Jeannie Joseph was working as a neonatal nurse at the SwedishAmerican hospital in Rockford, Illinois, when late at night, a harried teen came in holding an old boot box.
Inside was a small, 3-pound infant wearing a doll’s onesie, wrapped in a dish towel. His head was resting on some Gerber rice cereal packets, and he was placed into a shoebox lined with a SpongeBob Squarepants blanket.
The teen—the father of the baby—had crept out from the birth mother’s bedroom window with the box in tow to seek Safe Haven at a hospital eight miles away.
The baby had gone without warmth and nutrients since his birth, and, having been born 6 weeks premature, he was in dire condition. The medical team swooped in, treating the infant boy for hypothermia, dehydration, and an infection caused by having the umbilical cord cut with household scissors, according to Chicago Tribune.
Nurse Joseph remembers how terrified the teen looked, and how quickly they all had to work in order to keep the baby alive. They pressed the teen for as much detail as he could give without giving up the birth mother’s identity, so they could better understand what they were dealing with.
He sobbed for three hours, waiting to hear whether the baby would be okay.
At 94.7 degrees in body temperature, it was a long shot to save the baby. Dr. Martin Anyebuno, who had treated the baby that night, said, “This is one of the cases I won’t forget.” The infant would have to spend some time in intensive care, but he would live.
“There was someone looking down on him,” Anyebuno said.
Then it was time to make a decision.
Under Illinois’s Safe Haven law, passed in 2001, parents can anonymously surrender newborn infants to the state without facing any civil or criminal liability. All hospitals, fire stations, police stations, and emergency medical facilities must accept these babies and provide all necessary emergency treatments.
This was 2004, but it was the first time Joseph had seen a Safe Haven baby pass through the hospital.
She told the teen that if he did relinquish the baby, she would no longer be able to give him updates on the baby’s condition.
They had time to think it over before they made the final decision. Within 60 days, all parties had to agree to terminate parental rights of the relinquished newborn, and appoint a guardian or obtain consent for the adoption of the infant.
The next morning, a 15-year-old girl entered the hospital with her head down, wondering if she could see the nursery.
Cherish Coates just wanted to see the little baby before she relinquished him under the Safe Haven law.
She clearly loved the baby, and had had him delivered to the hospital along with a note, written in her best penmanship, of how she loved him but was not able to raise a baby, and hoped to be able to see him again. She named him Allen Corey.
Joseph told Chicago Tribune she remembers her heart swelling with sadness and compassion at the moment, putting her hand on Cherish’s shoulder.
“You know that you saved his life, right?” she told Cherish.
“I don’t want you to hang you head. You gave him the best chance you could.”
The girl looked up, and she felt hope.
“We just connected,” Joseph said.
The next day, Cherish returned to visit the baby and drop off breast milk. Then she returned the next day, and the next.
“I remember just looking at how beautiful he was, and how tiny he was. I had never held a baby before; I had never baby-sat or anything,” Cherish told Chicago Tribune.
“I remember being scared that I was going to break him.”
The premature baby battled meningitis and jaundice his first month of life, and Cherish visited him every day in the NICU.
She would get dropped off at school by her grandparents as usual, and then take a bus from near her school to the hospital. But she knew she couldn’t keep this up forever.
Joseph, Cherish remembers, always treated her as an equal and helped her consider all the options she had.
“[She] was not judgmental at all, just very nurturing and motherly,” Cherish said. “She encouraged me to tell my grandparents, but she didn’t talk to me like I was just some stupid teenager. She talked to me like I was a person.”
Cherish had fallen in love with the baby the first time she saw him, but the thought of telling her grandparents about him would bring her to tears every time.
Cherish herself had been born to a teenage mother—her own mother was 15 when she got pregnant, and she was raised by her mother’s parents. Her mother dropped out of school and moved out, but visited her weekly at Cherish’s grandparents’ home.
All her life, Cherish had been encouraged to finish high school and then college—she would be the first in her family to do so.
Breaking this news to her grandparents might just break their hearts.
Cherish had met the baby’s father when she was just 13, and for two years they were inseparable. When she suspected she was pregnant, both teens were scared and kept it a secret, crying over the news. She had been able to hide her entire pregnancy, sporting just a small bump, and she kept up her honor roll grades and part-time job at McDonalds without ever missing a class or shift. But then the baby came early—and painfully—and the parents acted in desperation.
With Joseph’s support, Cherish spoke to hospital officials about adoption routes, and considered an open adoption which would let her contact the baby’s adoptive parents.
Baby Allen was to be discharged after the one month, and Cherish finally worked up the nerve to tell her mother. She was too scared to speak a word after bringing her to the hospital to see Allen, but Joseph spoke up, explaining his condition and recovery.
Cherish’s mother immediately wanted to hold the baby, and when they broke the news to the grandparents, they were eager to hold Allen too.
Days later, Allen was discharged to go home to his family, and when Joseph gave Cherish a parting hug, she told her: “Just promise me you will stay in school.”
Neither Cherish’s mother nor grandparents were angry or upset with her, to her surprise, and all of them helped care for Allen so she could finish high school, and then enroll in Rock Valley College to become a certified nursing assistant.
“My grandparents nearly cried because they loved watching him,” Cherish said. “However, I did not want to place that burden on them.”
— Chicago Tribune (@chicagotribune) October 13, 2017
Today, Cherish Coates is a mother of three; her son Allen is in the eighth grade, and the family is thriving.
Because he was born premature and under dire conditions, Allen started off with some difficulties including a speech impediment, but with help and special education, he quickly caught up. By fourth grade, he was reading at a ninth grade level. He loves soccer, cross country running, and watching football.
Recently, Cherish thought back to the kind nurse who helped her along, and gave her the emotional courage to keep the baby she loved so much. After a search online, she found Joseph on Facebook and the two reconnected.
“I just wanted to let her know how much of an impression she made,” Cherish said. “It feels like such a blessing.”
Joseph said it just made her think, “Wow, every interaction you have with anybody is so important. To be able to be in this position where I’m part of someone’s story of their life—that’s such an honor.”
Because of her, Cherish, who now works as a law clerk, had been inspired to go into nursing and now enter law school, with hopes of becoming a mental health attorney.
“We will always be connected because we share this unique story,” Cherish said.