In July 2006, Keri Becker of St. Paul went into premature labor with triplets. At just 24 weeks, babies Jack, Olivia, and Grace were at the minimum age of viability for premature births, and the staff at Children’s Hospital warned Becker that they may not survive.
That’s when a nurse suggested Becker contact Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a nonprofit organization of volunteer photographers who come at a moment’s notice to area hospitals to photograph critically ill or stillborn babies so their families can have lasting images. Becker quickly agreed. “When you’re going through that you don’t have the presence of mind to think of something like photos,” says Becker. “It requires a level of organization you don’t have because you’re experiencing this horrible tragedy, but that service really saved my life.”
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was founded by Colorado-based mom Cheryl Haggard and photographer Sandy Puc’ in 2005 after Haggard’s son Maddux was born with myotubular myopathy, a condition that kept him from breathing, moving, or swallowing on his own. Knowing their time with Maddux was limited, the Haggards asked Puc’ to come to the hospital to photograph the family together before they removed his life support. The comfort those photographs provided inspired Haggard and Puc’ to found Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
What began with two people has grown in the past three years to a network of 7,000 volunteer photographers in the United States and 19 other countries. In the Twin Cities area, more than 60 photographers are involved thanks to local organizer Heather Lombardo. Lombardo learned about the organization in 2005, but as a photographer (Lombardo owns Mariabella Photography in St. Paul), she wasn’t sure she was ready to tackle such an emotional job. “I thought it would be more than I could handle and too difficult for me,” Lombardo explains. “It took a while for me to realize that not only could I do it, but how could I not do this?”
Three years later, Lombardo has created a local network of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photographers who take on-call shifts in case a family has an immediate need for their services (photographers also get advance notice in the cases of babies with genetic conditions and other life-threatening issues recognized before birth). Through seven hospital coordinators (all volunteers as well) the photographers are notified and dispatched immediately. Last year, 167 families utilized their services, and in the first half of 2008 alone 118 families have participated.
Photographer Jessica Person, who has worked with 48 families since joining, experienced the loss of a baby herself and was inspired to help mothers in a similar situation. “In such a moment of grief it’s hard to make decisions, and the last thing you’re thinking of is photography, but the pictures are often the one thing that is truly embraced and enjoyed, and the parents are so happy they did it,” explains Person, who cherishes the photos she has of baby Eli. “I never came at it from the direction that it would be too hard for me because I lived it myself because I was compelled to give these mothers what I had.”
Photographers like Person and Lombardo take pictures wherever the baby happens to be: the neonatal intensive care unit, sleeping in an isolette, in a parent’s arms, even at funeral homes. They then retouch and edit the pictures and give the families an archival DVD or CD.
When Jack, Olivia, and Grace Becker were born on July 4, 2006, Lombardo was there for Jack’s final breaths. A week later, Lombardo returned to photograph Olivia’s last moments. And at the beginning of August Lombardo captured Dean Becker dancing with his daughter Grace shortly before she passed away. “When you’re going through something so hard it’s very difficult to let a stranger into your life like that, but Heather was really kind about it, and very sensitive to what we went through,” says Becker.
Lombardo’s images of the Becker triplets were often the only way other family members (including little brother Griffin, who was born last January) got to meet Olivia, Jack, and Grace and the photos have also been important in the healing process. “Those pictures are an inspiration to me,” says Becker. “It was a dark period to have three children die in my arms, but they tried so hard to live a day or a week or a month, the least I could do is try to go on.”
Person says each of the photographers considers the chance to work with families in need to be an honor. “It’s such a privilege to be invited into that moment because so few people get to meet these babies. There really aren’t words.”
Monica Wright is Minnesota Parent’s assistant editor.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep