The Christmas tree stayed up for more than two months at the Austin, Texas, home of Owen Coulter as thousands of people prayed for the 5-year-old to come home from the hospital.
Owen, the son of Kristin Coulter, associate vice-president at Concordia University Texas (CTX), Austin, had come home from preschool on Dec. 13 complaining of flu-like symptoms.
The symptoms soon became life-threatening, and Owen was taken to Dell Children’s Medical Center, where he went into cardiac arrest. His heart would fail five times before emergency room staff could stabilize him.
On Feb. 7, the Coulters and dozens of family members, friends, coworkers and medical personnel gathered to celebrate Owen’s miraculous recovery and release from the hospital. Among them were many of the staff and faculty of CTX.
Unremitting bad news
On Dec. 13, when there hadn’t seemed to be much hope, a dozen CTX faculty and staff headed to the hospital to hold a vigil.
As the bad news kept coming — Owen’s lungs were filling with fluid, his kidneys had failed, the first heart surgery was not successful — the community surrounding the family cried together, offered words of comfort and prayed. As Owen was wheeled to his second surgery of the night, they lined up along the hallway.
Medical personnel reported that Owen’s body was limiting blood flow to his major organs, so the medical team needed to do something fast to keep his blood circulating and allow his heart to recover from so many resuscitations.
The team hooked Owen’s body up to an ECMO, a heart-and-lung bypass machine to which he remained connected until Dec. 19. The surgery to remove his ECMO led to a brain injury that has affected the use of his left arm.
The CTX community again stepped in. A lounge outside the intensive care unit (ICU) became a gathering spot for those wanting to help. Supporters provided lunches for those holding vigil for more than six weeks. The university arranged schedules so that there was always at least one CTX person in the waiting room with the family.
The university established a prayer chain that prayed around the clock for more than two weeks. The number of prayer chain members, known as the “Superhero Squad,” continued to grow as Owen’s parents faced fears of permanent brain damage, heart or lung failure, and reduced kidney function.
By the time Owen was ready to leave the ICU on Jan. 9, his story had attracted more than 1,000 followers on social media with the hashtag #PrayingforOwen. The blood pooling in Owen’s brain after the ECMO removal surgery had cleared within a few days.
On Christmas Eve, Owen began breathing on his own. His kidneys regained enough function to end dialysis in early January.
During this time, Owen and his twin brother, Hudson, had turned 5. “We felt as though we had experienced our own Christmas miracle while spending it in the hospital,” says Owen’s mom, Kristin. Owen was moved to a patient room with just a feeding tube and wheelchair to begin more intensive rehabilitation.
As the immediate crisis passed, more stories came out. The procedure used to save Owen’s life had never been done before — and has since been used again to save the life of at least one other child.
Elizabeth Doebler, the nurse who held Owen’s wrist and refused to “call” his death during the hours-long ECMO procedure, turned out to be a graduate of Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon.
In a Facebook post to Owen and his family weeks later, the pediatric intensive care nurse wrote, “Owie, you have a story to tell, a testimony to share for the rest of your earthly life. You are a witness of God’s abundant love and grace [and] … a treasured gift in my life.
“I shall never forget you. I shall never forget holding your sweet momma in my arms as I wiped away her tears. I shall never forget when one of the nurses called me on my day off to tell me that you were following commands and awake.
“I love you as if you were my own dear son … [and] your family as if we have known each other for years. You have made so many of us proud.”
Owen’s doctors confessed that they had held little hope for Owen’s survival when he first arrived at the hospital, much less his nearly complete recovery.
CTX Provost Dr. Kristi Kirk describes parents Darin and Kristin Coulter’s God-given strength as they witnessed their faith to so many people during Owen’s ordeal.
“God worked in their lives to minister to family, friends and strangers in the hospital, including to the families of two young children who died during the seven weeks that Owen was in the hospital — one in a tragic accident and one after a long battle with a congenital illness,” Kirk says. “While those stories didn’t have the happy endings that Owen’s did, faith in a loving, caring God was lived out as messages of God’s love were shared over and over.”
By late January, Owen was engaging regularly from his wheelchair in Nerf-gun battles with his rehabilitation nurses. Once he could stand to swallow medication while holding a rail, the feeding tube came out.
That weekend, therapists allowed the Coulters to take Owen home for a trial run to see if he could manage use of a walker, a bath and a family meal. It was his first visit home in six weeks.
Owen returned home permanently on Feb. 7, his big sister Madelyn’s ninth birthday. Since that time, he has had multiple therapy sessions each week, some of which will continue through adolescence.
Doctors can only explain Owen’s illness as a probable virus, and they are stunned by his progress. Some describe his journey toward a full recovery as a true miracle.
Kirk agrees. “Through Owen’s illness and recovery, the Concordia community and the Coulter family have been reminded of a loving God who cares for His people,” she says. “To God be the glory!”
Posted Feb. 26, 2019