by Dennis Dalman
When Elliette Schwegel turns 1 on Tuesday, July 19, it will be a day of jubilation and gratitude for all of those who love her, especially for her family who had so many hopes yet too many tears since Day 1.
Elliette is the daughter of Blake and Alicia Schwegel of St. Joseph. She has two sisters – Rylee, 16 (Blake’s daughter); and Huntley, 2.
“There were times when we didn’t think she’d make it to her first birthday,” Alicia said. “For her birthday, we’ll invite family, relatives, close friends. It will be such a happy birthday.”
When Alicia was pregnant with Elliette, an ultrasound seemed to detect traces of what might be a congenital heart defect. Loved ones hoped and prayed that it would not be so.
On July 14 of last year, Alicia was transported via ambulance to Abbott Hospital where the birth had to be induced. From there, mother and baby were sent directly to Minneapolis. For 34 days, with her mother by her side, the baby endured countless scans, X-rays, gastronomy tubes. Everybody’s worst fears were confirmed. Even the names of the medical problems struck fright and terror into Elliette’s parents. She had what’s known as partial anomalous pulmonary venous return, a coarctation (narrowing of the heart’s aorta), a dilation of the right side of her heart, and a rare condition known as an interrupted inferior vena cava. The sheer complexity of the inter-related issues was staggering: group B strep, digestive problems, dangerous spikes in fever, meningitis and more.
During the pregnancy, other terrors mounted: gestational diabetes, deviated atrial septum, possible obstruction of the aortic arch, elevated blood pressure. The testing continued pre-birth and post-birth. There seemed to be no end to the problems and problems within problems.
After the agonizing, exhausting roller-coaster of emotions, prayers, hopes, fears and tears, it eventually became apparent that Elliette would require open-heart surgery.
As the fears mounted, so did medical expenses, although thankfully insurance covered most of it. To this date, the care and treatments cost well over $4 million, Alicia noted.
A hospital care team worked out an intricate plan, carefully weighing options. More trips from home to the hospital, more tests, more tube insertions, more problems, more setbacks, more terrible worries.
Finally, on March 26, 2022 when Elliette was nine months old, the ultimate terror and hope happened when doctors did open-heart surgery on the baby.
The surgery was a spectacular success, the doctors assured Alicia, who was overjoyed at the news. There were setbacks and some more worries, but antibiotics and various treatments alleviated the other issues. At times, the baby suffered and was visibly uncomfortable.
In a journal she kept, Alicia wrote:
“She was having a difficult time for a bit, but she is proving she truly is a fighter.”
“Continued prayers she responds to these treatments and finds comfort. This Mama is tired emotionally, mentally and physically.”
“I can’t thank everyone enough for the kind words, prayers and donations. These last few months have been some of the most difficult I have ever endured in my life as a mother, as a woman, as a person. The support I have felt is truly remarkable.”
“Not much to report! Yay! Back to her normal self! Busy, busy, busy!! We got a high chair, purees and some toys to keep her busy.”
The last entry in the journal is this triumphant shout: “April 2, 2022: Discharged home!”
“She’s a great baby,” Alicia said, “easy to place, easy-going temperament. She’d been rushed to the hospital for so many problems. Now she smiles and laughs a lot.”
Alicia admits it was a very rough journey.
“If it weren’t for Blake (husband), I’d have been an absolute wreck. He kept me grounded. He kept reminding me we could not get all the answers right away. He kept me somewhat level-headed through all of it.”
She also has high praise for others – those who babysat for Huntley during the long ordeal so she could be with Elliette. Without that help from them, my sisters and our parents, we couldn’t have made it. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever endured.”
One of her happiest memories followed an agony of worries as she waited in the hospital, wondering and worrying, while Elliette was undergoing the seven-hour-long surgery. An hour after the surgery, a doctor said it went very well and that she could finally see her. She will never forget the surge of bliss she felt as she walked up to Elliette’s recovery bed and gave her a long, sweet, tender kiss.
Alicia has hard-earned advice for people going through struggles, worries and emotional turmoil:
“Day by day is how to do it. Do not – do NOT – take any day for granted.”
Alicia served for 17 years in the Minnesota National Guard and was a registered nurse for BioLife for about a year until she became a stay-at-home mom. Blake is the owner of Schwegel’s Landscaping & Tree Service in St. Joseph for 12 years. He also served on the St. Cloud Fire Department as a firefighter for 13 years.
Alicia’s first-birthday wish for Elliette is that “she will never have known all of that happened, that she will have a normal happy life.”
Happy Birthday, Elliette Schwegel!