Columbia photographer gives powerful, heartbreaking gift
COLUMBIA - Shane Epping, a professional photographer in Columbia, has given a priceless and powerful gift to dozens of mid-Missouri families, but it's a gift he wishes he didn't have to give.
Christmas can be a magical time, especially through the eyes of a child. While Dina and Dustin Dunklee make those special holiday memories with their daughters Ella and Ruby, they also remember and commemorate one more.
"We'll talk about her," Dina said. "I know a lot of people just don't talk about it, but we do. It's very important. She's one of the biggest parts of our lives."
Three years ago, before two-year-old Ruby was even a thought, the Dunklee's celebrated Christmas preparing for the birth or their middle daughter, Hope. At the same time, they were preparing for her death.
"Christmas was the last holiday that we got to have her. So you just want to make it even more special," Dina said.
A few months earlier, doctors diagnosed Hope with Trisomy 18, a condition found in one in every 2,500 pregnancies in the U.S. (according to the Trisomy 18 Foundation). Doctors warned there was a good chance Hope would not make it because most babies with the condition are stillborn.
So the Dunklees spent that Christmas celebrating her life in the midst of pain, fear and the unknown. A few weeks later, her heartbeat was gone. Dina had to deliver a daughter she would never get to hear cry or laugh, but she still wanted to celebrate Hope's life because already she felt it had shaped her own.
"She's just made me into a completely different person. I mean, everything. The way I look at things. The way I approach things. Everything. She has just changed me completely."
A nurse suggested the couple call Shane Epping.
"I'll get a phone call from the hospital, usually it's a nurse, and they'll have a situation where there's been a demise of an infant," Epping said. "It's usually unexpectedly, and he or she, the nurse, will want to know if I can volunteer to go to the hospital and take pictures of the infant and family."
Epping is a professional photographer who volunteers for a group called Now I Lay me Down to Sleep and takes photos for familes who, like the Dunklees, lose a child.
"I think when you lose a child, it might be the biggest loss of your life. One way to honor the memory of the child is with a photograph. It's a tangible object that you can hold in your hand or frame, and the person, the infant, will never be forgotten," said Epping.
Adaline was supposed to be here this holiday season. Her mother, Jennifer Herron, had an uneventful pregnancy and was considered full term when she went in for her 38-week appointment. Tests showed elevated proteins, so doctors decided to induce labor. Still, Herron didn't think she should be worried until she started to push.
"The nurse told me to stop pushing," said Herron. "She started yelling for help and paging the doctor 911. Everybody ran in there. They flipped me on my side and started unhooking everything and they ran me down the hallway to have a c-section."
Adaline's life began with CPR and a blood transfusion. She was then transferred from Boone Hospital, where her mother delivered, to the NICU at University of Missouri Women's and Children's Hospital.
When Herron was released from Boone Hospital a few days later, with Adaline still in critical condition, she couldn't hold her daughter but held plenty of hope she would bring her home. A few days later, she realized she wouldn't be able to do most of the things she had planned with her daughter.
Adaline was dependent on a respirator and other machines to keep her alive. Doctors examined her brain to see how extensive the damage was.
"When they do the test, the scan of the brain, the healthy parts are the white parts, and when you're without oxygen for so long your brain starts to die off and those parts turn black," Herron said. "They were hoping for just small parts of black in her brain, but with her, her whole brain was black."
That's when Herron joined a group she never wanted to join - mothers who had lost a baby. Like the Dunklees, a nurse told her and her husband they could call Epping to come take family portraits for them - a fleeting opportunity to capture the love they had for their family of three.
"There's one where he has me holding her, and he photoshopped the tubes off of her, and it brings me to tears everytime. He did a wonderful job, and we can't thank him enough."
It's been five months since Herron realized life would not be what she planned. She's only been able to bring herself to look at the pictures Epping took a few times. It's still too emotional. But she's so glad she has them.
"It means everything because we won't ever get to see her. Looking at those pictures is the only time we get to see her now. We'll get to see how little she was. All the hairs that she had. What she got from her dad and what she got from me. That way when we have other kids too they can see what she looked like, and we can be like oh you look like your sissy. Do you want to see her? Things like that," said Herron.
Epping has now taken photographs for more than 75 families. As he looks through the pictures he can tell you the stories of each one - how the child died, how the parents reacted when he walked in the room, if there were any items they wanted included in the pictures and why, what made the family special. He carries the weight of each child's life story with him. It's a lot to weight, but he keeps picking up his camera and going to the hospital each time a nurse calls because he knows being on the other side of his camera is much worse.
His daughter's name was Faye. Epping keeps taking his pictures of families because she lived.
In 2011, Epping and his wife, Mary, found out they would have a baby. Halfway through the pregnancy they found out the baby had Trisomy 18, the same condition Hope Dunklee died from. Each appointment, they hoped for the best. Each time, they would hear the heartbeat. The day before Mary was scheduled to deliver, that heartbeat was gone.
"I felt extremely attached to Faye whenever I saw her. I saw her for the first time, and I think it's because I could actually see and hold her," Epping said.
A photographer came to the hospital to take pictures of his family and the little girl who made him a father. A few months later, he signed up to volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, the same organization that gave him the pictures he came to treasure so much.
"I think it's about remembering that there was a life," he said. "That this person was here. This person mattered. This person was loved and always will be, and we're not going to ignore that. We're not going to look the other way. Instead we're going to take pictures, and memorialize it and honor the life."
Almost three years later, little Hope's photograph still watches over the Dunklee family from the shelf in their living room. She was there as they decorated the Christmas Tree, one special ornament bearing her name. She's there as Ella reads books and Ruby points to the pictures. She's there when anyone walks through the front door.
The Dunklees have found ways to turn their grief into something positive. Each March, they organize the Hope Run to raise money for the Morgan County Caring for Kids Coalition, and, from time to time, Dina Dunklee will get a call asking her to talk to a mother who has just lost a child. She said she tries to pass on the same calm compassion she found in Epping when walked into her hospital room.
Dunklee said she had no idea when Epping took those pictures how much they would mean to her.
"They're just priceless. They're everything," she said. "They're that moment in time that your life just completely stood still, and it's just captured right there. You will never forget that moment you had because that's all you had."
It's one of the ways they keep Hope in their hearts, always.