Corey Epton

Corey Epton

Inspired by a Miracle

The lone survivor among premature triplets, Corey Epton defied the odds and thrived after five months in neonatal intensive care—inspiring her grateful family to give back.

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When Betsy and Scott Epton were expecting triplets in 1989, they were given a tour of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital as part of their childbirth preparation classes. They never expected to see it again. “It was all so foreign,” says Betsy.

But after Betsy went into labor at just 25 weeks’ gestation, the NICU became the couple’s home away from home, and its staff became their extended family. Doctors and nurses joined with Betsy and Scott’s parents and siblings to shepherd the couple on a journey that took them from excited anticipation to unspeakable grief, from renewed hope to a lifelong commitment to giving back to the hospital that saw them through the most sorrowful but ultimately joyful time of their lives.

Tiny Alex Epton died when he was 14 hours old. Brother Brian followed him an hour later. But against all odds and weighing just one pound seven ounces—about the size of a soda can—sister Corey managed to hang on.

“Our Lifeline and Our Saviors”

The weeks and months following the babies’ births were physically and emotionally exhausting for Betsy and Scott, but they never felt alone. “I was still in the delivery room when [neonatologist] Dr. Mangurten introduced himself and told me, ‘I’m going to take care of you,’ ” Betsy says. “If there is a God on earth, it is Henry Mangurten. Dr. Sheftel , Dr. Benawra, Dr. Puppala—all of them were just wonderful, too.”

Because Corey’s lungs were too undeveloped for her to breathe on her own, the newborn was hooked up to a ventilator for three and a half months. Betsy and Scott spent so much time at the hospital that one Saturday night, several off-duty nurses and their husbands came looking for the couple and insisted they go out bowling with them.  “The nurses were truly our lifeline and our saviors,” Betsy says. “I asked them, ‘Why do you want to spend time with me? I have two babies who died, and another who will probably die.’ And they said, ‘The day we stop caring is the day we should no longer be here.’ ”

Besides parents, only grandparents are allowed to visit patients in the NICU, and “the hospital could not have been better in terms of their support,” remembers Betsy’s father, Harold Solochek, who with his late wife, Marsha, moved into an apartment several blocks from the hospital so they could be near their daughter and granddaughter. “Day and night, there wasn’t a nurse who didn’t offer encouragement, and Dr. Mangurten took on Corey almost like she was his own child.”

As did the NICU nurses. When it was finally time for Corey to leave the hospital after five months, Susan Okuno-Jones spent the first night with the Epton family in their house in Northbrook, even though she had a baby of her own at home.  Several other nurses including Maggie Thomas and Diane Patzer, rearranged their work schedules so they could support Betsy at home, as well.  “We call them “Auntie,” Betsy says.

The Family Gives Back

Now a young adult, Corey is the older sister of Casey and a special-services teacher to seven students at Anne Fox Elementary School in Hanover Park. Grateful for their beautiful, healthy girl—and the woman she’s become—the family has given back to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and Advocate Children’s Hospital-Park Ridge in many ways over the years.

Knowing firsthand the travails of having a baby in the NICU, Betsy has volunteered in the unit, cuddling fragile newborns and supporting their overwhelmed parents—and she now serves on the hospital’s Pediatric Council of Advisors. She and a friend also started PALS, a group to provide “fun stuff” for hospitalized children.

When Corey was seven, her maternal grandparents made a generous planned gift to the hospital—recognized in the NICU’s “Scott, Betsy, Corey and Casey Epton room”— in the form of a charitable remainder annuity trust. This kind of philanthropic donation provides an annual income stream for the donors or others they designate during their lifetime. “Making that gift made Marsha and me feel very good,” Harold Solochek says. “It was a win-win for everyone.”

Every year since Corey Epton was little, she and her family have celebrated her birthday by bringing cake for the patients in Advocate Children’s Hospital. Corey recently marked a major milestone: She turned 25 years old on December 26, 2014.

“When Corey was a newborn, we were told she might be blind and she might have cerebral palsy, but she has had absolutely no residual effects,” Betsy says. “There are no words for how our family feels about the NICU.  What they did for Corey was a miracle.”

First published: Fall 2014