x

Local 5 - weareiowa.com | Des Moines Local News & Weather | Des Moines, Iowa

Months after young daughter's death, mother adopts

Months after 7-year-old Jamie passed away, her mother flew to Russia to adopt. She didn't fully understand yet that she was saving another child's life.
Credit: Courtesy: Traci Gunderson
Traci Gunderson adopted Christiana Faith (R) the same year her daughter Jamie (L) passed away.

BLAINE, Minn. — In this series of hard times and hope, we will hear from Minnesotans about the toughest time in their life – and what got them through.

It’s called viral myocarditis – when influenza goes to a person’s heart.

It happened to Traci Gunderson’s daughter, Jamie, in 2003. She got dangerously sick, but a combination of doctors and Tamiflu saved her life.

“She did very, very well; we were quite blessed that she made it,” Traci said. “And at that point you know, you really started understanding how grateful you were.”

The second time Jamie got sick, it was 2005. Traci just knew it was the same thing.

This time, Jamie did not survive. She ended up brain dead, and Traci made the decision on Feb. 5 to turn off life support. Jamie was 7 years old.

Jamie’s grandfather and Traci’s dad, Jim Becker, a veteran, said nothing compares to that 2 a.m. phone call.

“You know that you’ve experienced the worst day of your life,” he said. “Nothing through the military, nothing could be this bad again, ever in your life.”

He couldn’t get a flight, so he drove all night from Florida. They kept Jamie’s body there until he arrived so that he could say goodbye.

Credit: Courtesy: Traci Gunderson
Jamie Lynn's second-grade teacher, Lynda Bergeron, says what stood out about Jamie was her "genuine delight in others."

At the time, Traci was in college. She had just gotten divorced the month before. And she struggled to pay for the funeral.

“That was my rock bottom,” she said. “And that was the point in my life where I just thought, you know, I’ve got to do something.”

Traci was trying to stay strong for her oldest daughter. Jessica was 10 and had just lost her best friend. One night she ran down the stairs, crying after a bad dream, and begged not to be an only child.

“After that moment I just realized that I’m gonna adopt,” Traci said. “This is the way it’s gonna be.”

Credit: Courtesy: Traci Gunderson
Jamie (L) and Jessica (R) were best friends at 2 years, 3 months apart.

The adoption

Traci still can’t explain why, after losing a daughter to illness, she chose to adopt a child who had medical issues.

Now, thinking back, she said she thinks maybe it was what she needed to do to move on.

“Jamie was a perfectly healthy child,” she said. “And I remember thinking to myself, if I can go through this, then I can help a child that’s in need.”

Just months after Jamie’s death, Traci began researching. In September 2005, she was on a plane to Russia. She had been matched with a child who needed a home. The little girl had been born at 24 weeks. One pound, 9 ounces.

“They labeled her special needs because she wasn’t walking, she wasn’t talking,” Traci said. “And I just fell in love with her.”

Credit: Courtesy: Traci Gunderson
Traci holds Christiana Faith after the adoption is finalized in court, outside the embassy with her driver and translator.

Traci cried all the way to Russia. She wondered if she was being “dishonorable” to Jamie by adopting another child. But when she arrived at the orphanage, everything clicked into place.

“I looked into her eyes and it was like I knew her,” she said. “And that’s the only way I can explain it, it was like I had known her forever.”

Jamie’s second-grade teacher, Lynda Bergeron, said the initial news of the adoption “stunned” her, but she realized it was the right thing for their family.

“It was a good fit because of just wanting to not stop the spirit of giving that was Jamie,” she said. “I think they looked at it not as something that was going to heal them, but it was a way of extending Jamie’s spirit of giving, because that’s the kind of person that she was.”

Credit: Courtesy: Traci Gunderson
Traci picks up Christiana outside her town of Borovichi, Russia.

Déjà vu

The next few months were a whirlwind.

Traci had to make another trip to Russia to go to court and make the adoption final. She named her Christiana Faith.

Christiana flew back to Minnesota on that very same trip, in October of 2005. She turned 2 years old shortly after, with her adoptive mother and sister by her side.

In June of 2006, less than a year after she arrived, Christiana got very sick. Doctors found out she had kidney failure. Suddenly Traci was back at Children’s Hospital once again, with a daughter on the line – again. This time, Christiana would have a life-saving surgery.

