KAUKAUNA — A new child always brings challenges to a family. When that child is born with Down syndrome, there are added challenges.
For the Zerkel family of Kaukauna, their new baby also brought added faith.
On Oct. 29, 2013, Brent and Katy Zerkel welcomed their third child, Gabriella Rose (Gabby). Ultrasounds had revealed some abnormalities in the vessels of her brain in utero and Gabby was born by C-section. Her first moments confirmed that she had Down syndrome and she spent three weeks in neonatal intensive care.
Brent reacted as any father would: “I just felt kind of in shock and was asking the question, ‘Why can’t she just be a normal child?’” he said. “It took a few weeks for me to understand what I was feeling and what to expect in the future. I talked with Katy about it. Then I realized it was all going to be OK. Now I can’t imagine life without her. She’s just the best baby ever. She brings us so much joy and happiness.”
For Katy, newborn Gabby was beautiful and exactly as God wanted her to be. Brent still remembers how the delivery room staff had to ask Katy twice if she understood that their daughter had special needs.
He remembers Katy’s response: “‘Oh yeah, I heard. She’s so cute.’ It didn’t affect her at all. She was so excited and joyful.”
Katy said she told the doctor that “learning that my daughter has Down syndrome has revealed the most sublime truth. It has actually been God placing his mighty trust in us this entire time to be her parents. Gabriella is the greatest gift, I feel honored to be her mommy.”
Zerkels meet online
Trust in God is central to the Zerkels. They believe God led them to each other, through the auspices of online dating — something Katy had strongly resisted, even though her parents suggested it and gave her a year’s subscription. As that year was running out, Katy decided to check the responses and noticed that she had “a thousand men interested in communication with me.”
Stunned, and not sure where to begin, Katy decided to click on the first name on the list. That man was Brent Zerkel, who lived in Ohio, and their romance took off.
“We had the same goals and dreams and started from there,” Brent said.
Soon, they were talking on the phone, up to six hours a day.
“We booked our honeymoon before we met face to face,” Brent said. “We were both very sure. Obviously, faith had a lot to do with that, too.”
Acting on faith, Brent quit his job, moved to Wisconsin and began searching for a new job. The couple was married on Oct. 4, 2008, at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay. Two children soon followed: Noah and Grace, now ages 5 and 2.
Even though they were already experienced parents when Gabby was born, the Zerkels still didn’t exactly know what to expect.
‘Faith is a huge part’
“Faith is a huge part of it,” said Brent. “A lot of people, maybe without faith, might think of it as a burden or a negative to have a baby with Down syndrome, but we view it as a gift.”
While he has been a lifelong Catholic, Brent admitted that he had been pretty average in his faith life before his marriage. “My life changed and my faith has grown much more deeply since we’ve been married.” And, he added, since being a dad.
The family attends Holy Cross Parish in Kaukauna. Their pastor, Fr. Tom Pomeroy, came to the hospital to baptize Gabby in the NICU. It was while attending a Sunday Mass at Holy Cross that Katy had first known that she would have their third child. For her, it came as a firm message from God and her trust never wavered that God had a purpose for Gabby.
“It’s just so beautiful how God had her all planned out to be a part of our family,” she said. “I can’t help but think that her life is going to be a holy one.”
Their two older children probably don’t understand yet that Gabby is what some people would call “different,” but they are both very attached to their sister.
“We always talk about how pretty she is,” Brent said of Noah and Grace, “and how smart she is and they start to repeat that, too. They think she is special. I don’t know if they grasp the concept that she’s ‘different.’” He paused and then added, “They know she is different, but in a good way.”
Katy calls Gabby “my sunshine baby” and Brent says his daughter is “the most patient baby.”
“With our other two,” he explained with an example all parents can understand, “if they were hungry, they had to eat right now. Gabby can just be patient, she’ll just play … and she’s very patient and very happy all the time.”
Down syndrome statistics
Katy said she is especially sad about the statistics for families who receive Down syndrome diagnoses. Studies show that most Down syndrome babies are aborted; the figures range from 67 to 92 percent. The National Down Syndrome Society notes that Down syndrome is the most common genetic condition, with 6,000 babies born in the U.S. having the syndrome each year. People with Down syndrome have some duplication of chromosome 21; the human genetic code has 23 pairs of chromosomes.
“God not only entrusted to us a beautiful baby girl,” Katy said, “but he gave her an extra chromosome. One extra chromosome that will teach our family many things: how to love deeper, how to have more gratitude for the little things.”
“Even if we had known of her diagnosis prenatally,” she added, “that would not have changed an ounce of love we felt for her precious life.”
Open to new life
Brent and Katy both realize that their chances of having another child with Down syndrome have increased, but they still hope to have another child in the future.
“We’re open and willing to accept whatever God gives us,” Brent said. “If it happens to be another baby with Down syndrome, that would be awesome. It would be another reason to be excited.”
When they look to the future — and Gabby’s — their faith kicks in again.
“It’s a challenge,” Brent said, “but, with any challenge, it’s actually a blessing; when you get to the other side you’ll be stronger.”
As for Gabby’s specific future, her father said, “I think she’s just going to bring a lot of joy to people. I don’t know (through) what avenue, but I just think that anyone who comes in contact with her will leave happy and smiling.”