published Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

‘Miracle baby’ brings life full circle for Cleveland family after April tornadoes

Heather Wilcox, 19, smiles down at her one-week-old son Canaan as he squirms in her arms inside of their home in Cleveland, Tenn. Heather, who was three months pregnant at the time, was thrown 60 feet in the air when the April 27 tornado struck her, her husband, Blake, her mother, and younger sister. Heather landed on her side, receiving severe damage to her arm and back. Doctors operated inches away from her baby, with priority given to Heather's safety. Canaan survived unharmed from the tornado and successive surgeries, while Heather's mother was killed in the storms.
Heather Wilcox, 19, smiles down at her one-week-old son Canaan as he squirms in her arms inside of their home in Cleveland, Tenn. Heather, who was three months pregnant at the time, was thrown 60 feet in the air when the April 27 tornado struck her, her husband, Blake, her mother, and younger sister. Heather landed on her side, receiving severe damage to her arm and back. Doctors operated inches away from her baby, with priority given to Heather's safety. Canaan survived unharmed from the tornado and successive surgeries, while Heather's mother was killed in the storms.
Photo by Jenna Walker /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Eight pounds of hope.

It doesn’t seem like much when measured against 200-mph winds that ravaged the South, smashing buildings to shards and claiming more than 300 lives.

But it’s enough for Heather Wilcox.

The little bundle cradled in the crook of her scarred arm doesn’t make her forget the day the tornado ripped away her mother’s life and her family’s home. But it reminds her that, in the midst of total loss, tender new life still grows.

By all accounts, Canaan Heath Wilcox shouldn’t have survived what happened to his 19-year-old mother, who was just three months pregnant with him on April 27. Doctors were blunt when she was brought to the hospital, her back broken when the winds exploded her family’s trailer and slung her 60 feet into a field.

“I can’t guarantee you that, when you wake up, your baby will be here,” Dr. William Oros told Heather as she was prepped for surgery.

To reach her spine, doctors were going to have to operate within inches of the tiny, fragile body of the baby inside of her.

During the all-day surgery, Heather’s husband, Blake, paced in a crowded waiting room at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. His face was still bloody and bruised from where the tornado that wrecked their trailer had hurled him into the ground.

Every five minutes he would be at the nurse’s station, asking, “Can you please, please give me an update on my wife and baby?”

As soon as he found out she was out of surgery, he sprinted up 10 flights of stairs to meet her in the recovery room.

When Heather woke up, doctors performed an ultrasound. She was still groggy from the anesthesia, but on the grainy screen she spotted the lemon-sized figure. And he was moving.

“He was just bouncing around and being his little playful self. It was amazing,” she remembers as she looks down at the week-old baby boy sleeping in her arms. She smiles at him and starts to cry softly.

  • photo
    Heather Wilcox, 19, holds her one-week-old baby, Canaan, inside her and her husband's home in Cleveland, Tenn. Heather, who was three months pregnant at the time, was thrown 60 feet in the air when the April 27 tornado struck her, her husband, Blake, her mother, and younger sister. Heather landed on her side, receiving severe damage to her arm and back. Doctors operated inches away from her baby, with priority given to Heather's safety. Canaan survived unharmed from the tornado and successive surgeries, while Heather's mother was killed in the storms.
    Photo by Jenna Walker /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

“Even though I was heartbroken, I knew” — she pauses to curb her tears — “I knew I still had something to look forward to.”

Canaan, the “miracle baby” as doctors called him, was born Oct. 13 — almost six months after his grandmother Lisa Pack’s death. The Wilcoxes named him for the biblical Promised Land, the hope of a people wandering for years in the wilderness.

“It reminds us the tornado brought loss, especially the loss of Lisa,” Blake said. “But it reminds us of recovery.”


Pack, 43, was ecstatic about being a first-time grandmother. Three months into Heather’s pregnancy, she already had decided she wanted to be called “Grana.” And she already had started spoiling her grandbaby.

“Every dime she had went toward him,” Blake said. “She had already bought clothes and toys.”

Heather and Blake lived with Pack and Heather’s little sister Sarah in a mobile home off Leadmine Valley Road in Cleveland, Tenn. The night of April 26 they set up the baby’s crib.

The next morning people started talking about tornadoes in the forecast. Pack came home early from work at the Rite Aid on Spring Place about 7 p.m. to a home without power and water. She was rinsing herself off with a bottle of water in the kitchen when the family heard screaming in the yard.

