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July 19, 2019

Why I treasure Father’s Day: A dad’s appreciation

June 16, 2019
John Hollis, with his wife and son (Courtesy of John Hollis)

Father’s Day is the annual occasion when millions of Americans are officially recognized for their tireless efforts, but I take great joy in celebrating being a father each and every day. That’s because it is by far the greatest thing that has ever happened to me, and it nearly didn’t happen at all. So I have treasured this remarkable blessing all the more every moment since.

You see, nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead in fall 2004 as my wife Regina and I became more excited by the day to welcome our son, Davis, into the world. Regina, however, had inherited high blood pressure, and being pregnant hadn’t helped things. But she made sure to consistently monitor her pressure and had always been very meticulous about what she ate.

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Regina was just five months pregnant when we left the house one morning for what we believed to be another routine appointment with her gynecologist in downtown Atlanta. There was absolutely nothing at that time to make me think that my wife and I wouldn’t attend our first Lamaze class later that same evening.

Our nightmare began when the doctor returned with dire news that immediately altered our lives. Regina’s blood pressure had inexplicably skyrocketed, so much so that she was considered such a high risk of an imminent massive stroke or heart attack that she wasn’t even allowed to go home and was instead immediately placed in the hospital on mandatory bed rest.

To say that both Regina and I were stunned by this bombshell was an understatement. Our shock quickly turned to fear for the unborn baby we loved so dearly already. It had been just a few months earlier that we had moved into the new home we built from scratch with Davis specifically in mind. His room was already alive and ready, teeming with toys and stuffed teddy bears all awaiting his arrival.

I was instead suddenly facing the real possibility of losing my child, my wife or both. Or the horrific prospect of my having to make a life-or-death decision that would follow me the rest of my days. Family members soon rushed to be at our side, so I did what I could to keep up a strong façade.

If they only knew how scared I was at the chilling future potentially facing our family even if they did manage to survive. That’s because I was probably more cognizant than most about having a child born prematurely.

A sportswriter at the time for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I had previously covered an array of subjects while working for Time Magazine as an Atlanta-based correspondent. Among my first stories a few months earlier was an in-depth piece about the financial and emotional costs that came with premature babies. I had spoken with more than two dozen doctors and families from around the country who had endured these taxing ordeals. So, unlike my wife and the many concerned family members there to support us, I knew exactly what hurdles were potentially awaiting us.

I was well versed about the anguish of being a parent and watching your child struggle each day with physical ailments such as recurring respiratory problems that typically follow them for years. About the mounting financial pressures that came with making sure your child received the best possible medical care. About the heartfelt parental guilt felt by moms and dads who always wondered if there were something they might have done differently to have spared their child this fate.

Ignorance would have been bliss, but I wasn’t that lucky.

Regina had quickly been put on a powerful cocktail of five blood-pressure medications upon entering the hospital, but nothing seemed to really work and her pressure continued to climb.

She had been in the hospital for about three weeks when things really became precarious, testing both my strength and my faith like never before or since.

I spent every night at the hospital by my wife’s side, averaging maybe an hour of sleep per night. Any more was impossible on those hard and very cramped couches they supplied hospital rooms, not to mention with medical personnel constantly entering the room at the top of the hour every hour throughout the night to closely check Regina’s vital signs.

But things were different one night at about 4 a.m., when a team of doctors and nurses came bursting through the door with a medical crash cart in tow. I was exhausted by this point and had momentarily dozed off, only to immediately jump to my feet at the sound of the unexpected flurry of activity. Medical personnel had been monitoring Regina’s blood pressure from the nurse’s station in the hallway and had suddenly noticed a dangerous spike when they sprang into action. I could only watch helplessly from a few feet away for what seemed like an eternity as they feverishly tended to my wife, unsure as to whether I was losing my family in front of my very eyes.

To my eternal relief, the doctors and nurses stabilized her, averting disaster for the moment at least. A similar scenario played out again the following night and once more a few days later. Regina was so out of it from the heavy medications she was on that she even now doesn’t remember these horrible nights, but I can never forget.

I never felt so scared and utterly helpless as I did during that gut-wrenching period. So much so that for about an hour each evening I would make my way to the roof atop the hospital, where I was alone to cry and pray that things would be okay.

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It was the day following the third incident that the director of the hospital’s neo-natal unit stopped by our room to personally check on Regina and to see how we were all doing. I waited until I was alone with the doctor in the hallway to tell her that it was my opinion that Regina’s body just couldn’t physically take any more and that we desperately needed to deliver Davis or risk both their lives. She did her best to reassure me, but knowing the longer a baby could remain in the mother’s womb was always better was little consolation.

Hearing the unmistakable fear in my voice, the doctor calmly told me that she had something for me to see and asked that I come with her to the intensive care section of the neo-natal unit. I had finished washing my hands and climbing into sterile medical scrubs when the doctor guided me to the corner of the wing that was home to a pair of incubators housing premature babies who had been born at all of one pound just days earlier to high-risk teenage mothers.

Like most babies, they had dropped some weight immediately after birth and were weighing exactly eight ounces each when I stood in front of them in both tremendous awe and great reverence. They were tiny, smaller than a soda can, and hooked up to the high-tech incubators keeping them alive, but both were in relatively good shape. We knew by then that Davis was going to be small as well at two months premature, but, at an estimated three pounds, I suddenly began to allow myself to actually think that this entire nightmare just might turn out alright after all.

Davis John Hollis entered the world at 12:19 p.m. a few days later on Oct. 29, 2004, weighing 3 pounds, 11 ounces (bigger than we thought) and all of 15 inches in length. I held him in the palm of my hand and cried again following his birth, this time tears of unadulterated joy. Regina was thankfully okay as well and her blood pressure had dropped considerably.

It didn’t take Davis long to meet the four-pound standard necessary to be released home. He spent a little more than two weeks at the hospital, and we made sure that he was never alone for one moment while still there. Regina spent every moment of the day with our son, while I rushed over to the hospital after work each afternoon to assume the overnight duties.

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I was beyond exhausted at that point, but gazing into Davis’ bright brown eyes and watching him grab my finger as he peaked up at me from the incubator each night was all the strength I needed.

This fall will mark 15 years since those harrowing days and nights and I couldn’t have been more blessed. Davis is now a perfectly healthy 14-year-old with a voracious appetite for life, and I couldn’t be prouder of the fine young man he’s become.

I’m sure he’s wondered over the years why I hug him so often and have always been so very protective of him. That’s because I almost lost him before ever laying eyes on him.

Hollis is the author of “Sgt. Rodney M. Davis: The Making of a Hero” and the communications manager at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

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