At 2:22 a.m. April 28, 1976, Kathy and Charles Sanders welcomed their daughter, Peggy Michelle, to the world.
They called her Michelle.
Her birth was relatively unremarkable except that she was premature; eight weeks early. Her nurses and doctors were cautiously optimistic, though. Michelle was bigger than expected for a premature baby, 4 pounds 2 ounces, and was able to breathe on her own. She’d be fine, they all thought.
So later that morning after the delivery, mom went to sleep. Baby went to the nursery. And then things turned south.
Pediatrician Dr. Ed West was supposed to be at an early staff meeting that morning but says he never got a memo about it. Instead, West showed up at Roper Hospital’s nursery shortly after 7 a.m., the same as usual.
“Dr. West, will you come over here?” he remembers a nurse asking. “This baby has just died.”
That baby was Michelle.
For 30 minutes, West tried to resuscitate Michelle. His efforts finally paid off. She started breathing again, but her outlook remained critical. She needed to be transferred to the Medical University Hospital immediately.
“They came in and said we’re sending your baby to Medical University because she’s very sick,” Kathy Sanders recalls. “And that’s all I knew — she’s very sick. And I said, ‘Can I see her first?’ And they said that you can stand at (the) door. So I stepped just to the doorway as they were coming down the hall.
“I just remember a gentleman — it was Dr. West — spoke briefly to me and said pretty much, ‘We’ve got to go.’ ”
West doesn’t really remember taking Michelle over to MUSC. He remembers passing Kathy Sanders in the hallway at Roper, but says he didn’t know her name or even Michelle’s name. This was all 36 years ago. One of thousands of babies he has treated in his career.
“I don’t know how many memories I have,” he says. “I don’t like to think about my memories.”
Baby Michelle made it after all, but not without a long, hard fight.
She spent months under the careful watch of MUSC doctors and nurses before she was discharged home on Aug. 7, 1976. Her parents framed the $25,000 hospital bill: an astronomical amount back then. Most of it was covered by their insurance.
That December, the Sanders returned with Michelle to the MUSC nursery to thank the staff there for their help during the long haul. Kathy made them all ceramic ornaments.
“I always had faith she’d live,” she told The News and Courier in an article published about Michelle on Dec. 22, 1976. “No matter what anybody said or what happened, I kept telling myself that she’d make it.”
She knew nothing about Dr. West, not even his name, because West wasn’t involved in Michelle’s recovery at MUSC.
“I didn’t know who Ed West was,” she said. “I had never met him before, I didn’t think.”
Shortly after Michelle’s birth, West remembers a pastor at Summerville Baptist Church asking the congregation to pray for Michelle’s health because her grandmother was a member there.
“There was no reason for anybody to know I was involved, and I didn’t say anything to anybody about it, it was just something that happened,” he says. “I was very grateful that the baby had done well, and I was glad to have been a part of it, but I didn’t think about it beyond that, I think. The one thing that it did, it began me on a journey probably of beginning to assign humanity to these little people. It’s easy to do this kind of work without thinking of the humanity of it.”
He also remembers reading The News and Courier article about her later that year and how the Sanders family stood in front of a Christmas tree at MUSC in the photo. He didn’t remember that the article’s headline called Michelle the “Miracle Baby.” Instead, he thought the story referred to her as the “Million-Dollar Baby.”
Because of the hospital bill, he says.
‘It sounded familiar’
Michelle Sanders is Michelle Fulton now, a married, healthy, 36-year-old mother of two. She is a neonatal nurse at Summerville Medical Center, where she takes care of babies every day.
This year on Jan. 28, Fulton was talking with a few nurses at the hospital shortly after 7 a.m. when they found out a pregnant woman was about to deliver a very premature baby. Everybody started preparing, she says.
“I was rushing around from the front of the nursery to the back of the nursery,” Fulton says, “just trying to get my three babies that I had under my care that morning under my belt, get a good handle on them.”
Meanwhile, a pediatrician sitting nearby started talking to another nurse about a case he remembered years earlier when he was a young doctor, a case about a premature baby.
“I was hearing bits and pieces,” Fulton says. “It sounded familiar.”
She sat down to listen more closely.
“He talked on about whisking by the mom’s room and going to MUSC. ... And at that point, I had kind of dismissed it from my mind,” she says. “As soon as I’d think it, I’d say, no, I mean, there’s no way.”
When Fulton heard him mention Summerville Baptist Church, she still was dismissive. But then she wondered if her grandmother still went there. Well, maybe.
“I still sat there and then he said, ‘And then there was this article written about this baby a year or so later.’ And I sat back in my chair and thought, ‘Holy cow. He is talking about me.’ ”
It was West who was telling that story at Summerville Medical Center that January day. As fate would have it, Fulton and West have worked side-by-side at the hospital for five years. Until Jan. 28, neither knew each other was connected to what happened at Roper Hospital in April 1976.
It was West’s talk of the newspaper story about a “Million-Dollar Baby” that tipped Fulton off.
“I told Dr. West that article did not say ‘Million-Dollar Baby.’ It said the ‘Miracle Baby,’ and that baby was me,” she says. “He couldn’t even look at me.”
Fulton said that West, overcome with emotion, even turned his chair away from her.
“I got his attention,” she says. “I said, ‘I need you to look at me, I need you to know I’m being serious here. ... I said, ‘Please, just look at me. Look in my eyes.’ And he turned and he looked at me with these tear-filled eyes, and I said, ‘As God as my witness, Dr. West, that baby was me. You saved my life that day.’ ”
A ‘God thing’
Two months later, their unexpected reunion is still an emotional topic. Michelle Fulton, Ed West and Kathy and Charles Sanders recently sat down to share their story with The Post and Courier. Everyone cried.
“Dr. West and I are both Christians, and I know, for me, this is a complete God thing,” Fulton says. “I don’t think this could have worked out any other way had his (God’s) hand not been in the middle of it.”
For Kathy and Charles Sanders, learning about West’s involvement in saving their daughter’s life added a new layer to an emotional journey.
“We knew Michelle was sick when she was born, but we never knew she had died. That kind of amplified what God’s grace and mercy was in our life,” Charles Sanders says. “We’d told many people the story of Michelle’s birth many times and the miracle around it and God’s involvement, but we had kind of set it aside.
“She was an adult, she was healthy. It just became part of the past, and we didn’t really talk about it much. Then, when ya’ll connected at the hospital, God just blew it out of the box again.”
They all agreed the reunion was a miracle, a suspension of the natural order of things, West called it.
“A lot of things have happened as medical professionals that I think goes in the box in the attic and you just have to leave it there,” he says. “I have a pretty big box up there. After 40 years of doing this, I don’t know how big my box is.”
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.
Charles and Kathy Sanders of Summerville pay a special Christmas visit to Medical University of South Carolina’s pediatric intensive care nursery in December 1976 where 8-month-old Michelle spent the first part of her life.×
Kathy Sanders is the mother of Summerville Medical Center nurse Michelle Fulton.×