As the sun rises over the Verrazano bridge, Mirjam Lavabre, a woman entrepreneur and single mother of one, is warming her muscles up at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. Grey sport pants and a blue tee on, she is wearing runner’s bib 25341.
Mirjam leads a group of French friends, all about to pass the starting line of New York Marathon and engage on the 26.2-mile iconic race.
They are not just running to challenge their physical capacities; they are also raising money for First Candle foundation in memory of Mirjam’s daughter, who 15 years ago passed away of the sudden infant death syndrome. Her name was Lola, and it is written on capital letters on Mirjam’s arms, visible to the thousands of runners and supporters as she races through the five boroughs of Manhattan.
This early morning of November 7, 2021, the azure skies over the city brings to New York an air of Indian summer, bright and unseasonably warm, a softness almost and a warmth reminiscent of the late Spring evening of June 15, 2006. Mirjam and her husband were joining a group of friends for dinner on the Upper East Side. They had brought Lola with them and had left their five-year-old son behind at home with a babysitter.
Unlike her older brother, Lola was born two weeks after her due date, “big as a turkey,” her mother remembers. “I was a bit afraid at the idea of managing and loving two children at the same time, but once Lola was in my arm, with her large blue eyes, I realized that I could share love easily, and right away I knew I wanted a third child.” Lola would regularly wake up early, and soon after her mother breastfed her, she would move on with her day, curious, smiling, and energetic. Lola’s brother fell right away in love for this little baby and wanted nothing more than having her in his bedroom. Along with Lola’s father, a prominent chef at Bilboquet, one of New York’s trendiest restaurants—then on 63rd street—everyone seemed in place, happy, and ready for an enthusiastic family lifelong adventure.
Minutes later, a friend passing through the children’s bedroom alerted her. “Your daughter,” she said, “sleeps in a weird way.”
Arriving at their friend’s home that June evening, Mirjam fed her daughter. She then put Lola in her bassinet and placed it on a bed. Lola soon fell asleep, and her mother joined her husband and their friends outside for a much-wanted drink. Minutes later, a friend passing through the children’s bedroom alerted her. “Your daughter,” she said, “sleeps in a weird way.” Lola was used to moving towards the top of the bed, Mirjam explains to me. “It happened all the time, and I would then just replace her in the center of the bed.” Yet, that evening, when Mirjam grabbed her baby by the feet after her friend shared her worry, she immediately felt that something had gone dramatically wrong. “I screamed as much and as loud as I could,” Mirjam recalls. Her husband ran to the bedroom, took Lola in his arms, and everyone jumped on a taxi for Lenox Hill, the nearest hospital. “I saw my husband say in a low voice, ‘she is dead,’” Mirjams remembers.
It was over.
At Lenox Hill, everything went very quickly. As if a miracle could happen, the doctors cut Lola’s purple pajamas and tried all they could to revive her. “All I am thinking of at that moment, is how am I going to tell my son that while we were three leaving the apartment, just two are coming back home. But minutes after we arrived at the hospital, the doctors and nurses had reanimated Lola.” She was immediately transferred to a pediatric hospital, but the good news did not last long. Lola’s heart had stopped for too long, her brain was irreversibly damaged. She might live a few extra weeks at the most, the doctors explained, but never regain consciousness. Lola’s parents faced the most difficult and ethical choice a human being could. “We decided to keep her alive a few more hours so that her brother could come say ‘good-bye’ to her, and we baptized her.” Soon after, Lola was gone.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 3,400 babies die every year in the United States from sudden unexpected infant deaths, which includes the syndrome Lola died from, as well as accidental strangulation and suffocation in bed, and undetermined causes.
“We know that many of these sudden infant deaths could be prevented.” Abby Lundi, First Candle Foundation
In some cases, explains First Candle’s director of development Abby Lundi, educating families about safe sleep is critical to prevent some of the SUIDs, specifically the suffocation and strangulation in bed. “We know that many of these deaths could be prevented by:
– Always placing baby on his/her back on a firm and flat mattress for every nap time and bedtime.
– Keeping baby in the same room as parents but in their own crib or bassinet. An adult bed mattress is too soft for a baby and even as young as 6 weeks they can scoot and move under covers or up towards a pillow.
– Eliminating everything from baby’s sleep area including pillows, blankets, stuffed animals, fluffy bumpers, and loose clothing.”
“Unfortunately, many families don’t have access to safe sleep education,” Lundi explains. “Usually when parents are leaving the hospital with a newborn, they are merely given a brochure to read about safe sleep,” she adds. “There is also a great deal of implicit bias in terms of who receives information and how much.”
So, First Candle offers counseling and training. “We explore how to have conversations with families about their cultural beliefs, socio-economic challenges and other issues that might prevent them from adopting the safe sleep recommendations.”
Educating more parents is one of Mirjam’s objectives. She and her group of friends raised $50,000 ahead of the New York Marathon for First Candle. “It creates a collective meaning of this otherwise individual adventure,” explains Emmanuel Saint-Martin, a French journalist and cancer survivor. “Adding a charitable objective turns the solitary race into a solidarity one,” he says. Saint-Martin did not hesitate to run for a cause that impacted one member of his group. “This reflects the friendship that ties this group together.”
Friendship, solidarity, leaving no one behind, and the simple idea even that together no hurdle is impossible may just be what parents such as Mirjam need for the rest of their lives after such a tragic episode. This also is the work of First Candle Foundation.
“I don’t think parents ever “recover” but learn to continue living in a new reality,” Lundi explains. “Many go on to have more children, the ‘rainbow’ babies,” she adds, “but support is extremely important.” First Candle Foundation has put in place a warm grief line, private Facebook support groups, and peer support volunteers to speak with families and bereavement support materials.
Friends flocked their apartment every morning, noon and night, making sure that they would never be alone for a moment.