Rallying around Isaiah
After their baby was born with Down syndrome, TOUR caddie Paul Tesori and wife Michelle have leaned on family, friends and faith
April 01, 2014
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
The contractions began early on that Friday morning in January. No worries, thought Michelle Tesori. She's the consummate multi-tasker, balancing her life as the wife of PGA TOUR caddie Paul Tesori with running Olympus Foundation Management, a non-profit for pro athletes. So she decided to go into the office.
But after a lunch meeting, when the contractions were three to four minutes apart, Michelle called her doctor. The exam showed she wasn't dialated yet, so she headed back to the dark brown two-story home near Jacksonville, Fla., that she shares with Paul and their big gray Weimaraner named Hitch.
By 10 o'clock that night, Michelle was, as she puts it, in "full-on-let's-have-a-baby" labor. So she and Paul headed for the hospital. This baby, the couple's first, clearly wanted to meet the excited parents. Michelle's water hadn't broken yet, though, and she still wasn't dialated. All the couple could do was wait.
Turns out, the baby's head was facing the wrong direction for labor.
It was Saturday now, and some patients might have opted for a Cesaerean section when given the news. But the doctors asked Michelle, who hadn't slept since Thursday night, if she was strong enough to push. Really hard.
Isaiah Tesori was born two hours later. His mother had purposely timed her last push so he could enter this world at 6:11 p.m. She knew that would bring a smile to Paul's face. After all, his favorite numbers are 1s in any combination.
One of the nurses laid little Isaiah on Michelle's chest. He appeared to lean back and stretch. A family friend, Wanda Samuel, captured the moment with a few quick pictures. It was a cute image, and no doubt would get a prominent spot in Isaiah's first photo album. Michelle joked that if she was curled up in the same position for nine months, she'd want to stretch too. She noted how much he looked like Paul.
Then she had another thought.
"He is absolutely beautiful."
Within minutes, though, Shelly Tennyson, the delivery nurse, came over and calmly told Michelle and Paul that she needed to take Isaiah and put him in a different blanket. Suddenly, there was a lot of commotion, but Michelle thought the nurses were measuring the baby and doing the kind of things that happened after every birth.
As her delivery doctor began to stitch Michelle up, she and Paul, who caddies for Webb Simpson, realized Isaiah was not back yet. Then the door to the room opened, with a large group of people, maybe 20 or so, waiting outside.
Nobody was smiling.
The doctors informed Michelle and Paul they needed to do some work on Isaiah. Then Tennyson, wearing a concerned look, took Michelle's hand.
"He's stable," the nurse said. "But there's something wrong."
That picture of Isaiah arching his back and stretching his arms? He was actually having a seizure.
"I think," Michelle recalls now, "we were just stunned."
In the latest government study issue by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, birth rates among women between 30 and 44 are increasing. Even so, the mean age of a mother's first birth in the U.S. is 25.8 years.
Michelle, who was 37 when she got pregnant, and Paul, 41, understood the numbers, which is why they had all the necessary tests done. Devout Christians, they had prayed for a healthy baby. They prayed for the doctors and nurses who would deliver him, too. They'd laid in supplies of bottles and diapers like all new parents. The nursery was ready.
But they went home that weekend with heavy hearts and empty hands.
"You get pregnant and your expectation is that you're going to have this baby and you think you've thought through every scenario," Michelle said. "But I never considered that I'd leave the hospital without him."
The medical reports began to come in what Michelle remembers to be "waves." At the top of the list of about 20 possible explanations for the seizure was a virus that might have created bleeding on the brain. Or maybe it was a heart defect.
Oh, and by the way, the doctors said, Isaiah has markers for Down syndrome.
For Paul and Michelle, though, that was the least of their concerns as medical personnel readied Isaiah for a trip to Wolfson Childrens Hospital in Jacksonville, where he could get more specialized critical care.
"God works in amazing ways," Michelle said. "When that's the only bit of information you get, perhaps it's devastating to some people. For us it was, so what? OK. Great. We can deal with that."
Before Isaiah left on what Michelle now wryly calls his "field trip" to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), the doctors wheeled the incubator into the room where his parents, their pastor and their best friends were waiting, along with the nurses who had helped deliver him.
"They opened the little window that was big enough for my finger to fit in and we prayed," Michelle recalled.
Michelle and Paul told their son that they loved him, but that Jesus loved him more. They told him that if Heaven was calling, then they would walk the journey in faith. They prayed for their son to have the strength to deal with his health issues, the challenges he would face for the rest of his life.
Paul, who has experienced all of golf's highs and lows, including a U.S. Open win while carrying Simpson's bag at The Olympic Club, the moment of seeing Michelle praying over their son will forever be etched in his mind.
