Cover Story: Kisses 2 Heaven
Kori Keller's calling to ease the pain of grieving families
In a tiny plot at Yellowstone Valley Memorial Park sits a small angel that graced this world for days, not years. Her headstone reads, "Our Little Fighter, Ramsey Jo Keller, Two Days on Earth, Eternity Changed Forever." Ramsey's parents know she would have been a tough girl. With four brothers, how could she not be? Her signature color of pink would have ruled her world. Her smile would have softened hearts and made this little girl a princess surrounded by plenty of princes. For now, those visions are only in the Keller family's dreams.
Ramsey's mom, 37-year-old Kori Keller believes with all of her heart that no parent should have to know what it costs to bury a child. She also believes that God uses our deepest pain as the launching pad for our greatest calling. It's why with the death of Ramsey, Kori and her husband, Jeff, gave birth to something that is now helping families in every corner of the state with their non-profit The Ramsey Keller Memorial Foundation. This organization is charged with the incredibly difficult task of paying for the funerals for babies under the age of one.
"When we give a donation, it is so heartbreaking and so exhilarating because I think of how two years ago this wasn't happening," Kori shares. "The deaths of these babies are not going to stop whether I have a foundation or not, so thank God there is this foundation."
Three years ago, Kori and her husband Jeff had just watched their youngest go off to kindergarten. "We thought, gosh, we are so young. Are we done having children? We decided to try for more, even if it was a crazy busy life with three boys." The couple had a 7-, 9-, and 11-year-old and those three boys soon found out that they were about to become big brothers. It was an exciting time.
By all accounts, Kori endured a completely normal pregnancy. "At our 20-week ultrasound, we found out she was a girl and we were thrilled," she says. It wasn't until ten days before Ramsey was born that she started to show signs of trouble. "I had gained a lot of fluid – too much," Kori says. Undoubtedly, her doctor was concerned. "He called me and said, 'I thought about you all night. You have got to come in and do some non-stress tests. I don't like this.'"
When Kori arrived at the hospital, she quickly found out she was smack dab in the middle of labor with full-blown contractions. Having had three C-sections, she didn't really know what labor felt like.
"When we had her, I knew right away that something was wrong because I didn't hear her. Jeff just said, 'We have to pray Babe.' We begged God to save her life." Kori could hear the NICU doctor working feverishly to try to intubate her baby. She says, "They were losing her." The fluid that had built up in Kori was also present in Ramsey. The baby's chest had filled with so much fluid that her tiny organs weren't able to function. The condition is called Hydrops Fetalis and there are dozens of different causes, for which none Kori tested positive.
"No one knows why, but the morning that she passed away her body produced so much fluid so fast and so furiously it basically shut the machines down," Kori says with emotion."That fluid went into the sack around her heart and it stopped her heart." Kori shares that before Ramsey passed away, "One of the nurses said, I think if we take her off every machine, her last moments will be in your arms. We thought, if she is going to leave us to go and meet Jesus, she might as well be in our arms. They got her all unhooked, wrapped her in a blanket and put us in a private room. She passed fairly quickly."
It was at Ramsey's funeral that Kori's dad said something that would change the course of Kori's life. He told her that he was going to pick up the bill for Ramsey's service and burial saying that no parent should have to pay that bill. With those words, Kori felt a fire lit inside her and it soon became her mission to pay it forward and do the same for other grieving parents.
"The biggest thing when you lose a child is that you want their name forever remembered and to feel like their life mattered. That's what drove me in the beginning." And that's why the non-profit is called the Ramsey Keller Memorial Foundation.
A mere 80-some days after Ramsey was laid to rest – on Valentine's Day to 2012 to be exact – the first donation went out to a family in need. "It was just heart wrenching," Kori says. "That family is still good friends of ours. Their little baby was stillborn and he's buried right next to Ramsey out in the same cemetery." Many times, families don't even see a final bill. The foundation simply pays it. Kori prefers it that way.
Even in the midst of her own grief, by spring of 2012 Kori launched herself into planning her foundation's first fundraising event – Run for Heaven's Sake. It was successful beyond her wildest dreams. "After the first run, when we gained our first $10,000, we've never looked back." Hundreds of runners and walkers – both young and old – showed up at the starting line around Rimrock West Park for a 5K and a 10K race. It was the fundraising fuel that the Kellers needed to truly get this effort off the ground. "Since May of 2012, we've paid every invoice that has come our way. It's overwhelming," Kori says with emotion. Last year, the organization helped 28 families to the tune of a little more than $32,000. So far, no family has been turned away. With that in mind, this year, the run hopes to bring in a record-breaking $20,000.
If you look at photos from past runs, you come to see that this race is more than just a fundraiser. It's a memorial to the dozens of babies lost over the years to SIDS, birth defects, unknown causes and stillbirth. While the run gives away t-shirts to those who enter, teams often create their own in an effort to honor their children. There's, of course, Team Ramsey, Team Jake and even Gunner's Runners – just to name a few. Kori says, "It has really turned into something bigger than I ever could have imagined. It just brings you to tears."