They looked out the door and saw relatives running through the field, trying to reach shelter, a ditch, anything to escape the giant funnel cloud swiftly bearing down on the property.

The family ran to Pack’s bedroom and curled up on the floor, struggling to pull her king-sized mattress over their bodies.

“Y’all get down and stay down till I tell you to get up,” Pack ordered the teens.

The words had just left her mouth when the trailer exploded.

Heather woke up tangled in a fallen tree, her right forearm split open. She couldn’t get up, but she looked around and saw her family had been carried with her.

Sarah was screaming in pain. Blake was getting to his feet and limping over to them. And at her feet Heather spotted her mother under the trunk of the same tree. She wasn’t moving.


  • photo
    Heather Wilcox carefully passes 1-week-old Canaan to her husband, Blake, for a diaper change inside of their home in Cleveland, Tenn. While still in the womb, Canaan survived unharmed from the April 27 tornado and his mother's successive surgeries.
    Photo by Jenna Walker.
    enlarge photo

The whirlwind only continued for the Wilcox family. There were more visits to doctors, then Pack’s visitation and her funeral. Heather and Blake had to figure out where to stay. They made trips to Leadmine Valley Road to see what they could pull from the rubble.

Along with most of their possessions, the twister destroyed the crib and everything else Pack had brought home for her grandbaby.

As neighbors and churches found out about the couple’s plight, they rallied to furnish a new nursery. The Salvation Army hosted a baby shower. Friends, family and strangers from all over the area helped buy them a new crib, new clothes and a new stockpile of diapers.

One of the women who lived down the road from their old home came and gave her two sets of bibs and burp cloths.

“Your mom asked me to make these for you two months ago,” she told Heather.

The couple lived with relatives for several months until August, when they moved into a tiny apartment in Cleveland, 15 minutes from where Blake works at the Duracell battery manufacturing plant.

And the baby kept growing.

“In spite of everything that happened to her, the pregnancy went very well,” said Heather’s obstetrician, Dr. Lacy Windham. “She really impressed us all. With everything she went through, she was so sweet, and so focused on the pregnancy.”

Because doctors were worried about how Heather’s spine injuries might affect her labor, doctors scheduled a C-section for Oct. 24.

But Canaan couldn’t wait for that. Almost two weeks ahead of schedule, Heather went into labor and delivered an 8-pound, 20-inch-long, perfectly healthy baby boy.


In many ways, Heather is just now starting to mourn her mother.

“During the pregnancy, I was so worried about putting stress on [Canaan] and what he had already been through, I just kind of held it all together,” she says. “Because he’s here now, I think about my Mom not being here all the time. It’s like a fresh wound.”

In her lap, Canaan interrupts, cooing and grunting. She laughs.

“But it’s hard to be sad with him.” she said. “Even though Mom’s not here, she wouldn’t want us to dwell on the heartbreaks. She’d want us to enjoy him and what we have now.”

Heather tries to follow the instructions her mother gave her during the first weeks of her pregnancy. She always makes sure Canaan has fresh undershirts and socks; that’s something her mother insisted on.

She tries to keep their little apartment clean and cozy, as her mother would have.

  • photo
    A framed image of Heather Wilcox's mother, Lisa Pack is displayed inside of Heather and Blake's home in Cleveland, Tenn. Heather, who was three months pregnant at the time, was thrown 60 feet in the air when the April 27 tornado struck her, her husband, Blake, her mother, and younger sister. Heather landed on her side, receiving severe damage to her arm and back. Doctors operated inches away from her baby, with priority given to Heather's safety. Canaan survived unharmed from the tornado and successive surgeries, while Heather's mother was killed in the storms.
    Photo by Jenna Walker /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

She thinks about the ways she wants to be a mother like her own.

“My Mom was never really emotional, but if you needed to talk to her she was always there,” Heather said. “I want to be that for him. I want him to know that he can come to me regardless of what it is. Because I’m going to love him no matter what.”

They have already started talking to Canaan about his Grana.

One family friend made a small wooden box, decorated with stickers that spell “Canaan Love Grana” on the top. Inside, Heather has put small ribbons and keepsakes from the baby shower. They keep a framed picture of Pack close by.

“I know she would have been an awesome grandma,” says Blake. “She would be with us through all of it, and he would definitely be Grana’s baby.”

Heather turns toward Canaan, who is tucked in his crib under a warm fleece blanket.

“Even though you will never get to meet Grana, she loves you,” Heather says. “She watches over you. She would do anything in the world for you.”

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