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Patrick, Sarah and Charlie’s Story

The New Running Partner

“Take heart, I have overcome the world.”

Those words, spoken more than two thousand years ago by one man to a people trapped in pain and darkness, was a message of hope and truth, saying, “You don’t have to be afraid and alone. I am here with you in your pain and darkness, and I will bring you through it.”

In 2017, Sarah and Patrick Erwin hung that verse up in a room in their house — a room that had become a nursery. It hadn’t been long since Sarah had found out she was pregnant with their first child, and it hadn’t taken long for the nursery to come together — a room perfect for their little boy, who would be named after his father, Patrick Charles Erwin.

Charlie for short.

Both avid runners, Sarah and Patrick had announced their big news to their families by separately presenting the soon-to-be-grandparents with a little shoe box. Inside the box were two little New Balance baby shoes that said, “Our new running partner starting the race in 2017.”

Needless to say, the big news was greeted with instant excitement. Once all of the family members had been told, Sarah and Patrick began spreading the word. They told their closest friends, their small group from church, their old college buddies, their workmates and on and on, the anticipation building with every announcement. Sarah and Patrick started dreaming with their sister and brother-in-law, Kate and Christian, who were also expecting their first child, about their kids growing up together and obviously becoming best friends.

As the nursery came together, the words “Take heart, I have overcome the world” became the perfect theme for Charlie’s nursery. That particular scripture verse speaks not only of Christ’s all-powerful love and strength, but also of fearless adventures in a world no longer to be feared. So, they made sure Charlie would be brought up surrounded by that same sense of fearless adventure. Paintings done by Sarah’s sister of faraway countries and exotic animals hung on the nursery walls, an airplane-shaped rocking chair sat in the corner, and a pair of little moccasins stood next to his little New Balance shoes.   

As the weeks ticked by for Sarah and Patrick, their calendar started filling up with check-up appointments and ultrasound screenings, under the direction of their nurse practitioner, Lisa, who formed a close bond with the couple as they inched nearer and nearer to the delivery date. As they neared thirty weeks, each check-in ended with a good report. No red flags. Nothing to be concerned about. Everything looked good.

An Indescribable Grief

As Sarah neared her 30-week mark, she and Patrick went in for a Monday morning check-up with another of their doctors, Dr. Nathan L. In the days leading up to that appointment, Sarah had felt an inexplicable heartache, one she couldn’t name or reason out. It had clung to her ever since a previous appointment the week before, and she couldn’t shake loose of it. She had felt Charlie moving over the weekend, and told herself everything would be fine, it was all just in her head.  

During their Monday morning appointment, Dr. L tried to perform a doppler test, but had trouble finding Charlie’s heartbeat. He told Sarah and Patrick it was most likely due to interference from a fluid build-up in Sarah’s womb, and that he wanted to give an ultrasound test to get a better read. Sarah and Patrick kept their spirits up, staying positive as Dr. L and his staff shuffled them into a new room and performed the ultrasound test.

Sarah remembers Dr. L’s face as they continued searching, but could still not find a heartbeat. Eventually, he told them that Charlie had passed away.

Shock and confusion were Sarah and Patrick’s first emotions. How could their baby boy, who had been so healthy and strong these last thirty weeks, who Sarah had felt moving in her womb the day before, pass away so suddenly? How could it happen so fast? This was just supposed to be a check-up.

Why was this happening? Why was this happening to them?

To give them a chance to process everything in private, Dr. L moved Sarah and Patrick into a private room. Once there, Patrick turned to Sarah and said, “This is not your fault.”

In the midst of such a sudden and terrible darkness, those were the exact words Sarah needed to hear. She needed to know her husband didn’t blame her for Charlie’s passing. She needed to know she didn’t need to blame herself. As a mother, her mind had already started chasing those dark thoughts, but Patrick’s words kept her from spiraling after them. Those words helped them face the sudden surge of emotions that inevitably came.

Sarah and Patrick decided to start the inducement process to deliver Charlie that night, and to start the unimaginable task of calling their family members. Fortunately, Sarah and Patrick come from strong families. The sort of families who band together in the face of extreme grief.

An Unimaginable Strength

That Monday night, Sarah was induced, and their families flooded the hospital. They surrounded Sarah and Patrick, bringing strength, love, prayer and peace. And there were others who came with their own sort of strength — the kind Sarah and Patrick desperately needed.

Dr. L, who had lost two babies of his own years before, connected Patrick and Sarah to one of Sarah’s high school friends, Klayton, and his wife who had lost their baby girl Maddie Jane two years earlier. Klayton came to the hospital at once when heard. He knew the path they were hurtling down, and he walked it with them every step of the way.

More and more visitors came to the hospital. Ministers from their church. Friends from across the state. Supporters and encouragers who came with hot meals and powerful prayers. Patrick and Sarah’s family continued to flood in, so much so that the nurses opened up an empty room just for them.

Patrick, meanwhile, immediately went into dad mode — refusing to leave Sarah’s side and managing all of the information coming in from doctors and nurses, who were just as profoundly compassionate and supportive as their families and friends. Dr. L and Lisa both came to check in on Sarah, while all of their delivery nurses acted as their advocates and warriors — helping them with their every need. Sarah and Patrick still to this day cannot say enough good things about the staff of Little Rock’s Baptist Hospital.

Charlie eventually came 36 hours after Sarah’s inducement. He arrived on Wednesday, July 19, 2017 — 17 inches long, 3 pounds and .05 ounces. Though he was still and silent, he was every bit as perfect and beautiful as they had always dreamed.

