Brandi Atkinson said. So did the kindness of church friends back home, who went to the Atkinson house to gather up all the baby stuff and put all of it in Dax’s room before closing the door.
“That was really helpful to us,” Brandi said. “I didn’t open that door for four months, at least.”
While planning Dax’s funeral, Brandi said she was in shock and moving “on autopilot.” Family helped with many of the decisions. They made the services into a celebration of life and released balloons at the cemetery.
Well-meaning people sometimes say things that are unhelpful, like those at Dax’s viewing who reminded Brandi Atkinson that she “is still young and can have another one.”
But encounters with others weren’t all like that. A local photography studio, where the family had gotten family portraits taken a few weeks before Dax’s death, made a large photo of Dax and gave it to the family. The couple’s friends at church were helpful and comforting as well, checking on them frequently and doing whatever they could.
“It wasn’t God that did this, but God was there for us,” Brandi said.
Learning to live in a changed world
The loss of a child is the sort of event that cuts to the soul.
“I never blamed God, but I’ve wondered why God didn’t protect me,” Brandi said.
Jennifer Sullivan, licensed professional counselor and music therapist, said the death of a child goes against the natural order of things.
“Grief is probably the biggest topic I see out of my caseload,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan pointed to ways grief can affect a person’s physical well-being. It can drive up a person’s heart rate and provoke a myriad of physical symptoms, including muscle spasms and nausea.
“People often can’t eat,” Sullivan said. “Your body is physically exhausted, because of all the emotions you are going through. Even crying is a physical reaction to grief.”
Psychological pain can manifest in physical symptoms, and that happened with Brandi.
“For the first few months, my arms physically ached for him,” she said.
It has been helpful that her friends ask how she is doing and talk about Dax, what he would be doing now.
“That’s been very important with my friends,” Brandi said. “That helps parents know that they’re not going through it alone.”
Continuing to go out the door and live life is helpful, but “firsts” are painful, she said. Sometimes ordinary things, like attending a football game and hearing the players’ names announced, remind her of her loss. She’ll never hear Dax’s name announced on the team he might have played on.
Sullivan said ordinary events can serve as triggers for grief to suddenly well up and take center stage.
“That’s normal, but it feels so ‘out of control,’” Sullivan said.
On Dax’s first birthday, the Atkinsons and friends of the family went to the cemetery to celebrate his birthday with cupcakes.
Brandi has found comfort in a book a friend gave her, “Mommy, Please Don’t Cry, There Are No Tears in Heaven,” by Linda Deymaz, and in a website, stillstand ingmag.com.
Brandi said she’s learned that although life goes on, it’s OK to continue to share a lost child by doing things like signing Christmas cards with the name of each family member, including “Angel Dax.”
Brandi’s realization that a child is a gift that can be taken away without notice, has changed her outlook in another way.
“One of the hardest things for me to cope with is people who do not cherish their children,” she said.
Sullivan said she is not aware of any Sudden Infant Death Syndrome support groups in northwest Oklahoma.
Oklahoma State Health Department sponsors a SIDS support group in Oklahoma City. Julie Dillard, coordinator of that group, can be contacted at (405) 271-9444, extension 56931.
An assortment of other grief support groups are available in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas.
Sullivan said she wouldn’t mind being facilitator for a grief support group for parents who have lost a child.
“This is a great opportunity to put together a support group,” Sullivan said.
People who might be interested can phone her office at (580) 237-3455.