Pictures for a lifetime
TFM is betting you can't read this St. Paul Pioneer-Press story without being deeply moved by the work photographer Heather Lombardo and the volunteer group Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep do.
One of the biggest regrets I have so far as my son Daniel is concerned, is the lack of photos my wife and I have. Daniel lived only 14.5 hours and his birth was a rushed event. But we had the opportunity to hold Daniel for six hours after he died. I asked my dear wife if I should get a camera to take photos and she said no. Now we both regret it, for we only have six photos to remember our son's short life.
Rick and Carrie Wilson knew their daughter was going to die terribly young, either at birth or shortly thereafter.
And the Wilsons knew they wanted Katie Marie's life — however brief — to be remembered. So they asked photographer Heather Lombardo to join them on their journey of grief and celebration.
Lombardo spent hours with the family the night Katie was born. She photographed Carrie with her hands cradled on her pregnant stomach and Katie when she first nursed. And she made portraits of the family at home before Katie died, two months later, of a rare chromosomal disorder.
The Wilsons treasure every day with Katie. And Lombardo's photos — 971 in all, taken and given at no charge — have brought them joy and peace. 'It's absolutely the best gift that we could have,' Carrie Wilson said. 'Having all that has been a godsend — a saving grace in this whole journey. The memories of Katie mean so much to us.'
It's a journey Lombardo has traveled with many families through a volunteer group called Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. She has photographed babies so tiny they could fit in teacups. She has brought sweaters made for teddy bears for infants to wear in photo shoots. And she made miniature diapers for one set of premature quadruplets; to photograph them bare, she said, would have been too shocking.
Her most heartbreaking shoot involved triplets who died within three weeks of one another. After losing the first two babies, the parents knew what they wanted when the third was removed from life support.
'They read books to her until she passed,' Lombardo said. 'I have a picture of the dad dancing with her as well. He wanted one last dance with his baby girl.
So I was deeply touched by this article and must thank Joanne Jacobs for putting it on her blog. The rest of the article is below and contact info for Heather and Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep are included. Keep a box of kleenex handy as you read the rest.
'I was bawling. Thank goodness for auto focus. I couldn't see through the lens. I so wanted them to leave the hospital with at least one baby. I stood out in the hall with the pastor and the nurse, and I just sobbed. I just sobbed.'
Lombardo owns Mariabella Photography in Oakdale and joined Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep in late 2005, after learning of it while working with a different organization of volunteer photographers. She now serves as the group's Twin Cities coordinator.
"At first, I said: 'No way. There is absolutely no way that I could ever do this,' " Lombardo said. But she was moved by the compassion of the photographers who help strangers "at their most vulnerable, intimate time of life."
She has photographed 52 babies and remembers each by name. Her first session was with a boy, Joshua, who lived for an hour.
"They've taught me how fragile life is," Lombardo said. "Every little life is so precious — no matter how long they are here with us."
Lombardo gives families black-and-white and color prints, a CD containing all of the photos she takes and a DVD slideshow. Everything is free.
"The photos I take are one of the last things that they have left of their babies," she said. "It's something for them to cherish."
She often has to work quickly so the images can be shown at a baby's funeral.
One mother went to Lombardo's studio to pick up her son's photos just after he died. She looked through the pictures, held them to her chest and sobbed, Lombardo said.
"She thanked me for giving her son back to her," Lombardo said. "I was speechless and cried with her."
Nurses and doctors tell parents-to-be about the organization as early in a troubled pregnancy as they can. But often, photographers are called in a rush after serious complications develop at birth.
In Carrie and Rick Wilson's case, Lombardo was contacted a few weeks before Katie's due date. At Carrie Wilson's first ultrasound, doctors had detected swelling in the back of the baby's neck — a possible indication of Down syndrome. Another ultrasound revealed Katie had a heart defect and possible brain damage.
Katie was diagnosed with trisomy 13, a rare chromosomal disorder that causes significant defects in major organs. Eight of 10 children with the disorder die within a month after they are born.
The diagnosis was shocking.
"When the doctors first said Down syndrome, we were devastated," Carrie Wilson said. "If only it had been Down syndrome, we would have been so happy."
Lombardo planned to take maternity photos at the couple's May Township home a week before Katie's mid-November due date. But on Nov. 2, doctors could barely detect Katie's heartbeat and decided to induce early.
The Wilsons called Lombardo at home. Could she meet them at United Hospital in St. Paul in a few hours?
At 8:45 p.m., camera in hand, Lombardo knocked softly on the door to Room 2340 and introduced herself. She wheeled in the camera bag she keeps packed in her car and quickly got to work. Within minutes, she had created a makeshift photo studio by pinning a black cloth to the room's privacy curtain.
Lombardo asked Carrie Wilson to place her left hand on the lower part of her bare belly. Her right hand went on a spot on the upper right where the skin was pulled so tight it was blue.
Wilson caressed her stomach slowly and reverently. The room quieted. Her face fell into exhaustion. Tears gleamed. She looked away from the camera. Rick moved next to her and touched her gently on the shoulder.
