By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily
Twenty weeks into Elizabeth Tolin’s third pregnancy, a routine doctor’s visit revealed something was very wrong.
“We were living in Hungary at the time,” recalled Elizabeth, a 34-year-old first lieutenant in the Wyoming Air National Guard. “It was January (2014), and we were in for a regular 20-week checkup. The doc starts freaking out and saying, ‘Something’s not right. He’s small, he’s balled up, and he’s not moving.’”
The events that followed inspired Elizabeth to found the non-profit Toby’s Shower for Babies, which delivers baskets full of comfort items and information about caring for premature infants to Newborn Infant Care Units in Wyoming and Colorado.
While in Hungary, Elizabeth and her husband, Josh, were concerned, but there was little they could do outside of making an appointment with a specialist in Austria.
“Two days later, we’re in a state-run hospital waiting for the ‘specialist,’ which was terrifying,” Elizabeth remembered. “After checking in, we were given a number and told to go wait by a door in this huge area with hundreds of people.”
The Tolins took a seat. Hours dragged on. The people waiting at other doors seemed joyful and in high spirits — but not the people at the Tolins’ door.
“No one in this circle was smiling,” she said. “No one at this door was happy. Everyone that came out of this door looked in shock, heartbroken, things were not right.”
When it came to the Tolins’ turn to enter the room, Elizabeth said they tried to keep an open mind.
“The doc starts doing the ultrasound, and he’s not speaking for like 15 minutes,” she recalled. “Finally, he puts down the wand and says, ‘I can’t tell you what’s wrong, but the baby is too small and won’t survive. There’s nothing we can do.’”
Faced with devastating news, the Tolins decided to return to the U.S. and find a doctor who felt differently.Four days after the 20-week checkup, the couple were on a flight to Denver, Colorado, to visit a specialist at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.
“The doctor in Denver still couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and there wasn’t a guarantee the treatment would work,” Elizabeth said. “But there was nothing else we could do. So, we just took it week to week.”
At the time, the Tolins were told 24 weeks in utero was the earliest a baby could be removed and have a chance to survive.
“The doctor sat us down and told us ‘If the baby comes right now, he won’t make it,’” Tolin said. “They didn’t have tubes small enough to fit him (with life support).That was kind of a kick in the face.”
The Tolins didn’t give up. They tried everything their health care providers suggested, and at 31 weeks, they returned to the hospital.
“There was a day that he just wasn’t moving — things seemed off,” Elizabeth remembered. “(The baby) wasn’t having heart accelerations. They did an ultrasound, and he wasn’t doing very good. They said it’s time to go. Now.”
A few hours later, Toby Tolin was born into the world via emergency c-section.
“He weighed 2 pounds and was 11 and three-quarters (inches) long,” Elizabeth said. “They never did figure out what was wrong, but he had a really crappy placenta … and had managed to tie a true knot in his (umbilical) cord.”
During the next six weeks, the Tolins doted on their newborn and managed their affairs from the NICU, where Toby was nursed into health.In the hours and days between tests and treatments, Elizabeth was left with little to do but read to her baby and observe the other NICU patients.
“We were in perfect shape — I was on emergency leave from work, and Josh was tele-working, and we had friends in Denver we could stay with,” she said. “But so many other families in the NICU weren’t in good shape.”
Elizabeth felt a kinship with these parents, watching helplessly as their babies’ lives hung in the balance. She wanted to do something to let them know they weren’t alone.
“I started talking with one of my good friends, a nurse there at the time,” Elizabeth said. “What if we did a basket with blankets and stuffed animals for every one of these babies?”
The blankets could be used to block the harsh hospital lighting for the babies, and Elizabeth planned to include books in the baskets for parents to read to the newborns.
“I told Josh, and he was like, ‘No, we’re not even out of the NICU yet,’” Elizabeth said, adding with a chuckle, “It ticked me off, so I was like, ‘Whatever, I do what I want.’”
Using Facebook to communicate with friends and family who followed Toby’s story from Hungary to birth, Elizabeth started recruiting volunteers.
“Within six weeks, we were back in the NICU with baskets for every baby,” Elizabeth said.
Nowadays, Elizabeth said Toby’s Shower is a charitable non-profit organization, and with the help of volunteers throughout the Rocky Mountain region, it has delivered more than 3,600 baskets to six hospitals in Wyoming and Colorado along the Interstate 25 corridor.
Volunteers tie fleece blankets by hand for each basket and stock them with children’s books, stuffed animals and packets of information about premature infant care.
“We get anywhere from 10-50 volunteers each event, which happens about every 3-4 weeks,” Elizabeth said.
Toby’s Shower is funded through donations, and the organization’s primary fundraising event is the Champagne Ball, an annual charity soiree hosted in May at the Ellie Caulkin’s Opera House in Denver.
There are dozens of ways to help families in the NICU, but Elizabeth said she chose baskets because they shift the parent’s focus away from their current situation.
“I think when you are thrust into that environment, chaos, blender, dark place — I think the baskets provide a glimmer of hope. Some of those babies don’t go home,” she explained. “It helps create normalcy, because there’s nothing normal about the NICU.”
Go to www.showerforbabies.org to learn more about Toby’s Shower, how to donate or volunteer for the Tolins’ next basket run.