special needs family
Raising children can be an exciting journey full of ups and downs and unexpected turns. With two young daughters and another child on the way, Naples parents Ralph and Monica Rodriguez had so far navigated the parenting years with little turbulence. However, they were about to take a detour and embark on another route for which they were unprepared.
Married since 1995, Monica and Ralph always knew that they wanted to have four children. While he enjoyed his two daughters, Ralph, who is an avid sports fan, liked the idea of having a son. Despite his anticipation of adding a boy to the mix, Ralph and Monica opted not to find out the sex of the baby through ultrasound, just as they had with their two previous pregnancies. The couple was thrown a curveball, however, when the results of Monica’s prenatal tests indicated the baby had an elevated chance of having Down syndrome. Soon afterward, they traveled to Fort Myers for more conclusive tests and were told their child did not have the condition after all. For the time being, Monica’s mind had been put to ease concerning the matter. Yet, as her delivery date approached, there were more surprises in store for the couple.
After she was admitted to North Collier Hospital, Monica began to experience complications as her labor progressed. Her contractions were distressing the baby, who reacted by having a bowel movement in the womb. The baby breathed in the meconium, which damaged to the lungs and made it difficult to breathe. In addition, the baby’s heartbeat stopped several times during labor. Because of these complications, Monica had to undergo an emergency C-section. What began as one of the happiest days of their lives soon became an emotional roller coaster.
After the ordeal, Ralph and Monica had finally become the proud parents of a son, whom they named Eli. Unfortunately, there wouldn’t be any time to hold their baby and not much time to relish the news. Although further testing would be required for confirmation, Ralph was told that Eli had been born with Down syndrome. He was also told that his son might not live through the night and would be taken immediately to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Lee Memorial Health Park in Ft. Myers. After only a touch of her baby’s hand, Monica had to watch as her tiny infant son was taken from her. Though Ralph had the responsibility of telling his wife their son had Down syndrome and may not live, he chose not to immediately reveal the news because Monica was in fragile emotional state at the time. While Monica recovered from the C-section in Naples, Ralph followed Eli to Fort Myers as he continued to fight for his life.
The seriousness of Eli’s medical condition overshadowed whatever emotional upheaval Ralph and Monica may have experienced at the news that he had special needs.
Both parents recall receiving the news and responding to it in the same way: neither of them cared about his diagnosis as long as he lived.
During her son’s recovery in Fort Myers, Monica constantly stayed by Eli’s side and was finally able to hold her son a week after his birth. He was released after a month, but he had many subsequent trips back to the hospital for medical problems during his first year. Monica remembers that year as being the hardest year of her life. Employed as a math teacher at Naples High School, she had to take time off to care for her son. Monica received some more unexpected news just a month after Eli’s birth: she and her husband were expecting their fourth child.
Now that she had the responsibility of caring for a child with Down syndrome, Monica needed some information about the condition so she could properly care for Eli. She credits the occupational therapists who visited her in the hospital and at home for helping her the most. In addition to giving her information about Down syndrome, they also helped in practical ways, such as picking up resources for the family and giving them information about how to get funding.
Adjusting to life with a special needs child required a shift in thinking for Monica. She says that remembering that her other kids are a gift from God made her realize that Eli is also, it would just take a longer and be a little tougher to raise him.
“It doesn’t have to be a devastating thing,” she said. “Our faith gives us strength to keep going on, no matter what comes up and trust that God is guiding our every step.”
Eli is now five years old and participates in the special needs program at Poinciana Elementary School, where he splits his day between a special needs class and a mainstream class. Like most five-year-olds, he enjoys macaroni and cheese, ice cream and visits from his grandmas. While he is still learning to walk, Eli has acquired some basic speaking and sign language skills.
Aside from fitting therapy into its busy schedule, the Rodriguez family takes time to enjoy life together. They have fun going to the movies, bowling, camping and going on vacation. Eli enjoys sports, just like his dad, and the two have fun together watching football and basketball on television. Eli likes watching sports so much that he cries through the commercial breaks. It’s plain to see that Ralph and Monica have the four children they’ve always wanted.
“We feel complete with all of our children, including Eli,” Monica said. “We feel like we have the perfect family. Everyone fits.”
The Rodriguez family’s success in handling this challenge can be largely attributed to keeping a good perspective. While Monica acknowledges that it’s easy to easily see the drawbacks of the situation, the biggest rewards come with each of Eli’s accomplishments, she said. Things that are seen as relatively normal milestones, such as sitting up for the first time, potty training and taking first steps, are huge accomplishments for a child who has special needs.
When looking back at the beginning of this journey, Monica said wishes that she would have known how normal life can be while raising a child with special needs. She recognizes that having a child with special needs is not the worst news a parent can receive. Rather, it’s simply a journey down a different path.