Bluffton family, friends, strangers pay it forward in memory of baby who died from SIDS

abredeson@islandpacket.comNovember 9, 2013 

  • HOW TO HELP

    Bluffton resident Heather Price, who lost her daughter, Vivienne, to sudden infant death syndrome, is asking people to donate to SIDS research. She suggests making donations in honor of Vivienne through the CJ Foundation for SIDS. Details: cjsids.donorpages.com/Memorial/HeatherPrice

  • TIPS FOR REDUCING THE RISK OF SIDS

    Since the cause of sudden infant death syndrome is unknown, it is virtually impossible to prevent it from happening. But there are many strategies to reduce the risk. Medical experts offer the following tips for reducing the risk of SIDS:

    • Seek regular prenatal care.
    • Refrain from smoking during pregnancy and around babies.
    • Put infants to sleep on their backs.
    • Do not use car seats for sleeping.
    • Put babies on a firm sleep surface with no pillows, blankets or other items, such as stuffed animals, in the crib.
    • If you use bumper pads, make sure they are thin, firm and secured to the crib.
    • Make sure the baby's head remains uncovered while sleeping.
    • Don't allow the baby to sleep with another person or on a sofa or chair.
    • Dress the baby in cool clothing, and never put it near a radiator, heater or in direct sunlight.
    • Breastfeed.
    • Put the baby down to sleep with a pacifier in his or her mouth.

Late one night this summer, Brad Sandifer was called into work. A family had been stranded on Interstate 95 with two flat tires.

A mechanic in Ridgeland, Sandifer went to the shop and repaired the vehicle. But when he was done, the family's credit card was declined.

Sandifer didn't want to leave the family alone in the dark, so he offered to give them a ride. On the way, he handed each of them a business card. It read "Paying it forward in memory of Vivienne Rose Nicole Vacha (Vivi)."

Vivienne, the daughter of Sandifer's friends, died from sudden infant death syndrome. She was six weeks and six days old.

This isn't all Sandifer has done in Vivienne's memory this year. In June, he and his daughter, Ella, passed out hundreds of bottles of water and juice at the Hampton County Watermelon Festival. He left an unusually large tip after a waiter gave him a free pizza because of a mix-up.

With every good deed, Sandifer has passed out one of the cards.

He is just one of hundreds of people "paying it forward" in the Bluffton baby's honor.

Groceries and meals have been bought for strangers. Enough coins have been left behind to cover the next person's toll on highways. Donations have been made to charities. Books have been sent to an orphanage in India. Tumbling classes were bought for a little girl whose family could not afford them.

The cards have been passed out around the world, all in honor of Vivienne.

'THIS IS NOT HAPPENING'

Heather Price had a feeling something was going to happen to her baby. She prayed every night that God would keep Vivienne safe.

On the morning of Jan. 8, Price's fear became a reality.

Little Vivienne had been fussy the night before, so Price rocked her until about 3 a.m. When Vivienne woke up around 7 a.m., her father, Ronald Vacha, changed her diaper and put her back down to sleep.

Vacha woke up again at 8:30 a.m. He looked at the baby in the crib and knew right away that something was terribly wrong.

Price awoke to the sound of her fiancè's screams. In her half-asleep state, she thought he was bringing her the baby to nurse.

She quickly realized that was not the case.

"I saw a mark on her head from where the blood had kind of pooled," she said.

Price dialed 911. She handed the phone to Vacha and started doing CPR on her daughter. But, as a former EMT, she knew the moment she blew air into her daughter's lungs that Vivienne was dead.

"I could feel the fluid in her lungs," she said.

Within four minutes, their Baywood home was filled with police officers and emergency workers -- the Bluffton Police Department, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, a detective, the coroner. They were all there. They were all investigating the death of their daughter.

Police separated Price and Vacha. They started asking them questions.

"This is not happening," Price screamed over and over -- at the officials in her home, at her mom on the phone, to everyone and to no one.

The ambulance wasn't moving. Price knew what that meant. When she tried to get in the ambulance to be with her daughter, she was stopped.

Neighbors gathered outside. They had heard Price's screams.

When the ambulance pulled off with Vivienne -- lights flashing, siren blaring -- Price fainted. Her head slammed onto the concrete driveway. Another ambulance came, this time to treat her.

Then, everyone was gone.

The home that was filled with officials just moments ago, the home that was filled with the sounds of a baby the night before, was suddenly empty. It was quiet. Price and Vacha were alone. They were still in the same pajamas they wore the night before, when they had cajoled their daughter to sleep.

"Everybody just left and left us to drive ourselves to the hospital," Price said. "You'd think that they would drive you."

'A REASON FOR THINGS'

Vivienne's death was sudden. It remained unexplained after a thorough investigation, including an autopsy, examination of the death scene and a review of her clinical history.

Their daughter had died from sudden infant death syndrome, Price and Vacha were eventually told.

SIDS is the leading cause of death in infants between the age of 1 month and 1 year, though it can affect children up to age 2, according to Rosana Markley, Vivienne's pediatrician at Universal Center for Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine on Hilton Head Island.

Approximately 2,500 children -- most between the ages of 2 and 4 months -- die from SIDS every year. Most die during sleep, but that is not always the case. Most show no signs of suffering. The risk of SIDS is one per 1,000 live births in the U.S.

