A.J.'s Story: How WDMCS Rallied Behind A Family of Its Own (03/05/19)
March 5, 2019 | Austin James “A.J.” Sinram was born on Dec. 23, 2016. Twenty-four hours later, he was intubated in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
It was a reality UI medical professionals and A.J.’s parents, Becky and Zac Sinram, had prepared for. The Sinrams learned months ago that their newborn son’s life was going to be in hands bigger than their own.
This story isn’t centralized around A.J.’s health battle, though. It is the story of a mother’s gift and the scores of kind-hearted people at West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) who lifted this family when they needed it most.
‘We’ll get him here and figure out what these next steps look like’
Becky, a counselor at Valley High School, remembers her 20-week prenatal appointment clearly.
“We went to do (A.J.’s) ultrasound. We’re sitting in this room, and it just didn’t feel like it had with Brooklyn,” she explained. “They just kept going over things, and then went and got another doctor. We left there and they said, ‘Yep, good,’ but it just didn’t feel right.”
The next day, Becky got a phone call and was advised to return to Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines. There was something wrong with A.J.’s kidneys, doctors said.
“At the neck of his bladder, there was a blockage,” said Zac, assistant principal at Indian Hills Junior High. “His kidneys basically got beat up throughout the whole pregnancy. They weren’t able to build or release any amniotic fluid at all.”
Becky and Zac were presented with information and routes they could take, but decisions had to be made. And soon.
“Zac and I had decided that if he was going to be hurting at all, it was in hands bigger than ours that we were going to continue on with this pregnancy,” Becky said.
The Sinrams found themselves in Iowa City the following week.
Doctors continued to monitor A.J.’s amniotic fluid during increasingly frequent appointments. By week 28, Becky recalled, she and Zac gathered with a large team of UI specialists and constructed a plan.
“We needed it to be this magical zone where it was between being able to survive the pregnancy, but also, if his kidneys were as bad as we thought—which everything suggested they were—to get on dialysis, you need to be X amount of pounds,” Zac explained. “We’ll get him here and we’ll figure out what these next steps look like.”
When A.J. arrived, doctors initially thought he was doing great. He weighed 5 pounds, 12 ounces—seven ounces greater than the minimum required for dialysis. So far, so good.
Then, suddenly, A.J. crashed.
He was intubated and remained in NICU for a couple of weeks until doctors felt he could receive proper nutrition to withstand a surgery for dialysis. Once eventually growing above that threshold, “A.J. became a dialysis patient right away,” Zac explained.
“The first form of dialysis that A.J. was on for an infant was in 2014. I don’t know if ‘miracle’ is the term, but it’s pretty close,” he added. “We had to just find that gap from running out of amniotic fluid to undergoing an operation for dialysis.”
After giving birth, Becky remained in Iowa City with A.J. On weekends, Zac would drive to Iowa City to be with them.
Nearly three months later, on March 15, 2017, the Sinram’s newest addition earned the OK to go home. A positive sign for what yet remained.
An outpouring of support from their ‘second family’
Since that week 20 appointment, staff at both Indian Hills and Valley swooped in to support Becky, Zac, Brooklyn, and A.J. Becky recalls the first conversation she had with then-Valley principal Tim Miller about her family’s situation.
“The day after we got the news, I went into his office and said, ‘Hey, Tim. This is what our plan is right now.’ He hugged me and said, ‘Beck, we’ll get through this,’” she recounted. ”It was truly a ‘we’ll.’ There was not one point in time that the whole school district wasn’t right there with us.
“ … To say it’s a second family is not far-fetched at all because that’s what we had.”
Care packages on their home’s front steps were constant reminders that Becky and Zac were never alone on this journey. Responsibilities and shifts at school were picked up by colleagues without hesitation whenever they needed to attend an appointment. Colleagues and friends had even helped with shuttling Brooklyn, who was 2 years old at the time, to and from daycare, events, and activities if Becky or Zac ran late traveling back from Iowa City.
“We always felt like we were where we needed to be, and we were supported in that,” Becky said. “When we were in Iowa City for those three months, people drove over all the time to just sit with us. … You have people around you that won’t let you go down that hole.”
For Brooklyn, now 4, specifically, the schools’ staffs made her feel loved, Becky said. When they’d attend basketball games at Valley, Brooklyn would be handed free popcorn. And when she roams the halls at Indian Hills, “she thinks she runs the place,” Zac said.
“She was definitely really resilient, I thought, when one of us was in Iowa City, because she just knew what was going on,” Zac explained. “We would FaceTime. She would ask how A.J. was doing. We took her over there a couple times so she could see him.”