"One of the most emotional things I ever saw," he said.
Then the ambulance driver grabbed the hand of the other EMT and the whole room joined the Tesoris in prayer.
"It's been like that since that moment," Michelle said. "We have been literally lifted up in prayer and this little guy has had more people in more countries all over the world praying for him."
Many of those prayers were sent from Hawaii where Simpson was playing in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Ted Scott, a man who Paul says is "like a brother to me," was toting Simpson's bag that week. Scott is Bubba Watson's caddie, but Watson was not in the field that week.
Less than 36 hours after Isaiah was born, Paul and Webb finally spoke. Actually, Paul didn't do much speaking. He was in tears.
"You just feel so helpless," Paul said. "You want to be able to help and you want answers: Is my baby going to be safe, is my baby going to live, is my baby going to be able to breathe?
"When I took Webb's call within five seconds, I just broke down. I would liked to have not done that, only because I know him and how caring he is ... but I couldn't help it hearing his voice."
Simpson was tied for the lead after the first and third rounds at Kapalua, and he eventually wound up in a tie with Kevin Streelman for third place. After Sunday's third round, an emotional Simpson told a TV broadcaster that he had considered withdrawing and flying home to be with Paul and Michelle.
"I'm like, 'Oh, no.' I don't want him to feel like that because there's nothing he can do," Paul said. "Just pray for me, talk to me at night and that's all you can do."
Of all the players inside the top 10 on the final leaderboard at Kapalua, Simpson's round of 70 was the second-highest score. Focusing on the task at hand was a challenge, as was trying to deliver what would have been an emotional win.
"I wanted it really bad for him," Simpson said of Tesori.
Still, having Simpson in contention was a morale boost for Paul and Michelle. So was seeing the name Isaiah printed on the visors that Scott and Streelman were wearing in the final two rounds.
"It helped me a lot because everybody praying, everybody calling, you're so consumed with being in the NICU unit the whole time reading up on Down syndrome, reading up on the brain swelling and reading up on all these different things," Paul said. "... I had a DVR, so I immediately said, 'Honey, they are in the lead.' We turned it on and got so fired up and excited, it was a fresh breath of air. We were excited to have something positive and radiant to really root for."
Turns out, another longtime friend, Zach Johnson won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. It was the first time all three of Zach's children, the youngest a 16-month-old daughter, had been on hand to see their daddy hoist a trophy into the air.
But Johnson's thoughts were not of victory but on the Tesori family.
"It was a great week for me and the Johnson family," he recalled. "But it was also a week that put things into perspective really quick. It highlighted that golf is golf. ... It should be that way every day, and I like to think that it is. That's kind of how I approach it, but I'm human and I can get caught up in myself.
"But that week in particular, knowing what the Tesoris are going through, two good friends, ... the fact that they are adding to their family and they are going through some complications just adds perspective to things. If anything, I think it just really highlights the power of prayer."
Make no mistake, there were prayers in abundance.
Watson pulled over to the side of the road, crying, the first time he talked with Paul. What could he do to help? Did Paul want Watson to come to Jacksonville to be with him and Michelle?
"He said no; we are under control, I'll just give you updates," recalled Watson, who had adopted a son about 10 months earlier. "So he kept texting me pictures of his little boy. What a thrill to see that and I would just try to give him Bible verses, inspiration. I told him no matter what happens, you got to see your boy. You got to be in his life for a second. ...
"So for us, it was just about giving him a shoulder to lean on. If he wanted to cry, a shoulder to cry on. He's like me a lot (in that regard)."
Brandt Snedeker sought updates from Simpson every day. Boo Weekley and his wife sent a prayer book for babies to the hospital. Keegan Bradley and Gary Woodland got Paul's contact information from Simpson and offered their support. Ditto for friends like Ben Crane and Jonathan Byrd among the TOUR's tight-knit Christian community. Charles Howell III's father, a pediatric surgeon back in Augusta, Ga., even reached out.
"Here's the thing," Johnson said. "It's a beautiful picture of the PGA TOUR family kind of coming together and even just a small 10-second highlight of it adds a lot to it. Fortunately, I haven't had to go through anything like that, something tragic and/or difficult with my family yet.
"But knowing what I've seen -- and it's not just with the Tesoris, it's Chris Smith (whose first wife was killed in an auto accident), the floods of the Midwest, New Orleans. The PGA TOUR is going to come together and help their own and help those that they don't even know.
"And that was one small picture of that, I think, that week."
One of the PGA TOUR's media officials, Mark Stevens, called to see how he could help. At Paul's suggestion, he ended up sending lunch from a favorite restaurant, Clara's Tidbits, to the staff at Wolfsons' NICU who regularly work 12-hour shifts to care for more than 50 babies.
