Thursday’s Child

Thursday’s Child

When my first child was born at 5:24 A.M. on September 20, 2001, he just missed being “Thursday’s Child.” As a human-interest story, a Nashville TV station ran a news feature profiling the family of the first baby born each Thursday. At first, I was a little disappointed.  Kendrick was perfect, and I wanted to show him off.  It turns out that the baby born first, who was also a boy, was born at just 27 weeks. Normal gestation for humans is 40 weeks. As I held my son in my arms, the story I saw on TV that night showed a tiny, red-faced infant in an incubator. I know nothing more of that little boy or his family.  Over the years as I watched my son grow, I have often thought of that child. Did he survive? Is he strong and healthy like my son or does he suffer because he was born too soon? I will never know, but I will never forget him. 

In addition to being a mom, I am a scientist and have spent my professional life studying reproductive diseases. In 2001, when Kendrick was born, we had just established the developmental dioxin exposure model that we now use extensively to understand the effects of that common toxicant. The model was originally designed to aid in our studies examining the causes of endometriosis, a reproductive disease that some women develop. The model was a success, and the toxicant-exposed female mice had numerous features that resembled women with that disease. Since women with endometriosis are often infertile, it seemed appropriate to mate our mice to see if their fertility was also compromised. At that time, I had never mated mice and was only certain an animal was pregnant when she began gaining weight. A week or so after mating, all the control mice were gaining weight, while only half of the toxicant-exposed mice looked like they might be pregnant. Gestation in a mouse is only 20 days; however, these first pregnancies weren’t timed and so I wasn’t sure when the pups would be born (again, I was only interested in fertility back then). Consequently, it seemed prudent to check on the mice each day until the pups were born. 

Finally the day came when I went to the animal facility and found pups. At first, I was excited. However, the pups were very small and very red. Something seemed wrong, but I didn’t know what. The unexposed mice were still pregnant.  It was only the dioxin-exposed mice that had delivered. I looked at the picture chart on the wall of the animal care facility with images of mouse pups, newborn to Day 21. My pups should be pink, not red. They should not be so small. Suddenly the image of “Thursday’s Child” came to me and I knew. I also knew that my research focus had just changed. I had spent 20 years studying endometriosis, but at that moment I knew I would spend the next 20 years researching the causes of prematurity.

Louis Pasteur famously said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” It was purely happenstance that my son was born the same day as another child who was born too soon. But it was that experience that prepared me to realize that in our effort to create an endometriosis model, we accidentally developed what may be the only mouse model of spontaneous preterm birth. Over the years since then, we have learned much from this model and are optimistic that it will eventually help us prevent preterm birth of human infants. To me, studying this model is not just a research opportunity, it is a responsibility. We have to figure this out for Thursday’s Child and every other child who will be born too soon if we don’t.

Photo: Kendrick, age 3 months, with mom Kaylon in 2001.

Lost and Found

Lost and Found

              In 1999 at a Catholic church in Richmond, Virginia, this white, redheaded girl from Mississippi married a Vietnamese immigrant. Our children, both sons, followed in 2001 and 2003. A decade and a half later having all our DNA analyzed sounded like an interesting idea. I bought four AncestryDNA kits. We spit in our tubes and put them in the mail. Two weeks later the results for our youngest son came back—47% Vietnamese, 3% Chinese, 40% Northern European, 7% Irish and 3% German. My results were next and were not a surprise based on Son #2. Mostly Northern European, with a hefty dose of Irish. Next was Dad. 70% Vietnamese and 30% Chinese. Son #1 was almost identical to his brother, but with a little more Irish. It was all fascinating, but now what? So I just saved the files with all the school pictures and pretty much forgot about them.

              A few months later, I received an email via AncestryDNA. Someone from California said we had DNA in common and wanted to connect. I looked at his file. He was a mix of Nigerian, Congolese, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Clearly, he and I were not related. His DNA was full of color, while mine was colorless.  But just as clearly, he was related to my children and their dad. But I was certain that knew all of my Vietnamese family. Where did this guy come from? As it turned out, that was precisely what he wanted to know.

              He had grown up in California, the son of an African-American Vietnam veteran and his wife, also African-American. His skin was paler than his siblings, and growing up he sometimes felt out of place. However, he had a good life and a loving family, and he easily ignored the doubts that sometimes crept into his mind. Shortly after he turned 50, his mother died, followed a few years later by his father. As he cleaned out his parents’ home, he found the Vietnamese passport of a small child. He could not read the writing and did not recognize the name, but the birthdate was familiar—it was his own.

              It was his mother-in-law who suggested he have his DNA tested. “You never know, maybe you will find something,” she told him. He followed her advice, spit in his own tube, and a few weeks later he found me. Not his relative but, as it turned out, close enough.

