Austin Robbins only lived three days outside the womb, but his parents want his legacy to endure for many years.
Born a “cute little boy with a full head of hair” on September 20, 2015, at ProMedica Toledo Hospital, Austin soon found himself in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital after failing a glucose test and having difficulty breathing.
He never came back from the NICU, passing away on September 23 after tests showed he had contracted a strain of E. coli, gram negative sepsis, for unknown reasons.
Honoring their son, Austin
His parents, Brittany and Heather Robbins, founded Austin’s Book Club (ABC) earlier this year to honor their son, give back to the hospital staff who worked with Austin and Brittany during birth and in the NICU and to help other parents and infants who go through the unit.
“We wanted something positive to come out of such a tragic event,” said Brittany, who became pregnant with Austin on her fifth intrauterine insemination attempt. “Heather and I are both firm believers in making the best out of the hand you’re given. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
ABC provides books to every room in the hospital’s NICU for parents to read to their child and take home with them.
While Brittany was pregnant, she and Heather would often read to Austin. His favorite book—judging by the kicks and punches he dished out—seemed to be “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault.
Because Austin was too unstable during his stay in the NICU to be held by his parents, the only way they could communicate with him was by reading.
During his second night of life, Brittany was adamant that staff let her hold Austin. Before a procedure was conducted on Austin, Dr. Shawna Shafer made her wish a reality by having the heavily tubed baby transported into his mother’s arms.
“Those are the dreams I still have—of holding him and feeling him.”
“It was…breathtaking,” Brittany recalled of getting to hold Austin. “Those are the dreams I still have—of holding him and feeling him. The times that are roughest for me is when I go to the nursery, sit in the rocking chair, close my eyes and think of the things we were able to do with him.”
After Austin passed away, Brittany asked Dr. Shafer how the couple could donate to the NICU. Without missing a beat, Dr. Shafer suggested what seemed like the perfect fit—a library in Austin’s name.
A growing library, a growing legacy
Just two months after its dedication, Austin’s Book Club has collected 850 books—including numerous copies of “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom”—to help parents communicate with their children. Those interested in donating can visit the ABC website and click on the “donate” tab for more information.
Brittany said ABC gives the couple a way to spend time they would have spent with their son.
“This gives us an avenue to talk about him and hear his name,” she said. “This is his legacy. This is our new purpose in life. We want to make sure what we start is going to continue on. We don’t want this to be a one-year thing. We want this to be forever.”
Kim Folk-Axe, a social worker in the hospital’s NICU, worked closely with the Robbins family. She said reading in general and ABC specifically helps foster the natural bonding that can be hard to come by in the NICU, because babies are often in an incubator, hooked up to medical equipment and not able to be handled by their parents.
“For many of these babies, the only thing their parents have access to is their sense of hearing,” Folk-Axe said. “If that’s the only means of having access to your baby, you have to maximize that as much as possible.”
Having the memory of reading to their baby also gives the parents of a dying infant something to grieve from after their passing, she said.
Folk-Axe said she will always remember the Robbins’ attachment to their newborn son. “Their love for Austin was so great and they had so little time with him, and yet they spent every minute with him—reading to him, talking to him, holding him when they could,” she said, noting how remarkable it was for them to turn their grief into a legacy such as Austin’s Book Club.
“They had this desire out of their own grief, which is bottomless when you lose a baby like they did. They wanted to do something, and they did this whole project very early on after they lost their son. In the middle of this profound grief and unexpected loss, they were able to do something (like this). What a wonderful way to honor Austin and also to help other families. It’s had a huge impact.”