After the unexpected death of her toddler, a mom reflects on the ways God showed up on that tragic day.
Leigha Doerrer of Alexandria, Virginia, remembers the day in March her two-year-old son had a seizure and was rushed to the emergency room as if it were yesterday. The trauma of the day replays like a movie in her head.
It was a normal Tuesday morning. Her husband, Paul, had gone to the gym. Her toddler, Everett, had gotten up early. It was just the two of them together as her three older children slumbered into the morning.
Leigha recalls, “It was the one morning I played with him. Usually, I would get up and make him breakfast or I was doing the dishes from the night before, or telling him to just go play with your blocks. But this was the one morning that I was like, all right, I’m six months pregnant, but I’m just going to sit on the floor and just play. It was so completely out of character for me.”
Paul returned from the gym while she and Everett were playing kitchen, making play food. She asked her husband if he could run down to the playroom and fetch the play stove. At first, he said he didn’t have time, but like any good husband, he yielded to her request. He went and got the stove and went upstairs to take a shower.
The mom of six remembers how happy they were when Everett said, “Let’s make pizza.” Leigha smiled as she glanced down at her pregnant stomach. The pizza was in the basement. They walked down to the basement and gathered up the pizza pieces. As they were walking up the stairs, Everett said, “Mommy, my eye hurts.”
Leigha didn’t think much about his comment but as she lumbered up the stairs, she told him she would take a look when they got to the top, perhaps he got something in it. When they reached the top step of the landing, the chaos began. Everett started crying and vomiting.
“I thought, oh my gosh, we have the stomach bug,” remembers Leigha. At this point, her older daughter Lena came downstairs and Leigha asked her to get some paper towels to help clean up.
After a few minutes, Everett calmed down and got kind of woozy in his mother’s lap. Leigha and Lena were in full on vomiting-baby mode. They got a blanket and laid him down.
“I figured he is going to vomit some more. Let’s give it 10 minutes,” said Leigha as her voice trailed off.
She went to change her clothes and when she returned and looked at Lena, Lena shook her head. White foam blood was coming out of Everett’s nose.
Leigha frantically told Lena to run and get her dad. “I was rubbing his back and all of the sudden he turned from white to blue. I started wailing for Paul.”
Paul is a former EMT. He immediately took control and started CPR while Leigha called 911.
Leigha said, “Paul usually would have been gone [to work] by this time. He got Everett’s heart started before our EMTs arrived. It would have been a much different situation had he not been there.
“I remember thinking how quickly the EMTs responded,” she continued.” I literally called and then heard the sirens within minutes. I wondered, how did that happen? I later learned they had been called for a lesser emergency and were in the area when they were rerouted to us. And again, it was just one of the blessings of the day. Looking back, I see all of the little graces and miracles of the day.”
Everett’s heart crashed again in the Doerrers’ living room. Leigha paced and said Hail Marys as she gazed out the window and saw three firetrucks and three ambulances. “That is the response you get when a two-year-old is not breathing. That’s what you want from your emergency services. These guys were on it,” she said gratefully.
After they loaded him in the ambulance, Everett crashed again. That was the first time Leigha took out her phone and hit her text, reaching out to two moms and telling them she needed everyone on their knees. “Rosaries, go, go,” she typed. The St. Rita machine – the parish the family calls home — was set in motion.
They took Everett to Alexandria Inova Hospital, where the medical team performed CPR for 45 minutes before they got him breathing again.
“I couldn’t be in the room. CPR is such a violent thing. Watching his little body, I just couldn’t. I just paced up and down the hall, saying the Rosary, having a conversation.”
Once the doctors got him breathing, they could start to run tests. They wheeled him out to the computerized tomography or CT, and when they finished and opened the doors, Leigha and Paul could see the crushed faces of the doctors and nurses. They knew it wasn’t good.
“It was a major bleed. They brought it up on the screen and it was just massive,” Leigha recalled. “We started calling our parents.”
The hospital transferred Everett to Fairfax Children’s Hospital via helicopter where he would have surgery to stop the bleeding. Leigha and Paul watched him leave thinking that was the last time they would see him.
Still in complete shock, the Doerrers drove to Fairfax. Traffic was heavy and they had to give their consent over the phone. The doctors would tell them Everett had a brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which is a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain.
When they arrived at the children’s hospital, Leigha had Paul were shown to a waiting room. Leigha recalls, “I was having this conversational prayer where I was begging, just begging, as one of our parish priests, Fr. Bork, was praying the Rosary. Again, looking back, there were all these little graces. The number one children’s neurosurgeon in the Northern Virginia hospital system just happened to be on call that day. When he came out, he said it went as well as he could have possibly hoped it to go. We were just so grateful he had made it this far.”
The doctor cautioned the Doerrers about the next 24 hours and the laundry list of things that could go wrong post-op. The first thing to hit was fever, followed by an irregular heartbeat. The couple watched as the Code Blue team assembled outside their son’s room. Ultimately, Everett had too much brain damage and his brain couldn’t regulate his heart. About the third time the team tried to resuscitate Everett, Leigha told the doctor they wanted to stop.
“His stitches in his head had broken open; it was a bloody mess,” said Leigha. “They asked if I wanted to hold him, and I did. Fr. Bork came in and confirmed him, said the prayers, made the sign of the cross, and Everett passed away. It was a beautiful moment but the worst moment. I held him and gave him a bath and then we went home to be with Everett’s siblings.”
Fr. Daniel Gee, the pastor of St. Rita, met with the family at their home and told the Doerrer children Everett was in heaven and that he was automatically a saint. Gee involved the siblings in decisions regarding Everett’s Mass of the Angels, called so not because the child becomes an angel but because there is no need to pray for the child; the Mass is offered in union with the angels to the glory of God.
The Doerrers still remain in awe of the many people around the world who prayed for Everett and their family. The outpouring of love and support was humbling. Almost three years later, Leigha has had time to reflect and pray on everything that happened and realizes our Lord may not have given her the miracle she begged for, but, instead, sprinkled them throughout that day. “A quick death might have been merciful for him, but the slow way that it unfolded allowed us to come to terms with it, hour by hour,” she says with some introspection. “It let us prepare ourselves. It wasn’t fun, but it was merciful for us. In my prayers for months afterwards, I would thank God for all of the beautiful things about Everett’s death. Thank you for giving me that morning to play with him. Thank you for giving us those 24 hours with him.”
Today, Everett’s final resting place is the parish his family calls home. Fr. Gee explains, “I was reading in a liturgical book that children who are not of the age of reason should not be buried with everybody else. They should have their own special place.”
Everett is buried on a small grass plot just outside the entrance to the church. Parish members leave flowers on his grave, place wreaths on it at Christmas time, stop and say little prayers asking for his intercession, and take his name for Confirmation.
The parish has embraced him as their own saint, proclaiming him St. Everett of Alexandria. Fr Gee explains, “The Church proclaims him a saint because there is no doubt he is in heaven, and that’s all a saint is, someone we know who is in heaven.”
This year on March 22 the parish will unveil St. Everett of Alexandria prayer cards to mark his feast day.
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