A nurse whisked away their baby. Joy turned to horror seconds after the birth of their daughter in Columbus as the mother and father were told she needed emergency surgery in Atlanta.
Sarah Jane Stanfill didn't have an opening in her bottom, so she couldn't pass bowel movements out of her rectum. But her parents, Leslie Garner and fiancé Jebadiah "Jesse" Stanfill, believe Sarah's health issue was a blessing in disguise.
While doctors prepped her for surgery, they discovered a more serious problem: Sarah had two holes in her heart and a narrowed aorta.
The doctors in Atlanta told Leslie and Jesse that the routine tests after her birth wouldn't have immediately caught Sarah's congenital heart defects and the problems wouldn't have been evident until she was a few weeks old.
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"They said that she would have started struggling to breathe and would not have had enough oxygen," Leslie said. "She would have gone into distress and fluid would have gone into her lungs. We would have had to rush her to the hospital, and her particular condition could have been fatal."
Now, two months later, the Smiths Station, Ala., couple has returned home with their baby, grateful for Sarah's hopeful outcome.
"She's really brought us closer together as a family, and she has brought so many people together in prayer, some people we don't even know," Leslie said. "To me, that's been the biggest blessing from her story."
Sarah is Leslie's only child. Jesse has two sons who live with their mother from his previous marriage. Leslie and Jesse believe God put them through hardships to strengthen their resolve and overcome this struggle together. And although they grew up in the same Smiths Station neighborhood, they weren't united until they rediscovered each other on Facebook.
'My soul mate'
Being five years apart, they had different social circles as teens, but Leslie, 28, was friends with one of Jesse's cousins. Jesse, 33, would call them "The Ladies" and watch as they rode horses up and down the street.
Jesse, however, was "from the wrong side of the tracks," he said. " I didn't necessarily make the best choices."
He declined to be specific but said those choices weren't anything criminal, just "choices I'm far from proud of," he added.
Nonetheless, Leslie was attracted to Jesse.
"I always had a very strong connection to him," Leslie said. " I always thought he was, for lack of a better word, my soul mate. But when he had his first child, I was like, 'Well, maybe not.'"
Jesse graduated from Beulah High School in 2001, then from Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh in 2005, the same year Leslie graduated from Smiths Station High School. She earned a bachelor's degree in early childhood education from Columbus State University in 2009 while working at Phenix Girard Bank. She taught pre-kindergarten at Forrest Road Elementary for one year, and she has taught kindergarten at Reese Road Leadership Academy since 2011. She earned a master's degree in early childhood education from CSU in 2013 and worked two summers at First Peoples Bank in Pine Mountain.
After a six-month externship in North Carolina, Jesse lived for three years in Hawaii, working at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant and helping to feed the crew from the "Lost" TV show.
Jesse returned to Smiths Station in 2008, met a woman and became a father. He worked two restaurant jobs in the local area to provide for his new family. But feeling pressure to earn more money, he dropped his dream of being a chef to take advantage of a more lucrative opportunity when his uncle, an oil consultant, pulled some strings to get him on a booming rig in a North Dakota shale field.
'Hell on Earth'
On Sept. 14, 2011, Jesse was working on an oil well in the Bakken Shale Field, south of Williston in McKenzie County, N.D., the western side of the state and bordering Montana.
As a chain hand on the rig, Jesse's job was to ensure the drill's cables were safe. While he greased the top drive that day, he heard an explosion. Across the prairie, less than a mile away, he saw the neighboring oil well was on fire. He dropped down to his rig's floor, and someone yelled, "There's men over there!"
Jesse ran to the driller's cabin and jumped into the back of the truck. He was one of three workers that responded to the explosion. When they arrived, he said, it looked like "hell on Earth, a huge inferno of fire."
They saw a coworker walking toward them "pretty much naked, except he's holding up his underwear," Jesse said. "From his front, he was blistered. He got a dazed look on his face and just walks past me, and I see that his whole entire back is charred."