Sarah had always planned on letting her friend Meredith take Charlie’s baby photos — and Meredith was there with her in hospital to see the job done. Her photos beautifully captured the surreal and unexpected peace that came with Charlie’s birth. There were still tears and shattered hearts and unanswered questions, but beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Holy Spirit was in that hospital room whispering, “Take heart, I have overcome the world.”

What Comes After

Sarah and Patrick decided to cremate Charlie, unsure of where their future would take them and never wanting to be far from him. They decided against a funeral, and instead chose to have a memorial service — something simple, something short, something uplifting.

But first they needed to be alone, to grieve in their own home, and allow themselves to be heartbroken, to be sorrowful, to be angry. They still had no answers on why Charlie had passed. The doctors could find no reason in his charts, nothing could be found in genetic testing, and the autopsy had come back inconclusive.

But when they came home from the hospital, they found blessing after blessing waiting for them. They found a refrigerator stuffed full of meals ready to be eaten. Their kitchen counters stood covered in weeks upon weeks of burgeoning grocery stacks. Their house was clean and spotless, save for the piles of near-countless gifts ranging from cash donations from work to bouquets of flowers sent by friends.  

Even in such a terrible darkness, they found such incredible blessings.

Sarah and Patrick held Charlie’s memorial service on July 29th by the lake. Their closest family and friends came, and Sarah and Patrick finally got to meet their new, weeks-old niece Arden and share in her parents’ joy. During the service, they sang the old, never-failing hymns, “Sing the Wondrous Love of Jesus” and “It Is Well With My Soul.” Sarah’s uncle also played “Yours” by Stephen Curtis Chapman, while two friends said a prayer, and Patrick shared Charlie’s story.

Starting Charlie’s Hands and Feet

In the weeks that followed, Sarah and Patrick confronted their grief with seven simple yet incredibly daunting words: “There has to be good in this.”

So they decided to count their blessings.

They started with their family — that amazing rock of support that never let them down for a moment — and quickly added their friends, their doctors, their nurses, their ministers, their church small groups, their gifts, their meals, their flowers, their laughter — the list just kept going on and on. Quickly they began to realize how truly blessed they had been, and they soon began wondering, “How do we carry these blessings on to others?”

A short time later, Patrick was out for a run on the nature paths around their house. It was the kind of run where he didn’t need music, and didn’t want music. It hadn’t been a good day — rather one of those days where the unimaginable weight of grief was weighing particularly heavy on his shoulders. As he ran, processing that weight on his shoulders, he finally broke down and fell to the ground — and started talking to God.

In such times, it’s okay to scream and cry and rage at God. He’s God. He can handle your pain. He wants to handle your pain. He doesn’t want to be shut off from your grief. He wants to be in the thick of it with you, supporting you.

 So Patrick told God about his pain. He asked why Charlie had to be taken, why their family had to be dealt this horrible loss, what was the purpose in all of this. But in the middle of it all Patrick heard God say, in his silent but ever-so-understandable voice, “Think about how I carried you through the shadow of the valley of death.”

“But why us, God?” Patrick could only ask.

“Because you’re supposed to go out into the nations. Because you’re supposed to help those who have been through what you’ve been through.”

When Patrick returned from his run, he found Sarah in their bedroom and announced, “I think God wants us to minister to others.”

He quickly explained his idea: Perhaps the good in this was they could become the blessings they had received — they could be the support for parents who had lost their babies. This could be the way they became “the hands and feet” of Jesus.

After getting over the initial shock of the whole idea, Sarah was all in.

It all came together quickly — and rather divinely — after that. As an accountant who specializes in nonprofits, Patrick knew how to get the paperwork started to develop and launch the organization. Sarah’s mother taught college-level nonprofit finance, and so helped the couple navigate the new requirements. As a lawyer, Sarah’s father helped them decipher through all of the legalese they needed to weed through. And Patrick’s parents became the organization’s most vocal and exuberant cheerleaders, helping generate donations almost immediately.  

When it came time to submit the necessary paperwork to designate their organization as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit — a process which can take up to a year — they received their credentials in just two weeks. Naming it Charlie’s Hands and Feet, Patrick and Sarah started the organization with a mission to help families who have lost a baby either through miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death. Their aim was, and still is, to show and spread the light of Jesus to these families who were caught in one of the darkest times of life. Following the example of Christ, they knew they needed to meet these families’ physical needs first. So whether by providing meals, financial support, or covering a hotel room for family to stay in, Charlie’s Hands and Feet began serving families based on their needs. After those immediate needs were met, they then provided those parents with a community. A community that understood their pain and heartache, and showed how God could lend more strength than they ever thought possible.

Running With Endurance

Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of the faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.”

Not long after losing Charlie, Sarah lost her grandmother — better known as Granmae. Sarah knew Granmae had experienced a stillbirth of her own when Sarah’s mother was still young, but it had been during a time when it was considered too taboo to talk about it, when the doctors felt it inappropriate for a mother to hold her deceased newborn. As Sarah learned more about her Granmae’s loss, it helped her process her own grief, but it also gave her a beautiful glimpse into heaven.

It was during Granmae’s funeral that Sarah knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Granmae was up in heaven, standing in that cloud of witnesses, perfectly content and indescribably complete. Looking down, she was undoubtedly holding two little newborns in her arms. One of those newborns she hadn’t been allowed to hold years and years before, and now she got to hold on to her with all the love in Heaven. And as for the other newborn, well, he was looking quite dashing in his little New Balance tennis shoes.

With such a vision to help them through the good days and bad, Sarah and Patrick now have a renewed and unfathomable understanding for the words they once hung up on a nursery wall, but now hang in their bedroom.

“Take heart, I have overcome the world.”

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