Carrie brushed her eyes with a quick motion, wiping away the tears before they fell, and held herself tight as if trying to keep Katie from spilling out.
"Will you take your cap off?" Lombardo asked Rick. "I know, I ask a lot."
Lombardo positioned the couple's hands around Carrie's bare belly so their fingers formed a heart around her navel. "Those are my favorite pictures — the ones with the hands on the belly," Carrie Wilson said.
An hour later, Lombardo had gotten the shots she needed. "I'm going to take the studio out and let the birthing begin," she said.
Katie was born late the next day, Nov. 3. At 5 pounds and 13 ounces, she had a strong heart and clear lungs — but her skull was not fully formed and she had 12 fingers. Her eyes did not open — not that night, not ever.
Lombardo arrived just before midnight and took hundreds of photos during a nearly two-hour session. She was in and out of the Wilsons' hospital room, making sure the family had time alone with their daughter.
"It's such a fine line, whether you're intruding or being helpful," Lombardo said.
At one point, she gently touched Carrie Wilson's leg and asked: "How are you doing?"
Carrie smiled and nodded that she was OK. Lombardo arranged the Wilsons on the hospital bed for a family portrait.
"Lean in a little more. There you go," Lombardo said. "I want to see her hair. I can barely see her face because her little fist is right up there. You are strong — Daddy's right! All right, little princess, we need to see your face. Oh, hello, little love. There you go."
A nurse came in and Lombardo stepped out — but Rick quickly called her back. Katie, unbelievably, was nursing.
"It was a very special moment," Lombardo said. "It's something the majority of mothers I've worked with have not been able to do. It was powerful because it showed Katie's strength, and it's just a very intimate moment between mother and baby. Rick was also in the photo, and they both had a very joyful, loving expression."
The session ended at 2:20 a.m. Lombardo congratulated Carrie Wilson one last time. "You get some rest," Lombardo said. "Take care."
Rick Wilson walked her to the hallway. "I don't care how much time we get," he told her. "We'll take every minute we can get with her and enjoy it all."
It was almost 3 a.m. by the time Lombardo pulled into the driveway of her Oakdale home.
Lombardo has two daughters — 13-year-old Amber and 4-year-old Emma. She and her husband, John, want another child — and she says her work will change how she feels during that pregnancy.
"I will definitely be more nervous and will be questioning things until the day we have the baby," she said. "Problems happen more than anyone realizes."
Lombardo's experiences with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep have convinced Amber — who is home-schooled — that she would like to be an obstetrician or obstetrics nurse. Lombardo says she doesn't shield the babies' problems from her daughter.
"It's life. This is life," Lombardo said. "Unfortunately, bad things happen. It happens every day, and it happens more than we know. I don't think I should shield her from that. This is reality. Hopefully, she'll never have to deal with it."
Lombardo doesn't flinch when faced with severe medical situations and is used to middle-of-the-night phone calls: The 33-year-old worked as a dispatcher for the Cottage Grove and Maplewood police departments from 1997 to 2002 before turning her passion for photography into her vocation, specializing in portraits of families and children.
Her experience serves her well during photo sessions.
"I think I just go on auto-pilot," Lombardo said. "You just do what you can to get through the session. I'm not shocked by a lot of what I see."
But Lombardo, a member of St. Agnes Catholic Church in St. Paul, says she has wrestled with faith: How do infant deaths serve God's plan?
"I am struggling. How could I not? It's hard," she said. "I do feel called to this organization. I did not seek it; it found me. My faith has been strengthened, but also after doing so many and seeing so much suffering, it has been questioned. It's a growing experience."
A shelf in Lombardo's home office is filled with thank-you notes from parents she has met through her work.
"These will be buried with me," Lombardo said. "This has become a very important part of my life. It's taught me to appreciate every moment of life and every second I have with my own children. I'm very thankful that I have healthy children. It's also made me strive toward being a better mom."
Each photo session has unique dynamics and emotions, and they might last half an hour — or half a day. Those that involve unexpected deaths can "obviously be much more emotional and, as the photographer, you must be more in tune to the situation," Lombardo said. "We try to not impose and give the family time, whatever the situation."
Many, such as the session with the Wilsons, are calm and loving.
"The Wilsons were very accepting of the diagnosis, and the mood was just peaceful when we were there at the hospital," Lombardo said. "I think they were excited to welcome Katie into the world and just honor and love her for whatever time they were blessed with."
Katie Marie Wilson died at home, in her mother's arms, on the morning of Dec. 28.
"When you enter a pregnancy, you think it's for a lifetime," Lombardo said. "Prior to Katie's birth, I know Carrie and Rick were first just praying for a live birth.
"Then minutes turned to hours, hours turned to days, and days turned to the weeks they had with her.
"Even still, it was not enough."FYI
For more information or to donate to Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, visit www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org, which also offers support for families grieving the loss of an infant.
Professional photographers are needed to volunteer with the two dozen who now work with the group. Musicians and songwriters who can donate music and songs for the group's DVD slideshows also are needed. Anyone interested should call Heather Lombardo at 651-329-5363 or e-mail her at email@example.com
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