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Loving Hutch

It was supposed to be a routine check-up; an ultrasound that would reveal the gender of baby number four.

It ended being a life-altering encounter for Courtney Clawson, a beloved Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA swim lesson instructor.

Having grown up in a family that was always in the water, Courtney was continuing the tradition with her own kids.

In a short amount of time, the former lifeguard and waterfront director had gone from sitting on the pool deck observing her kids taking swim lessons to back in the water  instructing YMCA swim lessons herself.

Courtney’s skills, knowledge, humor and easy-going personality had made her a hit within the YMCA community.

“What makes Courtney so good at her job is her love for the water and love for people,” said Beth Valentine, aquatics director at the Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA. “She always has a smile on her face.”

One of the few things Courtney loves more than the water is her family. She and her husband Andrew had planned for one more addition to their three kids, and pregnancy number four was off to a fairly easy start as far as pregnancies go.

But the doctor’s visit changed everything.

“At the ultrasound, everything shifted,” Courtney said. “They said, ‘we’re just seeing some markers for Down’s (syndrome). We’re going to send you to UVA.’ We were thinking, ‘We may have a Down’s baby. It’s scary, but we can handle this.’”

At UVA, the medical staff was less optimistic.

“At UVA, they flipped it,” Courtney said. “They said, ‘we’re seeing what is known as a Trisomy 18 baby. They can’t breathe on their own. They can’t eat on their own. There’s no quality of life. You’ll be lucky if the baby survives birth.’”

NOT WITHOUT HOPE

The October prognosis left the Clawsons devastated but not hopeless.

“We chose to continue with the pregnancy,” Clawson said. “Termination wasn’t an option for us. We believe in a God of miracles. We were going to carry this pregnancy through knowing that it’s going to probably end very sadly.”

The fall of 2019 was a dark time for the Clawsons as they started to prepare for the possibility that their fourth child may not live. Andrew and Courtney started to walk the other Clawson children – ages 6, 4 and 2 – through the reality of the family’s situation in age-appropriate terms.

“We were very honest with the kids that he was sick and he was going to go to Jesus,” Courtney said. “And this was something we would have to get through. We kind of describe November and December as the months where we had to mourn this baby that was not going to live, and we were going to use this time to mourn and trust that the Lord was good, and that we’d be OK on the other end of it.”

A NEW YEAR’S MIRACLE

On January 1st, Andrew and Courtney heard a beautiful sound they weren’t sure they’d ever hear.

The sound of their fourth child Hutchinson Keith Clawson – or Hutch for short – crying.

“We were totally shocked that he was going to be delivered at 33 weeks,” Courtney said. “And we were preparing for his death. We went in for the C-section and out he came crying. We couldn’t believe it. We went to NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) and they were like, ‘yeah, he seems fine. He’s doing everything a ‘preemie’ should be doing at this point.’ We were just in awe. We couldn’t believe it.”

The doctors dubbed the Clawsons as the most enthusiastic NICU parents they had ever seen.

“Our doctors thought we were crazy, because with every step, we’re like ‘this is amazing! We can’t believe it,’” Courtney said. “We didn’t think we were going to get to be NICU parents, so this is amazing. We were just glad everyone was wrong in their early predictions and we got to have him.”

COMMUNITY SUPPORT

On one particularly hot summer Saturday morning, 16 men showed up to the Clawson home with their lawn-manicuring devices in hand.

The men arrived at 8:00 am, and were done by 1:00 pm, knocking out the yard work.

“We had been in the hospital for six weeks,” Courtney said. “Our yard looked like a rain forest.”

In the family’s darkest hour, the community has rallied around the Clawsons in a way that Courtney could only describe as extravagant.

“We had an army of moms that kept our kids whenever we needed it,” Courtney said. “It has been more than we ever could have imagined. We’ve basically had meals delivered since October, and the list goes on through September; cards, gift cards, money for gas, money for babysitters … There is no need that has gone unmet. It carried us through some of the scariest and hardest and darkest moments.”

Valentine has been encouraged by the Clawsons as parents and by the community that has rallied around the Clawson family.

“Their strength is so inspiring. I call them superheroes,” Valentine said. “I love working somewhere that supports their employees and are there for anything they may need. It’s been heartwarming to see people support the Clawsons through this. We love their family.”

A DIFFERENT DIAGNOSIS

Hutch’s prognosis was mostly good news leaving the NICU. There was a chance he had Dandy Walker –  a rare congenital brain malformation – but that diagnosis didn’t mean he couldn’t live a full life.

“That’s all we thought we were facing,” Courtney said. “We treated him like a normal baby. We just loved on him and took him on walks.”

Then Andrew and Courtney started noticing some irregularities.

It resulted in lots of hospital stays and specialists.

Eventually it was revealed that Hutch did have a genetic disorder called TTD.  The odds of Andrew and Courtney both carrying it were one in a million.

“We joined a Facebook group that showed us the reality of it,” Courtney said. “Most children were non-verbal. Most children couldn’t walk. Most children do not live past childhood. We were really thankful for that group providing a healthy grip on what was going to happen with Hutch.”

Knowing their time with Hutch may be limited, the Clawsons focused on making every day count.

“We were just determined to give him the best life we could,” Courtney said. “If he can’t walk, we’ll sell the house, get a one-story house and do the wheelchair thing. We were ready to fight and do whatever we needed to do. Andrew and I both said, ‘if he’s going to have a short life, we’re going to make it the best life we can. We’re not going to live in fear.’”

SAYING GOOD-BYE … FOR NOW

Once again, a regularly scheduled check-up would end in disheartening news for the Clawsons.

A nurse practitioner noticed Hutch had lost a lot of weight. A follow-up revealed a ruptured valve. It would require multiple surgeries and an unfathomable amount of pain. On top of that, the chances of survival rate of even one surgery was low.

The Clawsons knew the latest medical report meant they were drawing closer to the time to say good-bye to Hutch.

The 202 days were more than the Clawsons had initially expected, but their baby’s body was now shutting down.

At 2:00 am on July 20th, the Clawsons said good-bye to Hutch.

“It was a fight, and it was hard, but we know we were able to give him a lot of love,” Courtney said. “Even though he couldn’t eat normally – he had an intake tube – and he wasn’t developing normally, we knew that he knew joy and he knew love. And we said, ‘if that’s all we can give him, that’s more than enough.’”

Courtney originally moved from northern Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley to attend James Madison University. Her first position out of college was with a campus ministry called Young Life, helping to oversee ministry in Staunton, Waynesboro and especially Augusta County.

Her faith is what she’s always held on to, especially during trying times.

“It’s hard to be done with the fight,” Courtney said, “but it’s also beautiful knowing that what I couldn’t give him here he has abundantly in heaven, that he is running and swimming and eating and however that looks in heaven.”

In a year filled with turmoil, Courtney says her faith in Christ has been the one constant.

“When I say it’s all we got, it’s all we got,” Courtney said. “We’ve just been sharing our story, and how our faith has guided us through it. We’ve faced really scary hard stuff, but we have a good God. We know we are loved by this God and that He has a purpose. We have hope in eternity that death is not the final answer.”

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