              He knew his dad served in Vietnam and guessed his biological mother was the missing piece to his story. I called my sons’ aunt and started asking questions. I learned that the sister of my mother-in-law had a baby with an American serviceman. She had not been in a position to take care of the child, so the father had taken him back to the States where his wife agreed to raise him as their own. The biological mother immigrated to France after the war but never stopped thinking about the child she hoped had had a better life than the one she could give him. No words can express her joy at knowing he was alive and well and looking for her. She spoke French and Vietnamese, while her son spoke neither, but it didn’t matter. With the help of a translator and Skype, they connected across thousands of miles and five decades. A happy ending wrapped up in a new beginning.

Footnotes: This essay, describing true events from my family, was originally written in March 2019 and was the inspiration for my first novel, Time Intertwined. The photo is of my youngest son and was taken when he was six months old.

Despite All Appearances

Despite All Appearances

Growing up in small-town Mississippi, my family was poor.  Not food-stamp poor, but after my parents divorced and my dad walked away—our financial situation left a lot to be desired.  My mom worked two jobs to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, but designer shoes and the latest fashions were never an option.  My sister Leana and I were teenagers at the time and we both worked after school.  We didn’t have to help with the household bills, but if we wanted something new or something “unnecessary,” we had to pay for it ourselves.  All these years later, the days of financial struggle are long behind us. My sister and her husband own a successful construction company, I was recently promoted to professor at the medical center where I work, and my mom, at 75, still works.  Not because she has to, but because she wants to keep busy.  However, the difficult years led all three of us to become quite talented at being frugal. To this day my sister can walk into any discount clothing store and walk out with the most amazing find.  This is the backdrop to the story I wish to tell.

              A few years ago, after moving into my new house near Nashville, Tennessee, my mom and sister drove up from Mississippi to help with the unpacking.  Normally, they would come in my sister’s truck, but it was in the shop again largely because my sister refused to by a new one.  She had the money (she and David always pay cash for vehicles because they “don’t do credit”), but my sister liked the way that money looked in her savings account.  So, instead of my sister’s vehicle, they opted to drive my mom’s car.  Now my mom desperately (in mine and Leana’s opinion) needed a new car.  Hers was 20 years old and looked every day of it.  The paint was peeling, the leather seats were peeling, and the headliner was coming apart.  But “the engine is just fine” my mom would say and steadfastly refused to by a car.  Did I mention she worked at a car dealership?

              After spending several days at my new house cleaning and unpacking, their visit was coming to a close.  My mom needed to get gas and my sister wanted to check out the new Goodwill store that had just opened nearby (still frugal, of course).  At the gas station, my sister decided to buy a lottery ticket since they don’t sell them in Mississippi and “she could do a lot of good with that kind of money”.  At the register, she noticed a nicely dressed gentleman and his very young son buying a gas can.  Even at 50-something my sister is beautiful when she puts an effort into her appearance.  This was not one of those days.  On top of that, while 25 years in Nashville has moderated my southern drawl, my sister, spending most of her life in Mississippi, not so much.  She probably looked and sounded very much like a down-on-her-luck redneck when she said, “Did y’all run out of gas?”  Well, duh, the nicely dressed man probably thought, but he just said, “yes, almost made it, but had to leave my truck at the Walgreens and we walked over.”  If you know Leana, you also know that she insisted we take them back to their car.  You don’t win an argument with my sister.  We all piled into my mom’s “the engine is just fine” car and headed toward the Walgreens, my sister at the wheel.  Leana asked what kind of truck he had and, discovering they both drove the same kind, she proceeded to tell the man that hers was a lot older and in the shop. She said she probably needed to get a new one but didn’t want to spend the money.  There is no doubt in my mind he thought the only way she would have the money to buy much of anything was if that lottery ticket was winner, but he just smiled and nodded.

              We arrived at his truck and we all got out of my mom’s car to say our good-byes.  The nicely dressed man pulled out a $20 bill and tried to give it to my mom.  All three of us laugh so hard we were in tears.  We didn’t need the money, despite all appearances.  The man was confused—he was trying to be kind and we did look just this side of destitute.  My mom was the first one to pull it together and very kindly said thank you, but no.  He insisted.  She insisted.  Finally, she quoted scripture.  Something about doing good for the sake of doing good and not for your own benefit (I am not as familiar with the good book as my mother thinks I should be, otherwise I would probably remember the verse she quoted).  The man just looked at her blankly, not knowing what to do.  She said, “surely, you would not deny us the gift of helping you?”  Okay—what can he say to that?  He put his money away, thanked us again, picked up his child and bolted. 

We all piled back in my mom’s car and Leana headed toward the Goodwill, which is right next door to the gas station. No doubt, the destination of the man and his son.  “No,” I said.  “We are not going to let him see us going into Goodwill.  Drive around.  Drive anywhere, but do not stop at the Goodwill.”