FLOWOOD, Miss. (AP) - Kisha Flanigan made her wishes clear while being rolled to the delivery room: If only one of them could survive, she wanted it to be her child.
“I had lived 35 years already,” she says. “And with Karter alive, a piece of me would still be on this earth.
“(Husband) Jason was crying and saying, ‘Don’t think like that. You’re both going to be fine.’ “
That was Nov. 7, 2015. Kisha had sky-high blood pressure and her kidneys were beginning to fail.
Karter wasn’t due for another three months, on Valentine’s Day. His lungs were far from developed. Doctors ordered an emergency cesarean section.
Both mother and son survived. Both are healthy and happy. The Flanigans are the March of Dimes’ 2018 ambassador family for Mississippi.
“He’s definitely our miracle baby,” Kisha says.
Karter weighed 1 pound, 3 ounces at birth. He spent 105 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at River Oaks Hospital in Flowood.
Jason and Kisha reside in Goodman, where he is the head basketball coach at Holmes Community College. Kisha is a teacher at Velma Jackson High School, in northeast Madison County.
Every day, sometimes twice a day, Jason and Kisha would make the one-hour drive to visit their son - together when they could, but more often separately because Jason’s basketball season had just begun.
They couldn’t hold him, but they could touch him and talk to him.
“Looking back, 105 days go by really fast when I’m teaching,” Kisha says. “But when your baby is in intensive care, 105 days seem like forever.”
They met in biology class at Ole Miss in 1998.
Jason was a member of the Rebels’ basketball team that won two Southeastern Conference West Division titles and advanced his senior year to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
“She was always trying to steal answers off my test papers,” Jason says, with a big laugh.
“Oh, please,” Kisha says, laughing, too. “If I were looking for answers on a test, I would’ve looked the other way.”
They married in 2006 and started trying to have a baby a couple of years later.
“It wasn’t happening,” Kisha says. “I went to a fertility specialist. But out of the blue, I found out I was pregnant in 2015.”
Kisha had “a perfect pregnancy” through the first six months, she says. “But I got a cold and a dry cough that wouldn’t go away.”
She was admitted to River Oaks on Nov. 2. For five days, doctors tried lowering her blood pressure and addressing her walking pneumonia.
“Finally, they told me the baby had to come out. There was no other option,” she says. “Karter was fine. It was me who was sick.”
Doctors told them that if Karter came out screaming, that would be a good sign that his lungs would have a chance to develop.
“We were in the delivery room no time,” Jason says. “I was standing beside Kisha’s head, and they had a small curtain up. Neither of us could see the baby.
“But we sure could hear him. He was screaming just like we’d hoped for.”
Nurses rushed Karter to intensive care.
Jason and Kisha saw him for the first time a couple of hours later.
“I had never known anyone who had a premature baby, and I had never seen one,” Kisha says. “He was the color of a hot dog, and his skin looked like paper . it seemed to barely be covering his bones.”
“He was about as long as my hand,” Jason says, “but he was so thin.”
Karter was hooked to a breathing machine and monitors that kept up with his blood pressure and heart rate.
“When I would go home and try to sleep, I would still hear those machines beeping,” Kisha says. “I couldn’t get away from that sound.”
For six weeks, neither Jason nor Kisha could hold him.
“He got to where he would hold my index finger,” Kisha says. “And when I talked to him, he would move. I could tell he had learned the sound of my voice.”
Her best Christmas present that year was wrapping Karter in her arms and rocking him for the first time.
“He was tiny but beautiful - up to 2 pounds by then,” she says. “And getting to 2 pounds was a big deal. The nurses said when they get to that size, they just take off growing. That’s what Karter did.”
Finally, on Feb. 21, 2016, Jason and Kisha took their baby boy home.
Both pause before answering the question: What got y’all through those 105 days?
“It had to be prayer,” Kisha finally says. “We had churches praying for us that we had never heard of.
“Our friends stepped up. Our parents helped every way possible. My school district told me to be there for my baby, and my job would be there when he got well. Everybody was so unbelievable.”
Jason’s team went 18-7 that season, reached the Mississippi Association of Community & Junior College’s state championship game and the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Region 23 tournament.
He was voted MAJC Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season.
He missed one game.
“I really admire Jason for how he handled everything,” Kisha says. “He went to River Oaks every single day - sometimes after practice, sometimes after they got back from a road game at midnight. I would tell him, ‘You don’t have to go tonight.’ But he would make that drive just to tell our son goodnight.”
“I give my assistant (and former Ole Miss teammate), Coach (Jason) Harrison, a lot of credit. My administration was great,” Jason says. “And our players were great, too. Three of them had babies on the way, so my situation really got their attention.
“I was concerned about Kisha and her blood pressure the whole time. I tried to be strong for her, but I can’t imagine being a mother and not being able to hold my baby for weeks.”
The couple had donated regularly to the March of Dimes for years, and Kisha participated in their walks to raise money.
“But I never dreamed we would wind up being on the receiving end,” Kisha says.
March of Dimes, a national nonprofit founded in 1938, contributed directly to Karter’s lungs developing.
The organization helped fund Surfactant, a synthetic lubricant that allows babies’ lungs to expand until their bodies make it naturally. March of Dimes also helped fund the research of nitric oxide to help treat lung disorders and the first newborn screening test to detect PKU, a condition in which the body can’t break down the amino acids found in proteins.
“All of this has saved millions of lives,” says Dina Ray, executive director of market development for March of Dimes Greater Mississippi/Mobile Territory.
It helped save Karter, who now is 3 feet tall, weighs 30 pounds and can already shoot a regular-sized basketball through a 5-foot hoop.
In the Flanigans’ home hangs an enlarged copy of the first picture taken of Karter, when he was tiny and discolored.
“It’s just a reminder,” Kisha says, “of the blessing that he is to our family - and the incredible help we received from so many people.”
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