CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - At age 49, Deb Armstrong found out she was pregnant.
"It was a shock to my husband and I both," she said.
The grandmother and mother of four adult children, her youngest at the time was 25 years old. She says it was a complete surprise when she learned she was two-and-a-half months pregnant. Armstrong says at first, she thought her cervical cancer she battled in the past had returned.
"She actually did an ultra sound. I saw shoulders. I saw an arm. I was telling them you got the wrong room," explained Armstrong.
The pregnancy was considered high risk because of her age, and Deb's doctor visits became as routine of ultrasounds and stress tests. During one of those visits, she learned her baby would likely be born with down syndrome and have heart issues.
"He had a hole in his heart. There was seepage in one of the valves and they had to recreate a ventricle," said Armstrong.
Baby Joseph arrived 10 weeks early, weighing just 2 pounds, 3 ounces.
"He was beautiful. He was breathing. You wanted to hold him but you couldn't. He was just too fragile. Too volatile," described Armstrong.
Joseph was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where he could be closely monitored, attached to several machines. Deb says like many parents, all the wires he was connected to, and the blanket used to swaddle her baby made her afraid to pick him up, fearing that she would compromise his fragile body and set off alarms. It kept her from really bonding with Joseph.
The child spent two months in the NICU. He finally came home, but a short time later had to be hospitalized again, undergoing heart surgery.
"I saw my son's heart beat every day, every day until it stopped beating," an emotional Armstrong explained.
In June of 2001, Joseph died in his mother's arms. He was just six months old.
"My soul cracked," tearfully explained Armstrong.
Losing a child is a grief no parent should have to go through, Armstrong said.
"It was a serious pain that truly never goes away," she said.
Armstrong turned that pain into purpose, something she says Joseph, in his passing, inspired her to do. She now makes blankets that give parents easier access to their babies in the isolette. She call the blankets Jo Jo Hugs.
"Instead of totally unwrapping the baby, you can just unsnap, check to see what's been dislodged, take care of it, no need to re-swaddle, and snap the baby's nice warm snuggly," Armstrong said.
It's an easy solution, she says, to those precious bonding moments. The blankets made in her home have already helped dozens of other parents.
"I think this was his purpose. This was his plan," Armstrong added.
The days of sadness are still there, missed birthdays and moments of not seeing her son grow up to be a man. But Deb says her mission to help others is something baby Joseph would want his mother to do.
"I just feel like he's hugging a lot of folks. He's hugging a lot of babies," explained Armstrong.
More than 2,500 Jo Jo Hugs blankets a year will be used in a three-year case study at a NICU out of state. Armstrong isn't able to reveal the name of the hospital until the study is complete.
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