Charles Rowland comes bouncing up to the front door, peering out inquisitively before breaking into a broad smile. “Are you the reporter?” he asks. At 6 years of age, his dark eyes the color of river pebbles, Charles sparkles with mischief as he zings from one end of the den to the other, showing off his latest books and toys.
He is chatty, and like many only children, rather grown up around adults. He becomes more animated when he talks about things he loves, like Thomas the Tank Engine. It is only when he walks to his bedroom that his limp becomes apparent, a reminder of the rocky road this little boy has walked to get where he is today.
Charles and Virginia Rowland didn’t rush into parenthood. In fact, they didn’t meet until they were in their mid-30s. Charles was busy as a financial planner with LPL Financial; Virginia managed a business office at Ridgeway Business Center. Yet their romance quickly took root, and led to talk of building a life together. Initially, the couple spent time doing things they loved, tending orchids in their greenhouse, traveling, discovering each other. Several years later, when they learned they’d soon be welcoming twins, Michael was dumbfounded.
“It caught me off-guard. I literally couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights. Having twins never entered my mind,” he says. Soon, he was fretting about the size of their house and college tuition and reading everything he could on twins. The future seemed bright.
The roller coaster ride begins
But Virginia’s pregnancy proved challenging. Her due date had been April 2005. Instead, the twins arrived several months early, January 6th, despite more than three months of bed rest. Carrying had been difficult enough and now the twins arrived incredibly small. Charles weighed just 1 pound, 13 ounces, his brother James, 2 pounds, 2 ounces.
“The thrill a mother has after birth I didn’t have because I was afraid,” Virginia says, reflecting back on the first weeks following the arrival of their boys, Charles and James. “Your emotions are all over the map. There is joy. I was joyful that we had two baby boys, but I was afraid of what would happen. I felt joy, but every feeling in between, too.”
The staff at Baptist Memorial Hospital’s neonatal unit (NICU) proved invaluable but they were measured, knowing all too well the many things that can happen during the first months of life. “When we got home [after the birth], we thought it would be okay,” Michael continues. “But the next day, the high-risk doctor came by and said both of the babies were really sick and one or both might not make it."
The news was devastating and changed everything.
"We went from the outcome being good to being wretchedly terrible," continues Michael. "It was like someone had lifted the rose-colored lens and you see two little beings struggling like hell to make it to the next minute or two.” The struggle proved too great for Charlie’s twin, James. He died just days later of a brain hemorrhage. The couples sense of loss was immense. Yet they quickly realized they couldn’t give in to their grief — Charles needed them.
Fighting for life
Their son’s prognosis changed from hour to hour during those first weeks. Parents who have had preemies in the NICU know the emotional roller coaster ride it can be. Nothing prepares you for the daunting medical whirl that becomes your life as your newborn fights for survival.
“You can’t get caught up in the minute-by-minute minutiae,” acknowledges Michael, “because if you do, you lose sight of the big picture.” Instead, they focused on small victories, signs that their son was improving. Michael’s approach to parenting is about fact-finding so he can weigh risk, Virginia’s is more faith-based, believing everything will work out.
“Sometimes my approach drove him crazy,” she says with a laugh. But they provided balance for each other. Michael admits, being older parents (Virginia was 42 and Michael 44 when Charles was born) made coping with the invariable ups and downs easier.
“We were more seasoned,” says Michael. “I don’t know what we would have done if we’d been younger.” Then, just 10 days after his birth, Charles suffered a serious brain hemorrhage. It was the same condition that had claimed James’ life. Once again, the couple’s confidence was shaken. Charles had been making steady progress, and now, a life-threatening setback.
“Charles had already struggled and he was getting a little stronger and now you throw that in the mix and you think you’ve got a child who will have major disabilities, but you just don’t know,” says Michael. Virginia shakes her head, saying, “We’d get this close [to a crisis] that wasn’t supposed to resolve and then, my Charles...” her voice trails before Michael continues, “He’d push things to the edge but then it would be, ‘Never mind.’ ”
Defying the odds
And so it continued to be with their son. Every time the prognosis seemed bleak, Charles defied the odds.
With the help of steroids, he was soon taken off the ventilator. He remained in the NICU for several months while Virginia pumped each day to make sure he had her breast milk. The staff became friends as milestones were reached: Holding Charles at seven weeks, bathing him for the first time at eight weeks. Once their baby was finally released from the hospital, the nursing staff threw them a shower,
“They even took us to Babies 'R Us to shop,” remembers Virginia. Because of Charles, friendships had been forged. But prematurity left Charles with cerebral palsy and near-sightedness. He received therapy through Tennessee Early Intervention Services, which helped with his development. And most recently, surgery with a specialist in St. Louis alleviated most of the spasticity in his legs, enabling him to better walk and run. As Michael describes it all, Charles listens intently before saying, “I didn’t know you were a doctor, Daddy.”
Virginia brings out a few mementos from those NICU days: a tiny purple pacifier, a diaper the size of a smart phone, a blood pressure cuff that fits around her pinky. She is matter of fact, and yet wistful, too. The momentos stay tucked away in her dresser drawer, a reminder of just how far they’ve traveled together.
Keeping the faith
To see Charles today, a Perky Penguin in his kindergarten class at Grace St. Luke’s Episcopal School, you wouldn’t know the journey he’s been on. Instead, you would see an exuberant little boy, filled with life and eager to greet each day with a smile. Virginia and Michael too, have learned what all parents do: That having children requires sacrifice and courage and faith.
“You learn what you’ll bear for another person. It’s amazing,” says Michael.
“There’s something special with Charles," adds Virginia, "I don’t know what but there’s something special planned for him.”