The Hanke Family (L to R): Maura, Sam, Charlie (pictured in frame), Annie Elizabeth, and Owen.
Of the tragedies a parent can endure, perhaps none is more heart wrenching than the sudden loss of a child. No matter the age, the death of a child will test one’s faith to its core, and forever leave a broken heart. Of course, sometimes such a tragedy can spur action and turn sadness into a positive force for change.
This is my life. I am a doctor, a husband, a father. My wife and I lived through the unthinkable nightmare of losing a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), but now we have a greater purpose to prevent additional death through education. Along the way, we built a foundation that has already touched countless lives, and hopefully saved a few. This is the story of Charlie, our beautiful son.
My wife, Maura and I were college sweethearts and a very happily married couple. We surrounded ourselves with friends and family, and relished in anticipation of children and a life full of love and happiness. Our dreams of parenthood came true on April 6, 2010 when we welcomed our first son Charlie Paul into the world. He was healthy and beautiful, and for us, like many new parents, the reason the sun rose and set each day.
We were a normal family. I work as a pediatric cardiologist, and Maura, a kindergarten teacher, and like all parents, we wished and hoped for our baby a long, joyful and happy life. We imagined his future. We made plans. After a healthy, routine pregnancy, Charlie came into the world a perfect 7 lb. 11 oz. baby boy. We celebrated the day he came home from the hospital – we read him stories; we gave him baths. He brought us so much joy in everyday things.
But, at just three weeks old, in the early morning hours of April 28, Charlie died, a victim of SIDS and an unsafe sleep environment. That night, like many of us, I laid on the couch with Charlie; the perfect picture of sleep-deprived father and son. It wasn’t unusual; we so often see this photo on Facebook — baby asleep on dad’s chest, dad sound asleep too. But, I woke up, Charlie didn’t.
What we now know, what may not be realized when “liking” these cute photos, is that this sleepy snuggle is actually dangerous for our babies. Co-sleeping and tummy sleeping are two of the leading risk factors for SIDS, and this includes those innocent naps on the couch or accidentally falling asleep after nursing in the night. So, when trying to calm a newborn at 2 a.m., or sneaking a few extra ZZZs during the day, think of Charlie. We want you to know that your baby is safest on his or her back alone in the crib, and this has become one of our life missions.
With each milestone in the year that followed the loss of Charlie, Maura and I slowly started to pick up the pieces and heal, but we needed to make sense of losing Charlie so soon. Fueled by faith and the strength and encouragement of friends and family, we looked for a bigger way to remember Charlie and most importantly try to prevent other families from suffering this same pain.
We decided to do that through the formation of a foundation. Charlie’s Kids Foundation was started on what would have been Charlie’s first birthday. The mission we wanted to accomplish was clear to us from the very beginning: to raise awareness and support of SIDS by educating families, providing resources for new parents and promoting dialogue about SIDS and safe sleep practices. Our goal for Charlie’s Kids Foundation became a focused passion. We didn’t rest until we developed and instituted new outreach tactics for SIDS education and safe sleep education.
We started by thinking back to those first few chaotic days before and after Charlie’s birth, and we remembered being overwhelmed by a huge stack of papers, pamphlets and brochures we received when we were discharged home from the hospital with Charlie. It was information overload, and this combined with sleep deprivation made learning and comprehension challenging. We realized there was an opportunity for a different approach to teaching safe sleep practices for new parents.
That realization led us to the development of a children’s board book, called Sleep Baby Safe and Snug, authored by Dr. John Hutton and illustrated by Leah Busch. All proceeds from the sales of this book go to fulfilling Charlie’s Kids mission of educating families about safe sleep and SIDS. It is our hope that people will cherish this book and read it to their child numerous times to reinforce the safe sleep guidelines. Sleep Baby Safe and Snug is now included in every safe sleep survival kit distributed by the national organization Cribs for Kids, which is an organization that provides safe-sleep cribs and other safe-sleep products to at-risk families around the country, including right here in Cincinnati.
We also created a Do’s and Don’ts chart utilizing the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2011 Safe Sleep Recommendations that is easy-to-read, so that overwhelmed parents can get the information they need to know quickly:
The creation of Charlie’s Kids Foundation has been a healing experience for my family. We feel Charlie’s presence everyday, as we spread our critical safe sleep message. We know his story is helping save babies’ lives. The creation of Sleep Baby Safe and Snug has been especially cathartic. Reading to Charlie was a part of our daily routine, and spreading the safe sleep message in this way is not only effective, but deeply personal. We hope families feel the love we put into it as they read it to their own children.
While our family is forever altered, we made Charlie a big brother upon the arrival of Owen in June, 2011. We welcomed our third child, Annie Elizabeth, this July. We can’t wait to tell our children how their big brother has changed so many lives for the better.
Editor’s Note: The recommendations in this blog post are for typical newborns. If a healthcare provider recommends that your baby sleep differently than the American Academy of Pediatric’s guidelines, follow the instructions from your child’s physician.