Tournament directors, including Mark Brazil of the Wyndham Championship, sent packages and prayers. The Thunderbirds, who run the Waste Management Phoenix Open, made a donation to the Tesori Family Foundation. Complete strangers, who learned about Isaiah from media reports, wrote letters of encouragement.
Michelle was being similarly enveloped by the wives and girlfriends of TOUR players and caddies. A different person brought dinner, sometimes ringing the doorbell, other times leaving the food in a cooler out front, every night, for the first 30 days. Boxes and boxes of baby toys and books greeted them, as well.
"Right now we could open up a baby store at our house, and if there was another baby named Isaiah, you're going to be able to open up a bigger baby store," Paul joked, although Wolfsons has actually become the beneficiary of many of the gifts.
The outpouring was humbling. Michelle and Paul replied to every text, letter or email, and each message is read to Isaiah before being put in a box and saved for him.
"Sometimes you don't have any idea because it's an individual sport," Paul said. "It is you and your guy and to be honest with you, you're not really rooting for the other guys while you're out there. I want my friends to play well, but I want Webb to play better, so it's that competitive nature.
"As individual of a sport as you can possibly have, you and your guy and that's it. You forget and you don't really know sometimes that it is like a big fraternity out here. The guys are looking out for each other. They really care for one another, and you get it about once a year. The Ryder Cup teams and Presidents Cup teams they wonder about how much the Americans gel; they gel. It's a family. Just because they get beat doesn't mean we're not a family."
That first night in the hospital was rough. Letting go of Isaiah, that tiny soul connected to those great big monitors, was the hardest thing Paul and Michelle had ever had to do. Less than 24 hours old, and Isaiah was already confined to a place, the NICU, that Michelle and Paul had never been to, nor knew what it was like.
"Was he just laying in the incubator by himself wondering where his mom is and where his dad is?" Michelle asked.
Gradually, though, Isaiah improved, coming home on Jan. 11 -- or 1/11/1(4), as his daddy likes to remember the day. The test results, the EEGs, the spinal taps and brain scans, were positive. So were the tests for Down syndrome.
"But here's the cool thing," the doctor told Michelle and Paul. "He gets to wear a shirt that says: I have more chromosomes than you do. And you get to wear a shirt that says: My son has more chromosomes than you do. So I'm not worried about that."
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder often associated with physical growth delays, characteristic facial features and mild to moderate cognitive issues. After the dire thoughts both Paul and Michelle confronted in the first hours of Isaiah's life, though, they knew they could handle this.
"We almost celebrated it because he had a healthy head, healthy heart," Paul said. "And by this time, families were starting to pour in who had kids with Down syndrome or they were saying, you will have the biggest blessing you could ever imagine. They are typically very joyful kids, very full of life."
Isaiah's name means "God is salvation" or "God's Helper" and is a tribute to Paul's favorite Bible passage, Isaiah 26:3-4. You will keep in perfect peace, those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.
And both of Isaiah's parents feel strongly that their son has a purpose in life.
The couple had already formed a foundation which, among other things, donates laptop computers to homeless children in St. Johns County, Fla., who graduate from high school and are headed to college. The organization recently served up a special meal for St. Patrick's Day at the Sulzbacher Center, which also serves the homeless in the Jacksonville area. And special needs children will certainly become a consideration as the foundation broadens its scope.
The many friends the couple made at Wolfson will not soon be forgotten by the foundation, either. A series of 5K races will help raise money for the hospital. Every week meals for the NICU staff at Wolfson are being donated by various individuals and groups. On Fridays, two massage therapists visit for Healing Hour. The New Mom's Corner will help stock everything from Bibles to necessities like soft toilet paper.
Michelle also started a blog that has chronicled the last three months. But it's more than simply the story of their journey with Isaiah -- people from all over the world have shared stories of their special needs children or family members who need extra love and support. Hence the desire to form Team Isaiah's Prayer Warriors.
"We're not going to know a lot of stuff about this little guy until he shows us," Michelle said. "But it's OK waiting because we're confident, no matter what it is."
Michelle and Paul feel they were chosen to be Isaiah's parents, that his Down syndrome is not a disadvantage but a challenge, an opportunity. They caress their baby boy and feel blessed, a gift of life from above.
All of God's creatures are being drawn to this tiny package, the one that's sleeping soundly now in his crib. The family dog, Hitch, hangs around, offering protection and an occasional warm nuzzle.
A lifetime of experiences await Paul and Michelle and Isaiah. It won't be easy. But it will be enlightening. And it will be filled with love.
"That's the journey that we're on," Michelle said. "It doesn't matter what the end result is for us. The journey is God's -- and he's asked us to walk it."
To learn more about the Tesori Family Foundation, please visit tesorifamilyfoundation.org