Credit unions’ longtime financial support of Credit Unions for Kids enables Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) Hospitals to serve thousands of patients annually, producing heartwarming stories that resonate throughout the movement.
Sometimes, that connection transforms from professional to intensely personal.
Such was the case for three credit union professionals who suddenly found themselves and their close family members on the receiving end of CMN Hospitals’ renowned caregiving.
A ‘preemie’ success story
The first five months of Melanie Stillwell’s second pregnancy in 1998 were uneventful—evoking relief for the CEO of Western Cooperative Credit Union in Williston, N.D., whose first baby had been stillborn.
But then high blood pressure forced her into bed rest for more than a month, and an ultrasound revealed the baby wasn’t growing as quickly as he should. At 28 weeks pregnant, Melanie and her husband Bill traveled to Fargo to seek specialized care at Sanford Health Medical Center, a CMN Hospital.
When they arrived, Melanie received steroid shots to boost the baby’s lung development before being scheduled for a cesarean delivery. Ryland Stillwell weighed just a pound and a half when he was born prematurely, and spent his first 79 days in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
“The doctors and nurses always took the time to explain any treatment, advances, setbacks, and tests,” Melanie says. “They listened and answered our questions.”
Ryland overcame another serious health scare—a complete blockage of his heart—at age 2, and today he’s a healthy teenager with no restrictions on his activities. The high-school sophomore enjoys playing competitive sports, riding his dirt bike, and spending time at his grandparents’ farm.
“You would never know he started out at 1 pound, 8½ ounces,” Melanie says. “There’s no indication he was a ‘preemie.’”
A three-month rollercoaster
On June 4, 2004, Paul Gentile and his family finally walked out of Arnold Palmer Hospital in Orlando.
Initially, Gentile, president/CEO of the Cooperative Credit Union Association, and his wife, Janet, had circled June 4 as her due date for their triplets.
Instead, that day marked the culmination of a three-month rollercoaster of emotions: the loss of their daughter, Gianna, to a birth defect, and a successful battle for survival by their two boys, Joseph and Christopher.
Eleven years have passed, but Gentile will never forget the grace and expertise of the CMN Hospitals staff that guided them through that trying time.
“The skill, support, and care we received in that wonderful place called Arnold Palmer Hospital in Orlando awes me to this day,” he says.
At 28 weeks of pregnancy, Janet developed preeclampsia with HELLP syndrome—a potentially life-threatening, hypertensive condition affecting upwards of 8% of pregnant women—and doctors induced delivery. The triplets were born on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, and Janet had to overcome severe complications from childbirth.
All premature babies face an uphill climb, but Gianna’s was particularly challenging. She had congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a condition that creates serious lung problems because abdominal organs can travel into the chest cavity through a hole in the diaphragm.
Combined with her low birth weight—just 1 pound, 12 ounces—Gianna faced long odds for survival. Yet, under around-the-clock care from Arnold Palmer’s staff, she fought valiantly for nearly three weeks before she passed away.
“Some may read this as a sad story, as our baby girl Gianna didn’t make it. It’s not a sad story,” he says.
“Expected to be here briefly, she filled our hearts with hope and joy for 19 days. We will never forget her and we can see her in our boys every day.”
The Gentiles soon learned that Christopher needed to undergo a procedure called a PDA ligation to close a vessel in his heart. A scar on his back serves as a reminder of the surgeons’ flawless work.
Meanwhile, Joseph underwent casting and eventually surgery to correct his bilateral club feet—another successful procedure.
Today, the boys are healthy, rambunctious 11-year-olds, living evidence of the amazing work performed at CMN Hospitals.
“We don’t love our kids more than any other parent loves theirs, but the journey they put us through to get here makes us so thankful for what we have,” Gentile says.
‘I woke up out of a fog’
Five days after giving birth to her son, Kristi Rysdam held Raylen for the first time.
In between, she’d suffered through a stroke, an emergency cesarean section, and a brain hemorrhage that required surgery, sending her into a coma.
“It was like I woke up out of a fog. I had to start putting the pieces together,” says Kristi, a marketing specialist who has worked 17 years at $1.8 billion asset Oregon Community Credit Union in Springfield. “I was so happy to see him.”
Kristi encountered vision problems at 28 weeks, and her obstetrician determined she had developed preeclampsia and admitted her to the hospital.
Kristi experienced a seizure, then a stroke and brain hemorrhage—at which point doctors delivered her son by cesarean section before taking her into brain surgery. More than half of stroke victims in this situation don’t survive, and only 10% make a full recovery.
Her husband, Josh, had to sit in the waiting room as two lives hung in the balance—his wife’s and his son’s. Kristi spent three days in a coma, with no sign of recovery.
“You can’t explain that emotion,” Josh says. “You’re basically watching your wife fall apart in front of you. And then all of the sudden, she starts coming around.”
As Kristi began her recovery, Raylen, born weighing 1 pound, 15 ounces, progressed quickly. Within a month, he was breathing completely on his own, and he was discharged from the hospital after 64 days.
“The staff was great—they were really compassionate,” Kristi says. “I remember coming into the NICU and always seeing somebody cuddling Raylen and holding him. The nurses always said, ‘Oh, darn, your parents are here!’ I thought, ‘They love my baby as much as I do,’ and that meant a lot to me.”
Kristi’s story inspired a Credit Unions for Kids fund-raiser that generated $132,000 for PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center, and she and Raylen remain active ambassadors for CMN Hospitals.