Jesse helped place in the truck two men who were too injured to walk. While they headed toward the ambulance that was en route, Jesse tamped out spots on their skin that still were on fire.
About 30-45 minutes later, Jesse was back on his rig, expected to return to his 12-hour shift. But first, he had to scrub his coworkers' charred skin off his skin.
"Thirty-five other men just watched," Jesse said. "Me and one other soul did something. My boss, the other man I took over there with me, stayed in the truck. He never got out. The boss of the other men on that rig stood there and watched them being burned."
Only one of the four oil workers in the explosion survives today. One man died on the scene. Another died in the hospital. Then one of the two men Jesse helped rescue committed suicide on Jesse's birthday in 2013 after having his legs amputated.
"I used to question why I went through what I went through, but after this right here," he said as he gestured toward Sarah and Leslie, on the couch of her parents' Smiths Station home, "it all made sense. I would have fell apart. I wouldn't have been strong enough to give her support. We would have both been broken."
Jesse credits his faith in God for giving him the power to persevere -- and tend to Sarah's post-op infection.
"That was why He put me through that," he said. "He knew I needed to strengthen up a little bit for this incident right here. I mean, just cleaning that infection in her chest about made me throw up, but having seen a man charred to his bone, it's stomachable."
Reflecting on his heroism, that dark day in North Dakota enabled him to brighten his self-image back home.
"I thought I was just a ruffian, a bad boy," he said. "But this selflessness about what I did, I mean, I didn't care about my wellbeing; I only cared about theirs. The strength it took to do it, I realized I was a good man, versus this bad man that was worth nothing."
Still feeling the effects from the explosion and its aftermath, Jesse returned to Smiths Station and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He receives disability from Social Security and does odd jobs as a handy man. "And I need more," he added with a laugh.
'Man, I want to talk to her'
About 1½ years ago, after separating from his wife, Jesse joined Facebook to see photos of his sons. Meanwhile, Leslie was living in Columbus and also on the way to a divorce. One day while on Facebook, listed under "People You May Know," she saw Jesse's name and thought, "No, he's not on Facebook. He doesn't like technology."
On a lark, Leslie sent Jesse a friend request. Jesse thought, "Man, I want to talk to her. She was always so positive." And, contemplating suicide, he needed a major boost then.
"I was surprised she even was looking for me," he said. "I thought I was forgotten about."
Jesse messaged Leslie back, "I'm not in the best place in my life. I'm not sure you if you really want to be friends with me."
Leslie, however, figured this was exactly the chance she could show how much she cared for him.
"He told me he felt he wasn't good enough for me because I was a good girl and he was a bad boy," she said.
But they continued to message back and forth, and Jesse gradually trusted Leslie enough to agree to go on a date.
They went to Moffits Mill, a Lee County swimming hole, where they walked and talked along the creek. They spent the whole afternoon together. They covered the previous seven years, the pain of their failed marriages and the possibility of a healing relationship.
"It was the first time that anybody cared about my story," Jesse said. "She actually listened to me."
"It was very surreal," Leslie said. "I felt like I had been so shy before, and I here I am, just spilling my whole guts to him."
That night, Jesse cooked dinner for Leslie: chicken shoyu with rice and corn on the cob. Leslie enjoyed the chicken -- "It has definitely become my favorite -- but she was afraid to eat the corn.
"I didn't want it to get stuck in my teeth," she said with a laugh, then added softly, "No man had ever cooked for me."
And no woman ever had taken care of Jesse the way he needed.
When he was diagnosed with PTSD, he was prescribed seven medications, but he stopped taking them because "they turned me into a zombie."
He decided he had to wean himself off the drugs after watching his boys play and not being able to get off the couch to join them. He hasn't taken the medication for the past two years.
Jesse underwent professional counseling, but he insists Leslie has helped him more.
