Feature: Tinker family turns loss into mission of hope for other families

The 552nd Air Control Wing’s Staff Sgt. Van Stewart and his wife, Stephanie, made the decision to carry to term their son Vayden after he had been diagnosed with a terminal condition in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. After Vayden died, the Stewarts used the experience they went through during their loss, to start an organization that helps other mothers across the country who have made the decision to carry a child to term after a terminal diagnosis has been made. Both of the Stewarts say the three hours Vayden was alive, were some of the best of their lives. (Courtesy photo)

The 552nd Air Control Wing’s Staff Sgt. Van Stewart and his wife Stephanie made the decision to carry to term their son Vayden after he had been diagnosed with a terminal condition in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. After Vayden died, the Stewarts used the experience they went through during their loss, to start an organization that helps other mothers across the country who have made the decision to carry a child to term after a terminal diagnosis has been made. (Courtesy photo)

Stephanie Stewart, wife of 552nd Air Control Wing Staff Sgt. Van Stewart, poses with some of the 345 “Angel Bears” she donated to a metro-area hospital from her “My Very Own Angel”?organization. Nestled in the middle of the bears, is a picture of the Stewart’s son Vayden. Vayden died nearly four hours after he was born due to a lower urinary tract obstruction that stopped the development of some of his organs, including his lungs, and hardened his kidneys. Ms. Stewart started the organization to provide resources and support to women and families who have made the decision to carry to term a child with a fatal diagnosis. “I want these women to be able to enjoy their pregnancy and their child the same way anyone else would,” she said. (Courtesy photo)

Stephanie Stewart, wife of 552nd Air Control Wing Staff Sgt. Van Stewart, poses with some of the 345 “angel bears” she donated to a metro-area hospital from her My Very Own Angel organization. Nestled in the middle of the bears, is a picture of the Stewart’s son Vayden. Vayden died nearly four hours after he was born due to a lower urinary tract obstruction that stopped the development of some of his organs, including his lungs and hardened his kidneys. (Courtesy photo)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- For Staff Sgt. Van Stewart and his wife Stephanie Stewart, there is no pausing, stuttering or hesitating when asked how many children they have. The answer is three, and one of them is an angel.

Three-year-old Vashon is hard to miss. He's the little guy running around, giving his mother and father fits and making them laugh. Their third boy, Varen, is also making no attempts at hiding. He was just born Nov. 21, 2010, at 1:57 p.m.

Their second son, Vayden, can't be heard, but he has a mighty presence. Through his birth, life and death, he led his mother to become a very strong voice for women she feels are overlooked.

"You don't want to know what it is like to go into the hospital pregnant, deliver your baby and then leave the hospital without him," Mrs. Stewart said.

That is what happened to her and Sergeant Stewart in 2009.

Sergeant Stewart, a member of Tinker's 552nd Air Control Wing, and Mrs. Stewart met while he was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. They dated for a year and then married.

They had their son Vashon and then planned to have Vayden exactly 26 months later. Sergeant Stewart was hoping for a girl. When Mrs. Stewart went in for a routine checkup, they were both bitterly disappointed, but for a completely different reason. The doctors had bad news.

They said it was a lower urinary tract obstruction. Vayden's urine was backing up and causing developmental problems in his organs, including his kidneys and lungs. The prognosis was week-to-week. They started intervention procedures and scheduled a surgery to insert a catheter into Vayden's bladder, but when it was time for the surgery, he moved into an unsafe position. Mrs. Stewart was crushed, she said.

At 22 weeks, Vayden's kidneys began to harden and the doctors told her she could terminate the pregnancy. Sergeant Stewart would support her no matter what, he said. But, to Mrs. Stewart the decision was clear. There was no danger to her life, so she would carry the pregnancy to term.

"I wanted to give my son something in this life. There was nothing wrong with him, except for his (illness). I wanted him to know that we loved him," Mrs. Stewart said.

'Best three hours of my life'

Sergeant and Mrs. Stewart are glad of their decision regarding their son Vayden. When he was delivered, the doctors said he would live about an hour, but he survived for three hours and 45 minutes. He was born full-term, but with the lungs of an 18-week-old fetus.

"We heard him cry. It was a struggle. He looked so perfect," Mrs. Stewart said.

Sergeant Stewart took comfort in the moment.

"It was the best three hours of my life. I was so proud of him," he said.

The Stewarts had made sure that in the time leading up to the delivery they did things as a family with Vayden in mind. Along with Vashon, they went to the zoo, to the park and swung on the swings. They wanted time to bond with their sons.

"Nine months is a long time to bond with someone. ... I didn't want to have any coulda, shoulda, wouldas with Vayden," she said.

This attitude was something that allowed the couple to enjoy the short time they had with Vayden and also to move forward after their loss. But, it wasn't easy. 

Searching for comfort

Even though Mrs. Stewart has a strong faith in God, she felt alone. There weren't any local helping agencies for women who had lost an infant, and if there were, no one told her.

"There was a time when I didn't eat for a week. I didn't go out on my own. I didn't know what to do," she said. "Why is this happening to us? I needed someone to talk to, someone to cry with, so I went online."

She found out she was not alone. In fact, she met other couples who had lost multiple children. The online acquaintances became friends, even as close as family. She no longer asked, "Why me?" That was a humbling experience she said, and it is what drove her to start her non-profit charity, blog and online community called "My Very Own Angel."

"People don't know how often this happens to 'regular people,'" Mrs. Stewart said. "There are so many beautiful stories of loss out there."

Through her program, Mrs. Stewart has reached families locally and all across the country. She assembles "Carrying to Term Comfort Packs," that she sends to mothers carrying a child with a fatal diagnosis.

Offering a helping hand

She does her best to offer resources and advice to women and families who make the decision to take these pregnancies to full term. She also donates hundreds of "angel bears" to three metro-area hospitals for mothers who lose a child after delivery, allowing mothers to take something home.

"I want women to be able to enjoy their pregnancy and their child the same way anyone else would," she said. "Through my experience, I am able to help them. Even if I never meet them, I know that they have something that I needed when I was going through the same thing."

Three-year-old Vashon has a teddy bear he calls "Brother Bear," which was given to Mrs. Stewart by a friend when Vayden died. The bear has become a symbol, and is one way Vayden lives on in the hearts and minds of not only the Stewart family, but also every family who has been touched by the Stewarts' very own angel.

Now, Vashon will have a new playmate, and the Stewarts are surely enjoying the new addition of Varen. Before the birth, Mrs. Stewart said Varen was her "rainbow baby," the one born after the storm.