Photo by Haley Bell
Biology teacher Jennifer Davis walked up and down the Price Chopper aisles. Grocery shopping used to be part of her routine, but after spending four weeks in the hospital with her son, Cutler, everything felt surreal. It seemed strange that nobody knew she had just watched her son fight for his life. She thought to herself that everyone else in that grocery store could be going through something traumatic. The woman who smiled at the cashier might be planning a funeral for their father. The man in the suit might have just been fired. The happy-looking couple might be scraping the little money they have to buy lunch for the week. And she would have no idea.
Two days after Cutler was born, Davis and her husband sat down in a conference room and found out their son had six individual heart defects – something doctors had never seen before. He had a 35 percent chance of surviving the week. And even if he survived, he had a life expectancy of 25 days. While 17 cardiologists brainstormed how to solve what they referred to as a “puzzle,” the Davises prepared for the worst. They kept in the back of their mind that he may never grow up to be a “big boy.”
Davis left Cutler – and the Kansas State University onesie she hoped to bring him home in – at the hospital. Instead of driving home with a perfect tiny baby, she drove home with an empty car seat.
Davis likes to be in control, from her science classroom to the fourth floor at Children’s Mercy, which is dedicated to “heart babies.” But when faced with something that even she could not control, Davis decided to let go – and let God take over. Davis and her husband decided to get Cutler baptized at Children’s Mercy.
After the baptism, Cutler’s heart was scanned again. This time the echo took longer than usual. The 17 cardiologists paged the technician repeatedly and asked for more and more scans. The head of cardiology came down. Davis shrunk into the corner of the room, thinking something very bad had happened, because the head of cardiology doesn’t typically come to do echos herself. A medical student leaned over to her and whispered, “this is good.”
His heart had completely changed. Four of the six problems had somehow resolved themselves – doctors had no way of explaining it. Davis and her husband have since come up with their own explanation.
One week after Davis and Cutler returned home, Cutler’s older sister, Riley, ran up and plopped onto the couch next to Davis and said, “I really miss my grandparents.” Davis was confused, because Riley, age 6, had recently seen both sets of grandparents. So Davis asked Riley to describe who visited her. When she recounted their appearances, they matched that of Riley’s great grandparents, who had both passed away before Riley could form any memory of appearance. Riley said they visited her when Mommy and Daddy were at the hospital with Cutler. Davis came to the conclusion that the children’s great grandparents were their guardian angels. She attributed Cutler’s survival to them.
The doctors agreed that at one week old, Cutler was at his optimal strength. So with two of the six heart defects still present, doctors decided to operate. They only had one chance since his newborn body couldn’t handle more than one surgery. The surgery was lifesaving, and Cutler recovered at Children’s Mercy by Jennifer’s side for 37 days.
After taking full-time maternity leave until October, Davis was relieved to return to her passion and to have some control back in her life. Little did she know she would be equipped with a new way to explain biology topics.
Davis is now more aware that students have private problems that can interfere with school work. She doesn’t accept late work, but she encourages students to come see her if they are going through difficulties and require help. She knows that people can have obstacles beneath the surface.
At the beginning of each school year, she also explains that if she ever gets a call saying she needs to be home because Cutler is sick, she may have to leave right away. And if she does leave, it’s not for some trivial cold. It could be life-threatening. When she’s at school she’s a teacher, but when she’s at home she’s a mom.
“She never slacked off. If she said she would have a worksheet graded by Tuesday, she definitely had it graded by Tuesday. There was never an exception,” junior Savanna Worthington said. “I think she did a good job of controlling everything in her classroom even with the stress of her son.”
Cutler’s experience was a wakeup call for the Davises. Instead of saying no to avoid cleaning up after her kids, she finds herself saying yes. She wants her kids to have as many memories as possible.
“You never know – just in general – when people are going to be taken away from you, so make as many memories as you can while you’re here,” Davis said.
After almost $1 million in medical bills, two open heart surgeries and two catheter procedures, the Davises treat Cutler like a normal 2 year old – aside from the biyearly doctor’s visits. Davis calls him her little Superman, and he has Superman decorum placed throughout his room. Above his “big boy” bed hangs a Superman crest with a “C” instead of an “S,” with a quote overlaying the personalized crest.
Today, Cutler wails and pulls Davis’s fingers until she rewards him with an orange popsicle, which later drips down his size 2T khakis. Just by looking at him, you’d never guess what he’s been through. When posing for a picture with the orange juice dripping down his chin, he insists that Davis put him down. He’s a big boy and he can stand on his own, and even go grocery shopping with his mother.