When Sierra Strangfeld was pregnant with her second child, she looked forward to the hours they would soon spend together breastfeeding. Her 18-month-old daughter had a tongue tie that kept her from nursing, and Strangfeld was excited to try again.
But, tragically, it wouldn’t be possible — she learned at 20 weeks that her son, whom she would name Samuel, would not survive due to an extremely rare condition called Trisomy 18, or Edwards’ Syndrome. Fetuses with the condition have an extra chromosome that causes severe developmental delays like an abnormally shaped head, clubbed feet and birth defects in their organs. Most pass in utero from an early miscarriage or die shortly after their birth.
“It was earth shattering, not knowing what our future held. Not knowing if we’d get to meet our baby or not,” Strangfeld, 25, tells PEOPLE of the moment in early July when she and her husband Lee learned the news. “I felt in a daze most days. But cherishing every second of every day that I got to carry him.”
The salon owner from Neillsville, Wisconsin, spent the next two months going to checkups, and on Sept. 5, her doctor said he would likely pass in utero in the next week. Strangfeld wanted a chance to hold Samuel, so she pushed for a C-section delivery, even though her doctor could not promise that he would arrive alive.
“The unknown of what was about to happen was scary. And I believe the whole thing was traumatizing,” she says.
Samuel lived for three hours out of the womb, and Strangfeld was able to hold her son. She then decided to pump the breast milk that had come in for Samuel and donate it to babies in need, in his honor.
“It was something I could control,” she says. “I couldn’t control Samuel’s diagnosis. I couldn’t control his life, or his death. But I could control what I did afterwards. It was the last, physical thing connecting me to him here on Earth. I couldn’t save Samuel’s life, but by donating my milk, maybe I could help save another baby’s life.”
Strangfeld initially wanted to pump 1,000 ounces by Samuel’s original due date, Nov. 13, but she realized she was not producing enough milk and reduced her goal to 500 oz. She says the experience was difficult, but gratifying.
“It was a good feeling, knowing I was going to help someone else in need. But it was also very emotional,” she says. “I could feed a complete stranger’s baby, but didn’t get to feed my own. Samuel was the reason I had milk to give, and I would do that in his honor. I tried to look at it in a more positive light, and It was actually much harder (mentally) to stop pumping than I thought it would be!”
On Samuel’s due date, Strangfeld donated her last bags of breast milk at the hospital, where they would go to NICU babies in need.
“It was a very emotional day,” she says. “It was the first time I stepped foot back in the hospital since having Samuel. But, walking through the halls, I definitely felt Samuel wrap his arms around me. It was a sense of healing.”
Strangfeld posted about her donation on Facebook that day, and within a week her post has been shared nearly 4,000 times.
“We promised him we would tell his story, but we never expected it to go nationwide like it has,” she says. “This is his story to tell, and he is certainly telling it though every Facebook like and share, and through every news article. Our goal is to have a non-profit organization is Samuel’s name called Smiling for Samuel — we have big hopes and dreams to carry on his legacy.”
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter