Benefield: A Ukiah teen turns to softball to help grieving families

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On the face of it, Tara and Andrew Sellars had months to prepare.

Well into their pregnancy with their third child, Tara and Andrew learned they would be having a boy. In that test in which they learned his gender, they were also told the baby likely had Trisomy 13, a fatal chromosomal condition.

Additional tests to confirm the devastating diagnosis took time. Their son wasn’t in pain and was still alive, so the couple decided Tara would try to carry him to term.

And during the pregnancy, Tara and Andrew and their extended family did their best to bring their unborn son, to be named Emrys, places a baby should experience: They took excursions from their home in Ukiah to Blue Lake for a massive family picnic. They went to San Francisco. They rode the merry-go-round. And after years together, Tara and Andrew got married.

“We carried each other. We tried to live in the moment,” Andrew Sellars said.

When Emrys was born on Aug. 16, 2016, his life, and his death, passed in a blur. Emrys was breathing when he was born, but died minutes after his birth.

Tara and Andrew held their son for as long as they could.

“I imagine we had about three hours with him,” Andrew Sellars said.

But an infant’s body breaks down faster than an adult’s after death, according to officials at Adventist Health Ukiah Valley Hospital, where Emrys was born. The family praised the staff of the hospital for giving them all the time they could, but how a tiny body deteriorates after death is not something even the most generous staff can stave off.

“The seconds, they melted away and you realize, ‘My baby is not really here,’” Andrew Sellars said. “At the end of it, it was almost like it didn’t happen. It’s done now.”

Sellars’ younger sister, Jessika Ramos —a standout softball player on the Ukiah High team — was there at the hospital when her first nephew was born. She saw her brother and sister-in-law bravely navigate the moments after Emrys’s birth when they invited her to hold her nephew. His older sister, Rhiley, sang to him. His grandmother held him.

It just wasn’t enough to properly process the loss.

“(Staff) gave us all the time we needed,” Jessika Ramos said. “We unfortunately didn’t get enough time with him. I don’t want another family to go through that.”

So Ramos started investigating options for families like hers.

“I did a lot of research on what Trisomy 13 is,” she said. “I just saw that some people were using Cuddle Cots and I wanted to know what it is.”

Cuddle Cots are a transportable cooling system that give families more time with a baby who has died. If Tara and Andrew Sellars had access to one, they could have said goodbye to their son on a timeline that allowed Tara to be free of the nausea, pain and medication that she was dealing with as a result of her cesarean delivery.

“What the Cuddle Cot does is keep the body cool; they can take the baby out, hold him, say their goodbyes and put him back. It extends that period of time that the family can have with the baby,” said Willow Anderson, communication director with the hospital.

And that time can help a family process their grief, she said.

“So they can memorize what his eyes looked like, what his nose looked like, hold his fingers,” she said.

But Adventist Health Ukiah Valley Hospital didn’t have a Cuddle Cot. The closest one is located in Elk Grove. So Jessika Ramos got to work.

Her older brother had tried a bake sale to raise money for a Cuddle Cot, but they cost approximately $5,000 and he fell short. So Ramos, who plays for the Wildcats but also plays for a travel softball team based in Rohnert Park, decided to create a softball tournament to raise money to buy a Cuddle Cot.

“I might as well put my love for the game that I have into the community,” she said.

Swings for Wings was born.

Ramos, currently hitting .500 with a team-leading 13 RBIs for the Wildcats, made a 12-team softball tournament Saturday her Ukiah High senior project. She tapped area leaders like Amanda Hair to help recruit teams and design a bracket. She asked area umpires and scorekeepers to donate their time — some spent all day on the fields for free. She got family and friends to sell food, raffle tickets and T-shirts.

“I had one team from Sebastopol, a team from Laytonville came down to play, a couple of sponsored teams,” she said. “And a lot of other teams were teams that play in Ukiah.”

“I don’t think I left there until 11:30 p.m.,” she said.

There are calculations still to be done, but Swings for Wings has so far pulled in a net of $5,400. Jessika Ramos is working with Madison’s Miracles, a non-profit organization based in Florida, to buy a Cuddle Cot at a discount.

Madison’s Miracles co-founder Christina Stamper is slated to travel to Adventist Health Ukiah Valley Hospital to help train staff about the device and offer support on how to deal with grieving families.

“With hospitals looking at how many fetal demises do you have in a year, fortunately, it’s not a huge number,” Anderson said. “However, when it does happen, having something like this available for the family, it gives the family more time.

“It’s really a difficult situation whenever you have an infant pass, so the more resources a department has to help families through the process, the better,” she said.

Even simply talking about it can help other families, said Jessika and Andrew’s mom, Trudy Sellars-Ramos.

“Nobody wants to talk about a baby passing away,” she said. “But you need to talk about it. These families need time to have this closure.”

Andrew Sellars could feel it, even around the fields on Saturday. It wasn’t just about softball.

“We met people who have been through this,” he said. “People were there for a reason.”

And Swings for Wings surpassed, fundraising expectations so there are plans afoot to perhaps buy two Cuddle Cots. And maybe more — the 2020 tournament is also already on the books, family members said.

“We see the need for Cuddle Cots,” Sellars-Ramos said. “Up and down the (Highway) 101 corridor, people need them.”

But first, a Cuddle Cot will come to Adventist Health Ukiah Valley Hospital. It will have a marker indicating it is in memory of Emrys Lee Sellars.

Andrew Sellars says he doesn’t need that marker to remember his son. Emrys is with him every day. But he’s proud of his youngest sister for keeping Emrys’s memory alive in a way that helps other families.

“I felt like my sister gave that to us. There is a legacy,” he said. “I’m really proud of her.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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