Fighting for Phinehas: A story for Christmas

dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 25, 2013 

This is the story of a boy named Phinehas.

When he was new in the womb, his parents named him after a mighty warrior. He seemed to be growing healthy and strong.

But less than a month before his birth, they learned he had a genetic disorder and that his chest cavity was too small to support his lungs. He would be unable to breath outside the womb, and he would die almost as soon as he was born.

It was nearly December, and the parents felt no hope or joy.

They did the only thing they knew to do: They prayed for a peace that defied understanding, and they asked friends around the world to do the same.

This is what happened.

Splitting logs

Phinehas' parents are missionaries.

His mother, Keri Griffin Robbins, felt God's calling when she was a fifth grader at church camp. After she graduated from Shaw High School in Columbus, she went to spread the gospel in New Zealand.

His father, Britton Robbins, traveled a rockier road. He grew up in Venice, Fla., got hooked on cocaine, spent two years as a drug dealer and did time in jail.

When he was 20, he encountered the Lord. Struggling to get clean and unable to sleep at night, he picked up the Bible and read it over and over again.

To stay clean he had to leave Venice, and he moved to Kansas City and got involved in the International House of Prayer, which has maintained one continuous prayer and worship service for more than a decade.

In 2008, Britton met Keri in New Zealand. They married in Columbus in 2011 and returned in January of 2012.

That's when Britton picked up an ax. A wrestler, boxer and rock climber, he started splitting firewood. He chopped wood for three straight weeks, enough to fuel the whole community for winter.

Britton and Keri returned to the States to prepare for long-term service in Turkey, and he realized one of his shoulders was shot and he needed surgery.

When they moved to Turkey in January of 2013, Britton was wearing a sling and Keri was toting all their luggage.

She was tired and started feeling pain, and she blamed the overseas move. But after three weeks in Turkey, she couldn't lift her arms. Keri was diagnosed with a primary immunodeficiency disease and started taking medicine.

Baby dreams

Keri and Britton wanted to have children, but because of the medications necessary to deal with Keri's disease, her doctor forbade her to get pregnant and put her on birth control.

She and Britton started talking about adoption. Considering that they were missionaries and had little money, it seemed like a crazy idea.

But Keri had an even crazier idea: She started researching the possibility of adopting a baby with Down syndrome.

Britton balked. "Let's figure out how to be parents first," he said.

Keri asked her women's prayer group to petition God to change Britton's mind.

But then they made a stunning discovery that ruled out adoption for the time being: Keri was 11 weeks pregnant. Britton rode his bike to the store and bought three different pregnancy tests to make sure.

"Hearing the baby's heartbeat was probably the coolest thing that's ever happened in my life," Keri wrote on her Facebook page on June 2.

Keri had the baby tested for Down syndrome, because she knew delivery and care of a Down baby would not be sufficient in Turkey and they would need to return to the States.

The test was negative.

But one night Keri started hemorrhaging and thought she was having a miscarriage. She and Britton lay awake all night waiting for the busses to start running so they could go to the hospital. They were crying and praying and singing, and they decided that whatever happened to them was the kindness of God. "If I miscarry He's kind," Keri said. "If I have a baby He's kind."

For Keri's health, they would need to return to the States. An ultrasound showed the baby was healthy and fit to fly.

Shock to the system

Keri landed in Atlanta on July 13. She grieved the sudden departure from Turkey, which she and Britton had planned to make their home. But she needed rest and was glad to be home in Columbus with her parents, Glenn and Vicky Griffin.

Another ultrasound showed that the baby was in perfect health and had suffered no ill effects of the medication Keri took before she knew she was pregnant.

Britton and their dog Baxter moved to Columbus in September.

And by this time they had settled on a name for the baby: Phinehas, named after a high priest of Israel from the book of Exodus who knew how to handle a spear.

Things seemed to be moving along.

But on Nov. 12, during what Keri thought was a routine appointment, her doctor dropped a bombshell: Phinehas had a form of skeletal dysplasia. The development of his arm and leg bones was five weeks behind and his chest cavity was six weeks behind. The chest cavity was the biggest concern, because it would affect his breathing.

Keri struggled to grasp the meaning, and explained it in an update that she and Britton sent to friends:

"The growth issue with his chest cavity IS NOT compatible for life outside of the womb. His head and abdomen are completely normal, and his face is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. At this point the doctor does not know if he will live for a few minutes or for several days or weeks."

Not compatible for life outside of the womb?

Her mind raced. She had just taken Phinehas' diaper bag to be monogrammed and now that joyful errand felt like a waste.

In the following week, a neonatal specialist would tell Keri that he prayed this news wouldn't cause her to lose her faith, which he found beautiful.

Her obstetrician-gynecologist had never seen a case of skeletal dysplasia before, and he took a different approach. "Have hope, have hope, have hope," he said.

"God's going to heal him before he's born," he added, "or in heaven."

Keri and Britton felt torn. They believed in miracles, but they were also coming to grips with cold facts.