Vivienne was Markley's first patient to die from SIDS in 20 years.

There are many strategies to reduce the risk of SIDS, including putting babies to sleep on their backs -- a move that has dropped the SIDS rate by more than 50 percent since 1992 -- and removing pillows, blankets and stuffed animals from cribs.

But since the cause is still unknown, it is virtually impossible to prevent SIDS, Markley said.

Often people think the parents must have done something to cause the death, Price said.

"People have to have a reason for things," she said. "I do ... for it to make sense. People just think, 'Oh, well, they must've done something, or she must not have taken care of herself (while she was) pregnant, or something went wrong, or she was sick.' "

Others think SIDS is the same thing as suffocation, Price said.

"They think that if they just put the babies on their backs, then SIDS won't be an issue," she said. "And that's not true."

Markley said there's no need to put blame on anyone. The latest theory behind SIDS is that some infants have an underlying vulnerability -- either a brain abnormality or a genetic predisposition -- or they were exposed to maternal smoking, Markley said.

"When you lose a child to SIDS, it's alarming," Markley said. "You always think, 'Oh, my goodness. What did I miss? ... What could I have done?' "

PAYING IT FORWARD

The first few weeks after Vivienne's death are a blur.

There are entire visits, phone calls, places Price can't remember. She can't remember how her 24-year-old son was told his sister was dead.

"Ron said all I did was scream," she said. "I just screamed for days.

"I tried to nurse the pillow. That was my thing. 'I need to nurse. Somebody, go get her. She's starving.' That's what I kept telling people. And I think I just kept breaking their hearts."

Price and Vacha couldn't bear to return home for six weeks.

While they were away, friends packed up Vivienne's room and put everything in storage. People brought meals for a month. The Zoe Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps with the cost of infants' funerals, paid for most of Vivienne's. The rest was donated by others. Someone raised money so the two could take time off work and still pay their bills. Someone donated a timeshare for a week on Hilton Head. Someone donated a condo for a month.

And someone else did something very special for the grieving couple.

A family friend, Lisa Carinus of Bluffton, wanted to do something to honor Vivienne and raise awareness of SIDS. She created "paying it forward" business cards with information about SIDS and a photo of Vivienne. The idea was that people would perform random acts of kindness and hand the cards out in the process.

Carinus asked for Price's permission before ordering the cards.

"Heather and Ron are more than friends," Carinus said. "They're like family. I would do anything for them."

She hoped people would start spreading kindness around. She hoped it would help Vacha and Price cope. She gave the couple 500 cards. She never imagined her idea would grow so large.

In the beginning, it was a way Price could do something for her daughter.

When Price ran out of the cards, she ordered more. She started a "Paying it forward for Vivienne" Facebook page on Jan. 28 to encourage people to share stories of their acts of kindness. The page now has almost 1,600 likes.

After people contacted her via Facebook asking for them, she put thousands of the cards in the mail, addressed to homes in the U.S., England and Australia.

Once a week, Price challenges the Facebook page's fans to do something for Vivienne. She asked families to buy supplies for a local animal shelter. Because Price and Vacha donated Vivienne's organs, she asked them to talk to their loved ones about organ donation. She asked them to donate school supplies or uniforms.

"I love hearing about people doing things in her honor," Price said. "It makes me feel so good to hear that, and Ron, too."

CHANGED BY LOSS

Of course, there are still hard days.

The death of a baby can be lonely. Some people don't know what to say, so they say nothing, which can make grieving parents think they don't care. Some friends disappear altogether because they think their presence, especially if they have their own children, might make things worse.

"Child loss changes every single relationship you have, every single one -- with your family, your spouse, your friends, your employer," Price said. "It is so isolating. And things that you don't even think about, like going to the grocery store, are such landmines for moms that have lost kids. If you pay attention, everything is geared around children."

Price is not fully sure how Vivienne's death has changed her relationship with Vacha.

She knows that most couples don't survive child loss, so she and Vacha made a decision that this would not break them apart. They go to an infant loss grief support group every other week. They kickbox together. Price said both help.

"We have a motto," she said. "We're a team, and if it's not good for the team, we don't do it. And it's not good for the team for us to not be there for each other in our grief."

The key is trying not to be "in the dark place" at the same time, Price said. So if she is really down and notices he is starting to go downhill, she will make herself snap out of it to be there for him.

As the "pay it forward" movement has grown, it has become a good distraction for Price. She now focuses on spreading SIDS awareness and sharing her daughter's story with the world.

She wants other parents to know SIDS could happen to anyone. She encourages people to donate money to SIDS research and to continue to do good deeds in her daughter's memory.

She has worked to keep Vivienne's memory alive, but Price still grieves.

"We never got to know her," Price said about Vivienne. "I know some things. She loved baths. She snorted when she nursed. But as far as knowing your kid, we don't know her. We never heard her voice. We never heard her laugh.

I think when you lose an infant, it's the entire list of nevers. You will never have a first birthday. You will never play Santa. You will never hear an 'I love you, Mommy.' You will never know what they like to eat, do, color ... You mourn the entire list of nevers."

Follow Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.

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