"She saved my sanity," he said.
"He's much, much better than he was this time last year," she said.
His PTSD can be triggered when he washes his hands or when he takes a shower, prompting him to relive the revulsion of his coworkers' charred skin. Instead of scolding Jesse for obsessively scouring his hands, Leslie matter-of-factly and silently turns down the hot water and turns up the cold water to bring him back to reality.
"She helps me identify my triggers so I wouldn't have my flashbacks so much," he said. "I don't even know how to deal with her selflessness. I'm used to a harsh world."
After a few more months of dating, Leslie said, "Let's just try this thing and see where it takes us.'"
It took them to Sarah.
As he held her in his arms during the Ledger-Enquirer's interview earlier this month, Jesse said, "I can't let her down. My boys gave me the drive to be a man, and she gives me the armor to be a man."
'Oh, my God'
Leslie had a mostly smooth pregnancy. Jesse cooked her plenty of healthy meals and snacks. But her intuition that their baby would be born early came to fruition after she felt Sarah turn in her womb on April 24.
"Oh, my God," she said. "That was worse than labor. It hurt so bad."
At 12:15 a.m. on May 8, Leslie woke up to go to the bathroom and realized her water had broken. After 23 hours of labor, Sarah was born that day at 11:25 p.m. at Midtown Medical Center -- six weeks early but "looking perfect," Jesse said.
While the nurses cleaned and checked Sarah, they noticed her anus was imperforate, and although Leslie couldn't see Sarah, she noticed the friend who was taking photos was crying clearly unhappy tears.
"I knew something was wrong," Leslie said, "and my heart sunk."
The doctor informed Leslie and Jesse about their baby's condition, and Sarah was taken away for emergency surgery in Atlanta.
"I was very confused and very scared for Sarah," Leslie said. "I never imagined something would be wrong with her, and I felt I couldn't protect her."
Before he left to follow the ambulance, Jesse made Leslie laugh when he told her, "It's going to be OK. Doctors can turn men into women and women into men all the time, so they can make her a butt (hole)."
Jesse, however, wasn't joking when he couldn't find Sarah after arriving at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston. He asked the receptionist, "What do you mean my daughter ain't here?"
Finally reunited with Sarah in the neonatal intensive care unit, Jesse made up a song -- a song that became her personalized lullaby:
"You're all that I want.
"You're all that I need.
"You're everything I ever asked for.
"And you're more than I could dream."
Then he fell asleep while his face was smushed against the glass of Sarah's incubator and his hands still were in the sanitary gloves attached to the incubator's holes.
Leslie was released the next day and joined Jesse and Sarah in the Atlanta hospital.
"It was a relief," she said, "but then the whole world came crashing down again."
'I felt it was my fault'
While prepping Sarah Jane for her anus surgery, doctors discovered her heart defects.
Leslie was overwhelmed with emotions.
"I was scared for my baby," she said. "I felt it was my fault that this was happening to her. I was confused and sad and mad. My mother held me, and I held Sarah Jane, as we cried together."
Jesse asked God, "Why do You keep throwing this stuff at me? When am I going to get my easy road? I felt like I was being punished for all my bad deeds back in the day."
On May 10, Sarah's anus surgery was successful. Leslie and Jesse had to wait 17 more days for Sarah to gain enough weight in the NICU to have her heart surgery. A friend, Allyson Carter, set up a GoFundMe.com account to raise money to help pay the medical expenses for Sarah and the travel expenses for Leslie and Jesse. As of Thursday, 26 donors contributed a total of $1,120 in two months.
"My wonderful Reese Road family sent a wonderful care package to us that contained snacks, baby clothes, toiletry items and gift cards to help us," Leslie said.
On May 27, Sarah's heart surgery was also successful. The next day, Jesse made her a paper butterfly, symbolizing hope for recovery. He had learned to make origami folds three days before she was born, as a focus exercise to ease his PTSD, and she ended up on the "butterfly floor" of the hospital.