One of the nurses who treated Jamie happened to be with them in the operating room.

“She just literally was in tears,” Traci said. “She couldn’t believe that this was what we had done.”

Doctors told Traci that adopting Christiana saved her life.

“She would never have lived to be 5 years old,” she said.

Christiana had slight cerebral palsy and reactive attachment disorder from being born so early. But she was alive, and home.

Credit: Kristin McCarthy Photography
Christiana Faith is now 16 years old. "See the cross in the trees?" Traci writes of this photo.

‘It’s gonna make sense’

A month after Jamie died, Traci had a conversation with her dad that sticks out to her now.

He told her, “I know you don’t understand what’s happening right now, but God has a plan. And whatever that plan is, in 10 years you’re gonna look back, you’re gonna think about this conversation and it’s gonna make sense.”

“That is huge in my mind because he was so right,” Traci said. “I understand the story, I understand the plan.”

Traci says the decision to adopt Christiana was directly connected to Jamie – but she didn’t fully understand it at the time.

“I think in the beginning it was kind of a selfish act on my behalf, saying, ‘I wanna be a mom again,’” she said. “But as the years went on I realized that wasn’t the case. It was going with what my heart initially wanted to do and help a child that didn’t have a chance.”

Credit: Courtesy: Traci Gunderson
"Even though there are sad parts in it, I love my story and the story of my family," says Traci (R) of the family she's built with Christiana (middle) and Jessica L).

Teacher Lynda Bergeron remembers Jamie as a child who stood out. She knew how to reach out to others. So when Christiana came to the same school, where there was so much support for Jamie’s family, “she got lots of love and attention and she just flourished,” Lynda said.

It was giving back that helped everyone, not just Traci, through the grief of losing Jamie. Traci and the school community raised money for the American Heart Association every year.

“I think there was a great deal of community support,” Lynda said. “But I also felt that they did turn to their faith and that strong belief that she is gone, but she’s moved on. She’s not just dead like we think of death.

‘I love my story’

Christiana is now 16. Jessica is 25. Traci says the three of them support one another and push one another to be “the best they can.”

That doesn’t mean everything is perfect. Christiana went through early trauma that she still gets mental health support for. She has had other health issues over the years including seizures and heart problems. Now, she’s “living in a bubble” during the COVID-19 pandemic, because she’s considered high risk.

Traci said on hard days, she and Christiana lean on music – and sometimes, dance parties in the kitchen.

“It’s something that will kind of soothe you almost when you’re feeling low,” she said.

Traci prays a lot, too. That’s what her oldest daughter recommends, she said, when she brings up her concerns.

And no matter what challenges she’s facing, Traci said she remembers what she’s been through.

“I think, ‘Oh my gosh, all those times I was just so worried about everything, and here we are,’” she said. “And life hasn’t been better.”

Credit: Kristin McCarthy Photography
"She always says, 'You saved me,'" Traci (R) says of her daughter Christiana (L). "I always tell her, 'No, you saved me.'"

Jim Becker said his daughter has always been a strong person.

“And oh my goodness after an incident like this here, you can’t believe the strength she’s got now,” he said.

Jim said that Traci’s story is an example of how prayers are sometimes not answered until years down the road. He says Christiana knows she’s an answer to prayer – and that she will always be connected to Jamie.

“She knows that she probably would not be alive today if Jamie hadn’t passed, because she would have died in Russia,” he said. “She’s very aware of that. And she talks about it. I’ve heard her talk about it. That she’s a miracle and she’s alive because of Jamie’s death. It’s really something.”

Traci and her dad sometimes laugh about his advice 15 years ago. He says “I told you,” and she says “I know.”

“I love my story,” Traci said. “Even though there are sad parts in it, I love my story and the story of my family and our kids.”

Lynda Bergeron wrote a book for Jamie that can be a resource for grieving children: “I Miss My Friend.”

Credit: Traci Gunderson
"Seven years old, there's over 700 people at her funeral," Traci Gunderson said of her daughter, Jamie. "This is how an adult needs to look at if they're living their life the right way is, envision the end. What would people say about you?"

Would you like to tell your story of hope and resilience for our Hard Times series? Email ehaavik@kare11.com.

RELATED: Hard Times: 7 brain surgeries and still ‘full of life’

RELATED: Coronavirus outbreak delays adoption for Minnesota family