PEORIA — When Jamie and Jonathan Harwood met their future son on June 16, 2017, he lay entangled in a web of tubes and wires in the neonatal intensive care unit at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center.
Born six weeks prematurely to a mother suffering from substance use disorder, little Jacob had a rough start, but the Harwoods saw only a beautiful, if frail, little boy.
“We were immediately in love with him,” said Jamie, who is the Peoria County coroner.
The couple had gotten the call from the Department of Children and Family Services more than a week prior, so by the time Jamie met Jacob, he'd had time to think things over. At first, Jamie wasn't so sure about fostering an infant with so many potential problems. It might not be the right decision for the family.
“They didn’t present a pretty picture to us,” he explained. “Jacob was premature, he had an aggressive 28 minutes of resuscitation. When they called us he was on a ventilator.”
Jacob was born during an emergency C-section after his mother suffered a placental abruption, a dangerous condition for both mom and baby. When the placenta pulls away from the abdominal walls it can interrupt the baby's oxygen supply. On top of that, being six weeks premature meant Jacob’s lungs were underdeveloped.
Both Jamie and Jonathan are nurses, so they well understood the risks. For Jonathan, the decision was easy — he experienced a feeling of certainty when he got the call from DCFS.
“I really truly felt that this was the child, this was the one we needed to take,” he said.
The pair talked and prayed about it, said Jamie.
“I think after a day or so I felt like God had asked us to do this, and I was having this internal debate on something I already knew (the answer to),” he said.
Jacob's first birthday was celebrated May 30 with cake, decorations and piles of presents. Today he is a rambunctious little guy who fills the Harwood home with joy.
“He started walking right around 12 months,” said Jamie. “He gets into everything. You see the baby gates? There’s a reason for them.”
The Harwoods had to wait until Jacob was a year old to apply for adoption, which was finalized Aug. 18.
Jacob has been surprisingly healthy since spending the first month of his life in the hospital. His pediatrician calls him "Lucky," said Jamie. Jacob now weighs more than 20 pounds, though he still has issues with his lungs. At Christmas a case of pneumonia and RSV forced him back into the hospital for several days. The lung issues are likely to continue for a while, said Jonathan.
“They said sometimes the first year is kind of rough, but they can outgrow it as they get older,” he said.
Though the Harwoods have read that children of opioid addicts can suffer from other problems, they have had no issues with Jacob so far.
“I think the literature is mixed, to be honest,” said Jamie. “Children are resilient, babies are resilient. What Jacob went through from his delivery to where he is now, he’s flawless. … There could be some behavioral issues later, but there are no guarantees in life with any child. You can have a perfectly normal delivery and still have behavioral problems and learning problems. There are no guarantees.”
As coroner, Jamie has watched the number of overdose deaths rise locally. He is a staunch advocate for people suffering from substance use disorder, and frequently speaks about the opioid epidemic at events and forums in central Illinois. Though it broke his heart, he was not surprised to find Jacob’s mother when he was called out for a death one Saturday morning in the fall of 2017, about four months after Jacob’s birth.
“I had no idea who it was until I got there,” he said. “They told me the person’s name, and I looked at her and recognized her. We had never met.”
Jacob's mother had died of a heroin overdose and was found lying in the street. It was an emotional event for Jamie.
“I felt a direct connection to her. I think we’ll always feel a connection to her. She has his eyes,” he said.
“As a foster parent, my hopes were that he would someday be able to meet her and to know that she did everything she could for him, and that she loved him, and that giving him up was an act of love,” said Jamie. “I wanted him to know that from her, and that opportunity was gone. He’ll never have that.”
One of the biggest issues faced by addicts in our community is a lack of treatment options, said Harwood.
"There are people who simply can’t get help,” he said.
The Harwoods are also working to reduce the social stigma applied to the disease.
“There’s this idea out there that anyone who has substance use disorder is a bad person. They are not," said Jonathan. "They are people, and they can be anybody. It knows no limits.”
Though Jacob will never get to meet his mother, he has other family in town, including two brothers, ages 3 and 4, who live with an adoptive family.
“We see them all the time — they have play dates,” said Jamie. “It’s great to see them all together.”
The Harwoods’ extended family, including Jamie’s older children, Hunter, 18, and Hope, 14, have fully embraced little Jacob. The Harwood home overflows with toys, and visitors are frequent. With each passing day the Harwoods delight in seeing Jacob grow and learn new tricks.
“He went from bear-crawling and he just started standing up one day,” said Jamie. “Nothing’s gonna stop this kid. We think he’s chosen for greatness.”
In sharing their story, the Harwoods are hoping more people in the community will choose to foster and adopt children in need.
“There are babies in foster care that need parents,” said Jamie. “It’s heartbreaking to us, knowing what we’ve been through, that there are other kids going through the same thing.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.