While their daughter spent a week in the cardiac intensive care unit, Leslie and Jesse continued to stay in the Ronald McDonald House. They were so thankful for the accommodation, Jesse donated to the house approximately 200 DVD movies, 27 video games and a Wii system, as well as arts and crafts supplies. He also cleaned the carport and scrubbed the walls on the parking deck so they could be painted.
"I cannot pay you in money," he said, "but I can give you my labor."
Sarah progressed enough to move to a step-down unit, which had room for Leslie and Jesse to sleep in the hospital. But while they prepared to return home June 8, they received another blow: Sarah had an infection in her bloodstream.
Sarah finally was discharged and they arrived home June 25. Eight days later, however, they noticed Sarah's chest incision was red and purple.
Jesse feared he had let down his daughter.
"I saw it at the beginning before we were discharged, and I mentioned it, because I had seen something similar on my dog when I got her fixed," he said. "I said I know it's a bad analogy, but I've seen that before on my dog, and they had to go back and clean out the infection, and that looks just like it. And they were like, 'Oh, it's nothing. It's just an irritation from her chin.' I didn't fight for her enough."
They took Sarah to Midtown Medical Center, where she again was transferred to Egleston. After five days of treatments, Sarah was healthy enough to return home.
All of which means, in her first two months of life, Sarah was hospitalized for 50 days, including her first Mother's Day and Father's Day.
"She is a true fighter," Leslie said. "I do not think I could honestly do all of the things she had done and survived. God is the ultimate healer, and He has been holding Sarah Jane's hand and heart through all of this.
"We have made it through the support of our family and friends and each other. We have become closer as a family."
Through the setbacks, Jesse went from questioning God to praising Him. "God only puts on your shoulders what you can carry," he said. "I don't pray for a lighter load; I pray for broader shoulders."
Jesse offered another aphorism to summarize their journey: "In the classroom, they give you the lesson and then the test; but in life, they give you the test and then the lesson."
They will have a visual reminder hanging in Sarah's bedroom when Jesse finishes the mobile he is making to hang over her crib, a mobile full of those paper butterflies.
'Love is an ingredient'
A cardiologist will continue to see Sarah to ensure her repaired heart and aorta properly grow with her.
"The doctors say that she might get tired a little more easily than other kids that don't have heart issues, but, overall, they predict she will be able to live a normal life," Leslie said.
As for the ramifications of Sarah's anus surgery, Leslie said, "We have to use anal dialators until she is 1 years old to make sure the opening stays open. Right now, we dilate twice each day. She is a lot more constipated than children who do not have the anal issue, and, as she gets older, we can help that with foods and stool softeners. No particular special diet though."
The next step is a Thursday appointment with a speech pathologist to ensure Sarah is swallowing properly so she can get off the feeding tube she wears on her face. Sarah initially needed the feeding tube because her anus problem prevented her from taking anything by mouth. Now it's because her eating development was delayed and she needs feeding therapy to catch up.
"It's taped because she's a little Houdini and she'll pull it out," Leslie said.
An MRI next month will determine when Sarah must have surgery on her tethered spinal cord, a neurological disorder in which tissue attachments limit movement.
Leslie sighed as she reflected on what they've endured since Sarah's birth.
"It seems like it's been much-much longer than only two months," Leslie said. "I feel like it's been a lifetime."
They've learned they are a good team.
"When she was emotional and distraught, I was strong," Jesse said, "and when I was emotional and distraught, she was strong."
They also learned they shouldn't worry about what they can't control.
"You're not going to stop it," Jesse said, "so if you try to control it, that's just going to cause more turbulence."
Leslie is getting ready to return to teaching, and Jesse plans to continue to pursue being a chef. He hopes to open a restaurant that offers fine dining at a cheap price.
"Love is an ingredient," he said, "and I'm finally feeling love again."