In the crowd this year, Melissa Lee and her husband Amos will be donning their blue 'Team Simon' shirts as they take to the course. The couple was helped by the foundation after their son Simon was born without a heartbeat. Melissa simply says, "Until you are a part of the baby loss community, you just have no idea. The more you hear about it, the more you realize how common this loss is," Melissa says. She says she'll never forget that first call to Kori after one of her labor and delivery nurses urged her to pick up the phone. "I called Kori two or three days before our son's funeral. I felt like I was going a little crazy and I wanted to know that what I was feeling was normal. We cried together and she listened. She was sure to tell me, 'I am not a counselor, I am just a mom that has walked in your shoes.' This is what they do for families because they know that heartache."
Kori will be the first to tell you that the phone calls she gets are never easy. She doesn't want them to be. She says she prays she'll never forget the heart-wrenching pain of losing her only baby girl. She claims, with that pain, comes the grace and compassion to help someone else suffering that terrible loss. Kori says, it never fails, with each painful day comes something of beauty. "Even on hard days when we take a tough phone call, inevitably there will be something – a beautiful pink sunset or that perfect donation to pay a bill." She knows they are blessings from above.
As if losing a child wasn't a dark enough time, several months after Ramsey's death Kori would face another round of extreme highs followed by an extreme low. The family found out that they'd be having another child, but with it doctors discovered that Kori suffered from the potentially fatal condition called Placenta Accreta. The condition happens when the placenta attaches itself to the uterine wall, making the mother susceptible to a massive hemorrhage. Kori says, "With this condition, when you go to deliver, it is the leading cause of death with women in childbirth." Kori says her doctor told her, "You won't get out of this without a transfusion and hysterectomy at the very least." It was a very tough pill to swallow. "These were very dark, dark times," Kori says. "How do you even take that in? I didn't even know what to do with that. I still had to get through each day."
Kori and Jeff couldn't bear to tell their kids. They, for the most part, prayed and kept the news to themselves. The fear of losing her own life and the life of the baby boy growing inside her was always at the back of her mind. "I said to my high risk doctor, 'I feel like no one is fighting for his life' and he said, 'I'm not. I am fighting for yours.' He said, 'A 35-week-old baby is not going to die because he is 35 weeks old, absolutely not. You on the other hand have that risk so that is what we are worried about.'"
On December 20, 2012, Bauer Trust Keller came into the world a happy and healthy boy. While he was born at 9:30 in the morning, it wasn't until about 3 that afternoon that Kori ended up in the recovery room. She underwent a grueling six-hour surgery with more than a foot-long incision and underwent a transfusion with two pints of blood. When she woke up, the first thing she saw was the image of her newborn son. A laptop sat next to her hospital bed and displayed live footage of him in his NICU incubator. Kori could see Jeff's hands on the baby's belly. She was immediately overcome with emotion. She had survived and couldn't wait to hold her brand new baby.
"Bauer's middle name is Trust after our trust in the Lord. Even if He chose to take my life and take Ramsey's life, we would still put our trust in Him. That was not going to waver."
With each major life event, Kori knows that she's been molded, shaped and made into something much different over the years. She's the first to admit, "These experiences have changed me. I think I give people so much more grace. I wish that I could be this person without those life changing experiences. It's humbling to say that I am a better person now." She softly smiles and adds, "I like this person way better."
On May 18, 2014, Kori will put on her running shoes to head up and help usher in the annual Run for Heaven's Sake. This year, she's hoping more than 800 runners will join her and her family. While the Billings-based group helps families in all parts of Montana, she says, "My hope is that all the families that we have helped will have a Run for Heaven's Sake in their own communities." Sadly, she knows that even though they've raised more than $100,000 in two years, it won't be enough once funeral homes statewide learn of their charity. She says, "I would love for nothing more than for the foundation to have no need to exist."
Until that day, she continues to answer the phone, no matter what the hour. She continues to raise funds to help hurting families. She continues the difficult work of paying the funeral bills for children who should be here with their families on earth. And, she continues to look forward to that day when she'll see her daughter's face again. With tears in her eyes and resolve in her heart, Kori says, "I've never been so sure of heaven."
Run for Heaven's Sake
A fundraiser for The Ramsey Keller Memorial Foundation
Run for Heaven's Sake will take place on May 18, 2014. The run starts and finishes at Rimrock West Park on 46th and Rangeview Drive. This year, in addition to the 5K and 10K, the event will offer a half-marathon for both runners and walkers alike. Register by clicking HERE. All money raised will go toward the Ramsey Keller Memorial Foundation to ease the financial burden for families in Montana who have suffered the loss of an infant.