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Why This Mom Adopted a Baby With a Terminal Diagnosis—Twice

Could you do what Cori Salchert does? After raising her own eight children, in 2012 the former nurse began adopting and fostering babies with life-limiting or terminal diagnoses. Her first "hospice baby," Emmalynn, who was born with only a brain stem, died in Salchert's arms in her Sheboygan, WI home, 50 days after she was born.

In addition to fostering 11-month-old healthy triplets, Salchert and her family currently care for 22-month-old Charlie, who has lived with them since he was four months old after his biological family determined they couldn't minister to his needs anymore. Charlie has a type of brain damage called Hypoxic Ischemic Brain Encephalopathy, which means he is reliant upon a tracheostomy, ventilator, and feeding tube, and not expected to live far past the age of two.

If you're wondering how someone has the strength to do something like this, you're not the only one. I got the chance to speak with Salchert about this life-changing road she's decided to walk.

What type of background do you have that prepared you for this work?

I worked hospice and then took ten years off to hang out with my kids. I went back to work with OB's around 2003 and then found that there were a lot more women that I had never known who were coming in with miscarriages and stillbirths and babies that died after birth. Having worked in hospice, it wasn't a situation I ran from but felt quite compelled to reach out and work with them. I couldn't change the fact that the baby had died, but it didn't have to be quite as traumatic.

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How can you make it less traumatic?

Nobody wants to walk out of a hospital with a memory box but it may be the only tangible representation of a child that they had. It's incredibly important that they have those memories. They might not open that box for a long time, but when they do, it'll be there.

How does your nursing background help with Charlie in particular?

You've got to have great observation skills—I'm Charlie's advocate and I have to be very good at figuring out how it is that your child works. He's not able to smile; he registers no positive emotion whatsoever. But he is able to cry and let me know when he's uncomfortable. And, quite frankly, this side over heaven I'll take the tears so I can help him when he's suffering.

The reason I can do this, is that for the little ones, their life isn't even started here but it's going to be fabulous when they get to heaven.

What are you able to do for him when he's in distress, and when is it time to let him go?

It's a difficult spot that we're in—we have to evaluate everything and decide, are we prolonging his life or are we preventing any more suffering than necessary? We're not trying to hasten his death and we're not trying to prolong his life. If his lungs fail and he goes into respiratory distress, we can let him go. There would be nothing cardiac that we would do—he wouldn't be able to handle the pain from having the compressions.

But you have to be ready for anything at any time.

We have a doorbell that's next to his bed that rings up to our room. If there's a nurse or our daughter and the ventilator isn't helping him, they hit the doorbell—then you run down the stairs. You don't put on clothes, you just get down.

How was it decided what you can and can't do for him?

It was a mutual decision between palliative care hospice and what is important for our family.

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Practically speaking, what type of person would be best suited to adopt a hospice baby?

Number one, you just have to have the heart for this type of work. Number two, you don't have to have a medical background. Plenty of people who do this learn as they go long. They might not learn all the physiology behind what they're doing, but they don't have to. And you have to consider your income and space.

How do you take care of yourself while you take care of Charlie?
I wouldn't be able to this if I didn't have the faith in God that I do. Not knowing how it is that this boy is going to die, there's no protocol, no rulebook. It could be any number of ways that will not be pleasant, but I feel called to do something to do this—it's where my heart resonates. The reason I can do this, is that for the little ones, their life isn't even started here but it's going to be fabulous when they get to heaven.

To learn more about Cori, Charlie, and what it takes to adopt or foster with a life limiting prognosis or terminal diagnosis, go to safehaven4babies.org.

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Photograph by: Cori Salchert

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