Forty-seven minutes and a life filled with meaning
Regina and Kenny Heine of Metairie first got the news that something might be wrong with their unborn child during a prenatal exam. Because Regina was approaching her mid-30s, doctors recommended that she be screened by a perinatologist, who is well versed in the associated risk factors with what is termed “advanced maternal age.”
And now, the grainy image on the ultrasound screen was sending out warning signals to those who could read the digital tea leaves. The baby’s legs appeared closed, which made it impossible to determine the gender. After a few more minutes, the perinatologist asked: “Are there any skeletal abnormalities in your family?”
At such moments, time stands still. An amniocentesis, which draws amniotic fluid from the womb so that it can be tested, confirmed the diagnosis. The Heines' unborn child – a girl – had full Trisomy 18 – a genetic disorder also called Edwards syndrome in which the 18th chromosome is repeated.
Medical jargon aside, Regina heard only one thing: “Incompatible with life.”
“At that point, it was amazing how my prayers changed and how the focus of my pregnancy shifted,” said Regina, already the mother of 18-month-old daughter Katharine. “Everybody wants this perfect, healthy baby. But when you’re faced with something like this, you start to pray, ‘If something’s going to be wrong with my baby, let it be something that’s survivable.’ When they refer to it as incompatible with life, you pray that it is anything but that.”
A choice for life
There was no question in the couple’s mind that they would carry the baby to term.
“We were offered termination, because in Louisiana that is permissible until 20 weeks,” Regina said. “My husband and I immediately said, ‘God gave us this baby for a reason, and however long she’s going to be with us, it’s up to him, not to us.’ We’re not here to judge people, but we knew we were going to cherish her and love her and keep her safe as long as God chose to have her with us.”
About half of all babies with Trisomy 18 are stillborn, and 95 percent die within a year after birth, many in the first month.
“It’s sort of a bleak outlook,” Regina said. “All we wanted was time with the baby, though you understand she’s very sick. We prayed, ‘Please don’t let her suffer.’ My husband and I wanted her to be baptized as a Catholic. That was very important to us. And we knew that she would have to be born alive in order for that to happen.”
As the weeks stretched on, immediate family and close friends knew the full story, but as Regina’s pregnancy became more apparent, she had to bear the well-meaning comments from people in the grocery store, who would ask little Katharine if she was going to have a little brother or a sister.
“I have the utmost love and respect for her,” Kenny said of his wife. “I don’t know how she did it.”
Regina, an attorney in the St. Charles Parish District Attorney’s Office, went to law school with the son of Deacon Eddie Beckendorf, who serves at Mary Queen of Peace Church in Mandeville. She knew that if her daughter – to be named Anne Grace Heine – were born alive, she would have to be baptized quickly.
“We knew we may only have minutes,” Regina said. “When Deacon Eddie and I were talking about it, he told me, ‘I will be happy to come and sit and wait and pray with you and your family and do anything I need to do.’ What a gift he gave to us – the gift of his time. That was an amazing gift.”
The staff at East Jefferson General Hospital made special arrangements for the extended Heine family, setting up a separate waiting area for them. On Aug. 20 – at exactly 12:14 p.m. – Anne Grace Heine, 3 pounds, 8 ounces, came into the world, breathing as softly and imperceptibly as an angel.
After Kenny cut the umbilical cord, the nurses brought Anne Grace to the warming table, and Deacon Beckendorf baptized her there. Then Kenny took his newborn over to Regina.
“She was obviously breathing, and at some point the neonatologist and the nurse practitioner checked her heart and didn’t hear a whole lot,” Regina said. “They indicated her heartbeat was faint, but she was still there.”
“She was just a little angel – perfect in our eyes,” Kenny said.
For the next 47 minutes, Regina and Kenny spent time caressing their newborn. WhenRegina kissed her, Anne Grace cried. Little Katharine came into the room, and a photographer from an organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, which volunteers to take portraits for families faced with the prospect of infant death, snapped a shot of Katharine reaching her hand to Anne Grace’s, which was clenched.
One day, she will understand the picture that now rests atop her dresser.
Holding Anne Grace next to her, Regina recited a nighttime prayer that she always uses with Katharine. Kenny told his daughter, “Sweet dreams,” because he does that every night with Katharine.
At 1:01 p.m. – 47 minutes after she arrived – Anne Grace said goodbye.
“It was the most profound 47 minutes of my life,” Regina said. “Somebody asked me not long ago, ‘Are you angry with God?’ And I said, ‘How can I be angry with God when he gave us this beautiful gift. He gave us this beautiful little girl for 47 little minutes.”
Pink balloons soar
Anne Grace was laid to rest in a family tomb in St. Louis No. 3. That day, the heavens broke open, sending down torrents of rain. While Msgr. Andrew Taormina offered the prayers of committal, Regina orchestrated the release of 47 pink balloons, filled with helium, into the sky. The rain was coming down so hard that Regina’s mother and mother-in-law had to chase down a few renegade balloons to give them a boost “into the heavens.”
“Bless their hearts, they were chasing them all over the place,” Regina said. “My husband and I both feel very strongly that those 47 minutes changed who we are and changed our lives forever.”
As Msgr. Taormina said goodbye to the Heines at the cemetery, he tried to take in what he had seen. He has been a priest for 50 years, and pro-life stories like these are one reason he became a priest.
“Call me for the baptism,” he told Regina.
Regina knew immediately what he meant. “When we have another one,” she said.