She was named for a tree, the rowan or mountain ash. And just as a tree supports life, little Rowan Starling Nickerson provided lifesaving gifts.
Sultan’s Olivia and Joshua Nickerson lost their 7-month-old daughter to sudden infant death syndrome. Shortly after Rowan died on May 10, 2016, they learned how their shattering loss could help other babies. They didn’t hesitate.
“Anything we could give we would give,” 41-year-old Joshua Nickerson said.
Olivia Nickerson, 33, remembers those awful first hours. They lived in Wenatchee at the time. A chaplain at Central Washington Hospital &Clinics told her their baby had died of SIDS. “It was a blur,” she said.
Rowan and her older sister, Willow, were at a home day care when the tragedy occurred. Their mom was home with a broken ankle. Her husband was in Yakima, where he worked in information technology.
At the Wenatchee hospital, someone — the Nickersons recall it was a nurse — handed them a card with information about LifeNet Health. The nonprofit organization is the world’s largest provider of allograft bioimplants and organs for transplants, according to its website. In 2012, it merged with Northwest Tissue Services to create LifeNet Health Northwest.
By the evening of Rowan’s death, her grieving mother was on the phone with LifeNet Health to arrange for two of Rowan’s heart valves to be donated. More than a year later, the Nickersons take comfort in knowing that two babies received those valves, which possibly saved their lives.
“We were so preoccupied with our own grief, but we’re so grateful someone asked,” Olivia Nickerson said Tuesday at the family’s Sultan townhouse. “We want to talk about Rowan.”
As she and her husband shared memories of their baby girl, Willow, now 3, and half sisters Aubrey, 12, and 10-year-old Ryleigh happily watched the Disney movie “Frozen.”
“She made everybody smile,” said Joshua Nickerson, describing his youngest daughter as an easy, outgoing baby without a hint of “stranger danger.” At 7 months, the parents said, Rowan was developing normally. She was doing what her dad called an “army crawl,” making funny baby noises and eating green beans.
The Nickersons learned that pediatric heart valves are a critical need, and that artificial heart valves are generally not suitable for infants. According to LifeNet Health, each year about 10,000 babies in the United States have heart defects serious enough to require surgery or other procedures.
“It’s all donation based,” said Levi Anderson, general manager of LifeNet Health’s Northwest operations. The Northwest site in Renton is a tissue bank that recovers, prepares and distributes tissue for transplants, research and education.
“We want to raise awareness,” Anderson said. “A lot of people donate organs, but there is also a need for skin, small bones, corneas and ligaments. People are not aware of the impact they can have.” Donated tissues meet a broad range of needs. Skin grafts help burn patients, and tendons or ligaments are used in sports medicine.
Nurses or other hospital staff typically notify a family about possible donation within 24 hours of a death, Anderson said. And through LifeNet Health, recipients may anonymously thank donor families. In rare cases, a donor family may meet a recipient.
The Nickersons haven’t heard from the families whose babies received Rowan’s heart valves. “It’s up to those parents if they want to reach out to us,” Olivia Nickerson said. “It’s hard seeing children Rowan’s age. It could be that child.”
While calling attention to tissue donation, the Nickersons are also focused on SIDS. Statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show there were about 1,600 SIDS deaths in 2015. An additional 2,100 deaths were due to unknown causes, or to accidental suffocation or strangulation in bed. Among prevention measures, according to the Mayo Clinic and other experts, is placing babies on their backs to sleep.
The Sultan couple, who joined in a 2016 Strollin’ to Fight SIDS fundraising walk in Bellevue, is interested in work by Dr. Daniel Rubens, an anesthesiologist and researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Rubens was involved in a study published last year in the journal “Neuroscience.” It showed that carbon dioxide buildup and inner ear damage may be linked to SIDS.
As Rubens works to solve the mystery of what has long been called crib death, the Nickersons go on, never forgetting their precious youngest child. Memories and mementos fill their home.
A spherical urn holding Rowan’s ashes isn’t tucked away out of sight. It’s in the Nickerson kitchen, with Rowan’s blanket, pictures and a baby bottle. There are newborn photos of Rowan, a paper angel that topped the family’s 2016 Christmas tree, and castings of her hands and feet created at the hospital.
“Nothing makes it better that she’s not with us, but I was so proud of her,” said Olivia Nickerson. She is glad their little daughter made such a huge difference to others.
“I have no doubt that I will see Rowan again,” she said. “I’ve never doubted that,” her husband added.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
LifeNet Health, with Northwest operations in Renton, is a tissue bank that recovers, prepares and distributes tissue for transplants, research and education. The nonprofit distributes more than 500,000 allografts and implants each year, 40,000 of them in the Northwest. Information: www.lifenethealth.org/