Justin and Kat Stahl were excited to get a peek at their baby during Kat’s 20-week ultrasound. They saw a cute a little face, and adorable little arms and legs, but then the technician noticed a growth that wasn’t supposed to be there.
The Chicago couple was sent to a nearby hospital for a more detailed ultrasound. That afternoon, their daughter was diagnosed with Sacrococcygeal teratoma (SCT) – she had a tumor growing from her pelvis both inside and outside of her body. The tumor looked to be mostly solid, and it had its own blood supply.
Already more than a third the size of the baby, the tumor put a lot of strain on her heart. “It’s like supporting twins,” says Justin, 38. “That’s how big it was.”
The doctor told them they could terminate immediately, or they could monitor the baby and deliver when her heart began to fail. “We told the doctor, ‘No. We won’t consider termination,’ ” Kat, 33, tells PEOPLE.
The next day, another doctor, a neonatologist, told the couple the same grim prognosis. Termination, the doctor said, would be a good option.
“The doctor was saying with pretty much certainty that this baby wasn’t going to make it,” Kat says.
But the couple didn’t want to let their daughter go. “We looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to fight for her. She’s going to fight,’ ” Justin says.
They named the baby Lucy June, and spent the next week crying, praying, and meeting with specialists.
A pediatric surgeon at a different hospital said she didn’t have a lot of experience with a tumor like this, but thought the tumor might be operable.
The Stahls began doing research online. They saw that Texas Children’s Hospital has seen 52 tumors like Lucy’s since 2001.
Kat grew up in the southwest Houston suburb of Sugar Land. She decided to make an appointment on Jan. 29, since she was going to be in Houston co-hosting her brother’s fiancée’s bridal shower.
There, a surgeon told Kat they had seen babies with far bigger tumors.
“He said, ‘There’s no question: This is operable. ‘We’ve seen worse,’ ” Kat remembers. “He said, ‘I can’t guarantee a good outcome, but this is definitely something we can do.’ “
Kat’s was overcome with emotion. “It’s so important to have a medical team that believes your baby can make it,” she says.
Her due date was May 18. She planned to have weekly ultrasounds in Chicago, then move to Houston in March. After an ultrasound a week later, a nurse at Texas Children’s called and told Kat her amniotic fluid had gone way up. The nurse told Kat to go to the hospital, and if she was cleared for travel, she needed to come to Houston immediately.
Two days later, Kat and her 3-year-old daughter Grace flew to Houston and moved in with Kat’s parents. Her husband followed a week later with a car full of belongings.
On Saturday, March 9, Kat felt like she was in labor. But hospital staff said her contractions were too far apart. “They were pretty painful,” Kat remembers. Around 10 p.m., Kat asked the nurses to check again if she was in labor. She was 5 cm dilated. The baby was born at 11 p.m. via C-section, so as not to disturb the tumor. Lucy was born 10 weeks early and weighed 9 lbs., 1 oz. because of the tumor.
On Monday morning, surgeons began operating on Lucy. “Her surgery was quite interesting,” says the pediatric surgeon, Dr. Oluyinka Olutoye, co-director of Texas Children’s Fetal Center. “It was a challenging operation. It was an unusual operation – most babies that have that, they don’t survive to get the surgery.”
The tumor extended all the way up to her abdomen and was pressing on her internal organs, but the tumor didn’t constrict or damage them. “Every piece of good news we could have had was coming out of his mouth,” Justin says. “The man just saved our family. He changed the course of our lives – and our family – forever.”
After the operation, Lucy weighed 6 lbs.; a couple days later, when her swelling went down, she weighed 3 lbs, 15 oz. She stayed in the hospital for 56 days. After eating and growing, she went home on May 3, weighing 6 lbs., 7 oz. She is a happy, sleepy, cuddly baby who only cries when she’s hungry her parents say.
“She looks very healthy,” says Olutoye, shortly after examining Lucy on May 13. “She’s a cheerful baby, very calm and content.”
The more she grows, the more she looks like her big sister, Grace, her parents say. They have the same blue eyes and chubby cheeks.
And because the surgery was done when she was 36 hours old, her scars soon won’t be noticeable. “Anatomically, they made her look normal,” Kat says. “You really won’t be able to tell that she had this giant tumor growing in her and out of her.”
Lucy will still meet with a team of specialists over the next years to make sure the tumor hasn’t caused damage and won’t come back.
“The good news for Lucy is she’s already defied the odds. Very few people thought she would make it to term, or even delivery – much less making it through surgery. Now, she’s a thriving infant,” Olutoye says. “We’ll make sure Lucy continues to thrive.”
“This family really just held out hope for their child, and held onto their faith to sustain them through dark times when everything looked hopeless. It’s really short of a miracle,” Olutoye says.
The Stahls plan to move home to Chicago in June and spend the summer holding Lucy and starting their new life as a family of four.
“We fought for Lucy,” Kat says. “We’re just so happy to have her in our arms.”