Volunteer Highlight: Karen Zerr

By: Samantha Brown

As Karen settles into the chair across from me, she looks around. It’s obvious that she is familiar with these walls, this conference table, and the hum of a work day around the Share office. Karen is a veteran of Share. She has been volunteering and serving this mission for 20 years. Like many, it’s a mission that she holds dear; one that serves as a gentle reminder of the hole in her heart still aching nearly fifty years later for her son, Jeffrey.  She says, “The hole in your heart never goes away, you just learn how to deal with it.”

That’s exactly what Karen has done by dedicating thousands of hours over the years to spread the word about Share and serve other families who have suffered the tragic loss of a baby.

Karen shares her story in these words, “My husband was in the Navy going through the Aviation Training Command to be a jet pilot, and we had moved to Kingsville, Texas in October 1968. We moved about every 6 months in those days. I was about 6 weeks pregnant with our third child; our other two children were 3 and 1. We settled into our rental home, and Jack continued with flight training. My pregnancy proceeded in a normal fashion until I went into premature labor on March 16, 1969. I couldn’t believe it! This wasn’t supposed to be happening. With my nursing background, I knew if the baby was born at 28 weeks he/she would not survive. It was a Sunday morning so I couldn’t just go see my doctor, and in my mind I decided labor was not happening. However, by that evening, even my mind was convinced I was in labor and I needed to go to the hospital. I worried about what to do with our two young children as we had no family living in the vicinity to help out. I did know the neighbors very casually, but would they be willing to take the children at 9:00 at night for who knows how long? They weren’t even Navy and had no children of their own, so would they understand?  Fortunately, they were very willing to help for as long as necessary and we met our doctor at the ER. He examined me and determined that I was in active labor and there was no way to stop it. I was devastated!!!  No, no, this couldn’t be happening – but it was. I was sobbing as they put me on the elevator to take me to surgery, and the next thing I knew I was being given a spinal anesthetic to prepare me for a C-section. I was awake when Jeffrey was born, and I heard him cry. It wasn’t a lusty cry, but he was alive and crying, which gave me a glimmer of hope. I never saw him because they rushed him off to the nursery. There was no NICU back then, but a pediatrician was there waiting. They put me to sleep to close me up.

I woke up in the recovery room and then was taken to a private room on the OB floor. I wanted to know about our baby, and I wanted to see him. Unfortunately, this was not possible. He couldn’t come to me because he was fighting for his life. I couldn’t go to him because in that hospital at that time, you had to lie flat for 24 hours after having a spinal anesthetic – no exceptions.  Jeffrey only lived for 12 hours, and in that time frame, we were powerless to do anything but pray. The Catholic Navy Chaplain came to see us to get information for Jeffrey’s baptism, and he was very uncomfortable. He did not make me feel one bit better, and he never came back to see me. In his defense, he didn’t have a clue how to handle the situation.

So, there we were. We were left wondering, “How do we bury our precious baby boy?”

We certainly didn’t want him buried in Kingsville. I fervently hoped that once Jack finished with flight training, I would never see Kingsville again.  What was a young Navy family to do? By then, my parents were on their way driving from St. Charles, MO to help us out, so they couldn’t make funeral arrangements. Jack called his parents and they were more than willing to help us. Jeffrey’s tiny little body was put on a train all by himself and shipped back home to his waiting grandparents for burial.

I never saw Jeffrey. I never held him in my arms.

We didn’t even think of taking pictures because that was considered bizarre back then. There was nothing in place to help us grieve and no one to guide us through this horrible, life-altering event. Basically, we were told to just get over it and move on. Well, that doesn’t happen. I still have a hole in my heart and I always will. Yes, I finally got to where I accepted our loss but I will never “get over it.”

We, literally, did move on. By April 1969 we were on our way driving to Jack’s new duty station in Jacksonville, Florida, less than 4 weeks after major surgery and losing our baby boy. I had my 6 week check-up with a totally new doctor who had nothing more to offer in the way of resolving grief than anyone else had.

Fast forward to 1998. My husband had retired from the Navy after 36 years, and we moved back to St. Charles, MO where he worked for Boeing. One day, out of the clear blue, I thought about Jeffrey and wondered what he was wearing when he was buried. That thought quickly progressed to wondering, “Was he wearing anything?” Unfortunately, that question won’t be answered in this lifetime because both of my in-laws are dead. So, I decided to find out what premature babies are buried in. I called the local funeral home and was told that he was at least wrapped in a blanket.  My heart lurched! He probably didn’t have any clothes on, only a blanket. Fortunately, I was also referred to Share.  I had never heard of it, but I called, talked with the former Share director, Cathi Lammert, and told her my story.

“This is a club you never want to belong to, but there are some very nice people who do.”

I felt really silly after all these years, but my grief had never been resolved. I told her I might be interested in doing some sewing for Share. She told me there was definitely a need for burial clothing as you can’t go to the mall and buy teeny tiny baby clothing. So, long story short, I have found healing in sewing burial clothing and crocheting blankets for babies from teeny tiny miscarried babies up to babies of full term birth weight. I do it to honor and remember our Jeffrey, and it is a joyful thing for me to do. And I do it so no other mother has to worry if there is clothing for her precious baby to wear. Dressing a baby makes that baby so real. He/she is something to celebrate, not forget about and move on. Share has helped me all these years later as we mothers never forget our babies.

Share’s mission spans the years.

The garments that Karen has sewn for these babies have impacted families in immeasurable ways. “I pray over each piece as I sew or crochet, knowing that each family who receives it will be feeling such devastation,” she remarks.

With Jeffery as her motivation, her volunteer resume expanded from sewing to include many other responsibilities. Karen was an integral part of the planning committee for Share’s annual Angel Ball fundraising gala for several years, and since then she hasn’t missed one! She recalls this as one of her fondest memories, saying, “There was so much preparation that went into planning and then setting up for each event. It was wonderful to see the fruits of our labor when the event was successfully completed. We felt so appreciated by Cathi Lammert, former Share director, when she would secretively take ‘thank you’ gifts to our homes while we were busy setting up.”

This act of kindness affirms Karen’s declaration that the people are her favorite part of Share. She says, “Every person I have met, whether an employee of Share or a family being cared for, has made this organization dear to my heart. This is a club you never want to belong to, but there are some very nice people who do.”

We are indebted to volunteers, like Karen, who have given so freely of their time and resources to further this mission. Even the most elaborate “thanks” seems to fall short, but we’ll continue to offer it with every opportunity.

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