By Peter Darbyshire, The Province
When Baby Sal reaches out for his mother in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit room at Surrey Memorial Hospital, it’s hard not to get emotional. His mother isn’t there, after all. She died shortly after he was born, and what Sal is reaching for is her photograph.
Sal is lucky to be alive himself. He’s known as the “miracle baby,” and for good reason. He was born on Christmas Day, just 26 weeks into the pregnancy. He weighed just under two pounds at his birth and was the size of a water bottle.
His birth was not only difficult but marked by tragedy. His mother, Breanne Smaaslet, just 22, was terminally ill with osteosarcoma during the pregnancy — the same cancer that killed Terry Fox.
She knew she wouldn’t survive, but she wanted to be able to hold her baby before she died. That wish was granted on Christmas Day, when she was able to hold Sal for the first and last time.
She died a few days later.
To make the tragedy even worse, Sal’s father Adam had died suddenly in November.
But Sal is in good hands, thanks to his caring extended family and the staff of Surrey Memorial’s NICU.
Sal’s great aunt, Rose Horan-Pachota, has been by his bedside in the hospital since he was born, helping to look after the little boy.
Before that, she spent three months with Breanne Smaaslet in the palliative care unit at Surrey Memorial, helping her niece face death and hang on long enough to make sure Sal could survive his premature birth.
When The Province visited the hospital, Horan-Pachota was cradling Sal in her arms during a feeding. Sal is still so little he needs tubes run down his throat and directly into his stomach, as well as constant oxygen. He has come a long way since his birth, though, as he now weighs six-and-a-half pounds.
In fact, Sal seems to be growing and developing normally despite his difficult entry into the world.
“They didn’t anticipate he would do this well,” said Horan-Pachota. “He’s a tough little guy. He pulls out his tubes all the time. He keeps (the nurses) on their toes.”
“He’s a fighter like his mommy, that’s for sure.”
With Sal’s mother gone, Horan-Pachota will be his guardian and raise him.
“I guess I’m his parent now,” she said, looking down at the little boy lying contentedly in her lap. “I’ll have to get used to that. It’s still kind of shocking.”
Horan-Pachota has had lots of practice being a mom — she raised two sons, now grown up and out of the home. She was looking forward to a little down time, but then life intervened. It says much about her character that she is facing the challenges without any hesitation.
“(Breanne) didn’t even have to ask us. I told her before that whatever she needed me to do, I’d be there for her … I feel honoured to be able to raise (Sal),” she said, fighting back tears. “I just hope I can do a good job.”
She’s done a great job so far, and she’s being helped by members of his father’s family and by the caring staff at the hospital.
“Surrey Memorial have been above and beyond with helping us in this unique situation,” Horan-Pachota said. “They have been great, absolutely phenomenal — from the palliative care unit to the NICU here to the Ronald McDonald House” where she is staying during the week.
She and her family could use more help looking after Sal once they’re out of the hospital. They started a crowdfunder to raise money for Breanne’s end-of-life expenses, and they’re continuing the funding campaign to raise money for the baby.
Those needs include not only the usual expenses of raising a child and his education fund, but also any unexpected expenses that may arise because of his particular situation.
“With premature babies, sometimes they do require some respiratory specialists and whatnot,” Horan-Pachota said.
“We have to be prepared and part of that is hopefully having some money set aside for those extra-special needs for him. Because he’s an extra-special little boy.”
You can help Baby Sal by contributing to his GoFundMe fundraiser (https://www.gofundme.com/angejqfc).