"Do I grieve or do I lay hands on my belly and pray for healing?" Keri asked her friends. "I am doing both."

'Stand with us'

Britton and Keri knew people who faced suffering without telling anyone. They decided they needed prayer, and they needed to specifically ask people to pray for them.

They sent out letters and they turned to social media.

"Please, will you stand with us, get on your knees, or whatever posture the Lord leads you to, and pray for miraculous healing for our baby," they wrote. "This isn't going away without a touch from heaven. (We) need you, we cannot walk through this alone, we need people to approach the throne on our behalf, to fight for Phinehas!"

As they approached the birth, which could happen at any moment because of the condition of Keri's placenta, people were praying in every place they'd ever lived, and that was a lot of places. In Columbus, people were praying for them at their church, Christ Community, as well as Keri's parents' church at Epworth United Methodist and CrossPointe and other churches where they knew people in Columbus.

There were their friends in New Zealand and Turkey, and Keri's friends in Canada and Norway, and Britton's friends in Australia and the states of Florida, Missouri, Illinois.

While people prayed, Britton and Keri got another surprise: Phinehas tested positive for Down syndrome. Unlike the test in Turkey, this one was 99 percent accurate. In an update to friends, Keri recalled her earlier discussions with Britton about adoption. "I would lay around (at this point I was very sick)," she wrote, "and daydream about how special people are with Down syndrome and was convinced that they could comprehend things about God that people without a chromosome defect could not."

Still, the prognosis appeared fatal. Phinehas' arms, legs and chest remained in the fifth percentile of all babies.

"Pray that the diagnoses of Down syndrome could replace the devastating diagnoses of a lethal skeletal dysplasia," Keri wrote. "The doctors are not ruling out that Phinehas could have both problems until he is born and evaluated."

On Nov. 30, Keri went to Facebook and tried a different approach: "All of you Auburn fans need to come lay hands on my belly and pray for miracles, y'all have something special going on."

Two days later, Keri's health reached the point where the doctors needed to deliver Phinehas by Caesarian section. A new ultrasound showed that his limbs and chest were still small, and doctors told Keri and Britton that if Phinehas survived the birth he could be severely deformed.

Moment of truth

It was Dec. 2. Phinehas was about to face the world, whether he could survive it or not.

More than a dozen people stood in the room at Midtown Medical Center, holding their breath, waiting to hear a cry. If Phinehas cried, then he could breathe, and if he breathed, then he could live.

Britton and Keri believed he would cry, but they also were prepared for the worst. A friend, Dalton Thomas, was in the delivery room and would write of the moment, "We all wondered whether the beginning of his life outside of the womb would also be the end of it."

A doctor lifted Phinehas out, and held him up.

Ten seconds of silence.

Britton walked over and faced his son. "Breathe!" he whispered. "Breathe!"

And Phinehas was breathing.

Keri was on her back and couldn't see her son's tiny chest rising and falling.

"I can't hear him crying," she said.

Some babies don't cry much, and Phinehas was one of them.

But suddenly he let out a squawk.

That's when everybody in the room started breathing again, and talking and cheering.

They looked at the little guy, who was a single ounce shy of five pounds.

He was small, of course, but his body was proportional and there was absolutely no deformity. "There's nothing wrong with this baby's limbs!" a doctor cried.

Thomas, who was filming the birth for his friends, would think of a verse from Ecclesiastes 11:5: "As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything."

News of Phinehas' birth spread fast. A friend responded to the news on Facebook: "This will be the most adored baby ever… well, other than Jesus."

Epilogue

It is the morning before Christmas, and Phinehas sleeps soundly in his room at Egleston Pediatric Hospital in Atlanta, where he underwent heart surgery on Dec. 13. Like his parents, he is not a morning person.

But today, Britton, 29, and Keri, 31, have risen early to talk about their miracle baby. They're unemployed at the moment, Keri is still battling illness and nearly everything they own is in Turkey. They plan to eventually move to North Carolina, but now their focus is on getting Phinehas to the point where he can leave the hospital.

He's being weaned off forced air and will be released from the hospital when he can learn to breathe and eat at the same time.

They're thankful. Because of Keri's illness, they returned to the States, where they would eventually require a pediatric heart specialist and the care needed for a baby with Down syndrome.

And because Keri had to have a C-section, doctors were able to free Phinehas from the umbilical cord that was wrapped tightly around his neck.

He likely wouldn't have survived labor.

"Nurses tell us he's the strongest Down syndrome baby they've ever seen," Keri says.

They look at Phinehas and think about Turkey and Keri's crazy idea to adopt a Down syndrome baby.

"It's the funniest thing because God prepared our heart," Keri says.

Britton recently had a dream of his own. He dreamed that Phinehas was playing baseball. "He was 10 years old," Britton says. "He hit the ball, and he ran up and hugged me."

They sit in the hospital room and listen to their son breathing and his equipment beep and buzz. They talk about the moment Phinehas greeted the world and the looks of stunned joy on the faces of their doctors. They think about what it means to love and to be loved.

"We feel like we won the jackpot," Keri says.

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