Normal family gives to NICU families in honor of late infant son – The Pantagraph

Sarah Shields of Normal gives back to Central Illinois families with Cam’s Cards, in honor of her late son.

NORMAL — Cam Shields’ short life began Feb. 19, 2019. He never spent time outside a hospital or saw his first Christmas.

But his parents, Sarah and Isaac, spend the holiday season ensuring he is not forgotten.

“We have been really big about trying to create a legacy for him and keeping his memory alive because he’s unable to do that himself,” said Sarah Shields, of Normal.

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Sarah Shields holds framed footprints of her son, Cam. He was born premature at 28 weeks with a complex congenital heart disease. Born Feb. 19, 2019, Cam lived for five days in the NICU. Shields has an organization in honor of her son, Cam’s Cards.

The couple started an organization called Cam’s Cards in their son’s memory, beginning to collect donations on Giving Tuesday — the Tuesday after Thanksgiving — and ending collections on Cam’s birthday.

Inspired by another family whose story they heard while they were in the neonatal intensive care unit with Cam, they use the funds to buy gift cards for restaurants and gas stations, which they give to two Central Illinois hospitals to be distributed to NICU families. Each card comes with a handmade envelope that includes Cam’s story. 

Cam’s Cards began the autumn after Cam was born 28 weeks premature with a complex congenital heart defect.

His condition, hypoplastic left heart syndrome, meant half of his heart was not developed; he spent all five days of his life in neonatal intensive care units, or NICUs, at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana and OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria.

“They basically told us that, because of the complexity and him being very small, that there just wasn’t a very good chance that he would survive,” Shields said.

Cam’s grandparents and other family members came to meet him before he died Feb. 23, 2019, “in between my husband and I at the hospital,” his mother said.

“It just was obviously a very big shock. … It all happened really fast as well,” she said. Having been told before his birth that his heart appeared to be healthy, losing him to a heart defect “felt like double shock, you know, for that to happen and for it to end so tragically.”

Now, more than four years later, Shields said she can talk about Cam without crying, and she and her husband make a point to do so, reminding their 2-year-old, Benjamin, that he’s not an only child, even though Cam isn’t here.

“We definitely plan on sharing as much about him as we can with Ben and, you know, telling him about him and just letting him know that he does have a brother,” she said.

Shields said having a second child was scary after their loss, especially being pregnant during the first year of the pandemic, and raising him now through all her worries can be emotionally difficult.

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In this file photo taken in March 2020, Sarah Shields stands beside her planter outside her Bloomington home. During a time when area residents decorated their windows with hearts to encourage families going on “heart hunts,” Shields added a small wooden flower to her display in honor of her son, Cam, who died shortly after birth. She and her husband started Cam’s Cards to give support to NICU families.

“I think that’s what lots of people go through when they experience pregnancy after loss,” she said. “You can’t allow yourself to get comfortable because you’ve been through the worst thing, and so you just are so afraid it’s gonna happen again, that you can’t allow yourself to think positively.”

She said luckily Ben was a healthy baby and is now “this crazy toddler who is just running around all the time.”

They have also been vocal and open about the experience of grief since losing Cam. In October, they along with other grieving families hosted an art exhibit at the Hangar Art Co. in downtown Bloomington for World Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day and Awareness Month.

“With time, I understand that grief is just very complex and weird and ever changing,” Shields said. “So I think a lot of things I do now, yes, are for a legacy and to remember Cam and to talk about him and make people be comfortable with things that are a little uncomfortable, but also to show Ben that we can survive things and we can do things, and even if it’s hard, that’s OK.”

This will be the fourth and final year for Cam’s Cards, and Shields said she’s glad it has helped people learn who her son was.

“Even if someone’s unable to donate, if they never have any experience in the NICU, just the fact that they know who my son was and that he existed and he was here — that’s what really matters to me, just because he had such a short life and just as a way to honor him,” she said.

It has also been important to her family to help support the families who are facing the kinds of difficult days they had in the NICU.

“We just wanted those families to not feel alone, to know that somebody was there and thinking about them,” she said.

Teddy bears, paper hearts draw kids for scavenger hunts across Bloomington-Normal

According to Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, in the U.S. nearly half a million babies are born premature or preterm each year, which accounts for most NICU admissions. Knowing how common a NICU stay is and how much some families may have to travel for care, Shields said they hope to offset the families’ costs, too.

“The last thing that we want them to be having to worry about is how they’re going to pay to go see their child,” she said.

Over the last three holiday seasons, Cam’s Cards has raised $15,000. Shields said even though they don’t say it aloud, they keep a goal in mind for how much they want to raise each year to help support NICU families.

“Every year that we’ve done this, it’s always been surpassed,” she said. “And it’s been surpassed fairly quickly, too, so I’m hoping the same thing will happen this year.”

Cam’s Cards begins accepting donations for this season on Tuesday via Venmo (@camscards), Chase QuickPay (camscards1@gmail.com) or PayPal (paypal.me/camscards1). To send cash or a check, contact Shields at camscards1@gmail.com. Find the organization on Facebook at fb.com/camscards1 for more information.

Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.

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