Cori and Mark Salchert call their home a “house of hope” and with good reason. The former prenatal bereavement nurse and her husband have eight biological children, but since 2012 they have been adopting “hospice babies”…infants diagnosed with life-limiting and terminal diseases. These babies come from families who can’t deal with their conditions or feel they must step away because it is too painful to witness the end of their child’s life.
Cori told her family’s story to the press and also sat down with TODAY to explain why she and Mark made the decision to shelter dying children in their final days.
The first of the Salchert’s hospice babies was Emmalynn, who lived for 50 days before dying cradled in Cori’s arms. At the time Emmalynn came to them Cori’s own health was at a crisis point as she battled severe autoimmune diseases that required several surgeries to help repair damage to her digestive system. Unable to work, bedridden, and suffering she asked God “why is this happening?” That’s when she got a phone call.
In August 2012 she and Mark were asked if they would take in a nameless 2 week old baby girl who had no one to care for her. The baby’s outlook was grim: she had been born without the right and left hemisphere of her brain. Told there was no hope for this child who was in a vegetative state – unable to see or hear, and responding only to painful stimuli – the family said yes and brought her home, giving her the name Emmalynn.
Had the baby been left in the hospital, she would have been swaddled and sustained with a feeding pump. In the Salchert home, Emmalynn was suddenly the youngest of nine siblings and was constantly held, stroked, talked to and taken everywhere the family went. She lived…really lived…for 50 days.
When it became apparent that she was fading, the entire family took turns holding her and kissing her goodbye. Mark tucked the baby under his chin and sang to her.
Late on the final evening after most of the family had gone to bed, Cori continued holding Emmalynn to her chest and was singing “Jesus Loves Me” to the infant when she realized the baby had stopped breathing.
Little Emmalynn left this life without pain, held tenderly in the arms of someone who loved her. And while the family grieved her loss, they eventually began to heal and to consider taking in another needy baby. In October 2014, the family took in 4 month old Charlie.
Not necessarily considered terminal, Charlie had a life-limiting diagnosis. Because of his severe brain damage, expectations are that he won’t survive past his second birthday. The little boy is already on life-support and has been resuscitated ten times in the past year. The reality of Charlies struggle to breath is difficult for Cori, but the family has altered his care plan – should he code again they won’t resort to compressions or an AED machine – and will let him go. But in the meantime, they do all that they can to show Charlie lots of love, from taking him on adventures to getting a bed roomy enough for them to snuggle with him even while he is attached to the tubes and machines keeping him alive.
Cori says that for years she has “wanted to take care of babies with a life-limiting prognosis like Charlie or a terminal illness like Emmalynn.” For her, it’s a gift to be able to ease their suffering and simply love them. She says that because her family invests deeply in these children, the grief when they die is terrible and real. She compares that sorrow to a stained glass window that shatters. When forged back together, it can be stronger and more beautiful than before.
In her years working as a registered nurse, Cori was especially drawn to hospice care and to working maternity cases and with newborns. Many nurses prefer not to work with dying babies but Cori saw it as an opportunity to offer hope to families whose babies were dying or who had been given a devastating diagnosis. She started an organization in Sheboygan called Hope After Loss and is currently working with a literary agent with the goal of publishing her memoir.