Zac admitted that he isn’t the best at asking for help, but this experience had forced him to do so.
“It didn’t matter if it was morning duty help or office support, so many people would help us out. For that, I’m probably better off now,” he said. “You see that people are so eager to help, wanting to do what’s best for kids in our district and for you as a person, I hope I’ve become a better employee because of that.”
He added how Indian Hills Principal Shane Christensen made sure Zac remained positive.
“He made a point to make sure I would keep everyone positive,” Zac said of Christensen. “He emphasized that with me and I took it to heart.”
When asked what she would say to those who’ve helped her and her family over the past two years, Becky grew emotional.
“How do you tell a whole district thank you?” she said, her voice breaking. “Everybody who did a little thing, they don’t realize how big of a thing that might have been at that point in time for us. We’re always proud to be in this profession and to work for a wonderful school district, but this puts it on a whole different level. We want to work harder. We want to be better. We owe that.
“It’s definitely made us more empathetic as educators,” Zac added, “because our little thing was one thing. But there are a lot of stories out there in that hospital and in our town. We’re very fortunate for things to have bounced our way. Hopefully, we can continue to serve our kids and families with that sense of empathy and just pay it forward.”
Two years later, inside and out of the operating room … together
Doctors informed Becky and Zac that, when A.J. would turn 2 and was at least 22 pounds, he would be in need of a kidney transplant.
“I think Zac and I always had it in the back of our minds since then that one of us would be the donor,” Becky said.
On average, familial kidneys last up to 20 years. Becky explained how there are three rounds of testing that go into finding a matching donor. Both she and Zac were matches. After undergoing measurements and pre-surgeries for the transplant, it was determined that Becky was the better fit for A.J.
Mother and son prepped for surgery. The pair went to the operating room together on December 27 —four days after his second birthday. Hours later, the two came out together.
Both are currently happy. Most important, both are healthy. Zac said A.J. is more verbal and has lots of energy.
“You have to always be aware of rejection and bacterial infections. We have to stay up on our stuff. We have to be more mindful than we probably would with Brooklyn with temperatures and stuff like that,” Becky said.
In Brooklyn’s eyes, her younger brother is fixed. His owies are gone and she loves him. She loves him so much that she’ll showcase A.J.’s updated conditions to anyone who’s available.
Like, say, a UPS driver.
“One day we had a package delivered, and A.J.’s there and she asked him, ‘Do you want to see my brother’s stomach? It got fixed.’ And then she lifts A.J.’s shirt and flashes the UPS driver,” Becky said, laughing.
Today, A.J.’s appointments are every three weeks. And as long as things progress, checkups will become monthly to quarterly to yearly.
“These were two big hurdles that we needed to get through,” Becky said. “We felt like that was a chapter, and now this is our next chapter with A.J. We were always worrying and making sure this was right and that was right.
“Now it’s figuring out a whole new us and what that will look like.”
The family plans to go on their first spring break vacation together. A.J. will experience his first plane ride, too.
‘Our kids know being Tigers’
A smiley A.J. Sinram poses for a photo at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital. The children’s hospital overlooks Kinnick Stadium—home to the Iowa Hawkeyes football team.
Even after the transplant, WDMCS still assisted the Sinrams. For instance: Miller, who recently retired from the district, served in Zac’s absence while he was on family medical leave.
“The fact that Tim would come out of retirement to do that for us I think was special,” Zac explained. “For HR to work with him and to be able to do that, I think it made a big difference for Indian Hills.”
While Becky was away, she said the Valley Counseling Office never missed a beat. Becky and Zacky acknowledged how they couldn’t have overcome these hurdles if it weren’t for the support, positive thoughts, and prayers from numerous WDMCS staffers and schools.
“I think we get credit for doing some of it because we were the face, but there’s all these people in the background that got us through and never let us believe that we couldn’t,” Becky said. “Thank you will never be enough. I hope to repay it as best we can through the kids that we have. It’s given us a different outlook on what community is and what West Des Moines Community Schools is.
“Our kids know being Tigers, and I don’t think there’s anywhere else you’d want to raise a family.”
Upcoming Event: 2019 Valley Dance Marathon
Both Becky and Zac encourage participation in Valley’s Dance Marathon, which is set for 6-10 p.m. on Friday, March 29.
Money raised through the event will be donated directly to UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital through the Children’s Miracle Network, impacting lives like A.J.’s.
Those who are interested must register by March 8. There’s a $10 fee, which pays for your dance marathon T-shirt and food.