Book tells story of family traumas

In 2010, Rachel Alkire wrote an autobiographical book about her family's experience. "Glimpsing God: Snapshots From One Family's Enduring Faith Through Unbelievable Trials" was published by Deep River Books. It is available through Amazon and other booksellers.

For that passing moment, it felt like a long road of promise stretched far into their futures.

In summer 2004, Charles Alkire was working long hours for Sam's Club, heading up a store's fresh food areas. He'd just been promoted and sent to a town on the shores of Lake Michigan. His wife, Rachel, cared for their four healthy children. Both awaited the arrival of their fifth and final baby. When they learned little Ben was breach, they opted for a C-section.

But as anesthesia drew Rachel under, their rosy world darkened. Anesthetized but awake, Rachel heard Charles say that everything was fine.

She didn't feel fine.

As the newborn wailed into the world, Rachel's heart stopped. For two long minutes. Terrifying as it was, her heart pumped back to life.

She and Ben were alive.

But the frightening episode proved the launching pad for a sudden series of traumatic life events - from a near-fatal car wreck to brain surgery to the discovery of a severe birth defect - that would challenge even the faith of Job.

Esther's injury

Back home, Rachel was exhausted with a newborn and kids ages 7, 5, 4 and 2. So when the older three went outside to play with neighbors, she was grateful. Another child's grandmother was out with them.

Her boys raced back in: "Esther got hurt!" The little girl, who was 4, came in crying.

"Come inside and sit by Mommy," Rachel said. Turned out, the kids were playing a game that ended with a boy getting a bat. Rachel pictured a whiffle ball bat. Not an aluminum bat.

Esther seemed docile and said her head hurt. But there was no bump, no blood, no loss of consciousness. Still, the next day, Rachel took her to an urgent care center. A nurse practitioner said the child looked fine.

Yet, a week later, as Rachel massaged shampoo onto the girl's head, Esther grimaced.

Her pediatrician quickly ordered a CT scan.

Rachel was stunned by the results. Esther had a blood clot on her brain, and her skull was fractured. She could have died that first night. They were dispatched 45 minutes away to a neurosurgeon. Esther needed a craniotomy, surgical removal of bone from the skull to access the brain.

Exactly two months after Ben's birth, Esther went into major surgery.

Doctors found her skull more damaged than expected. When they cut it open, an area fell apart. It took 10 screws and four brackets to repair.

When Rachel saw her in recovery, a nearly 4-inch-long zigzagging incision was etched into Esther's scalp. Tubes hung from her body, even her skull.

But Esther was standing up and screaming, and Rachel knew her feisty girl was OK.

For six months, Esther wore a helmet, even when she slept.

As Rachel painted the ugly helmet, she surrendered the whole awful event - her guilt and anger at herself, her rage at the boy who hit Esther - to God. She remembered to be thankful Esther was alive.

Isaac's injury

Three months later, their oldest turned 8. Isaac went sledding to celebrate his big day.

The next day, Rachel headed to work.

As medical bills piled up, Rachel had taken on administrative work with a medical office. It meant driving 175 miles to drop the kids at her mother-in-law's and then on to work.

Yet, Rachel felt rested for once as she loaded all five kids into their van. Cruising down the interstate, they reviewed spelling words. Snow wafted, and she passed a wreck in the opposite lanes. Gawkers slowed.

Suddenly, Rachel saw a car ahead going much slower. She switched lanes.

But the van hit a patch of ice. It slid and careened perpendicular to the road.

She watched the semi come. It smashed into the right rear corner of the van, where Isaac was sitting.

The van spun and spun, eventually stopping on the right shoulder. Still stunned, Rachel heard the kids erupt in screaming and crying. Then she saw Isaac, dangling limp and silent from his seatbelt, hanging partially out of a smashed window.

Rachel leapt out. Esther was hysterical, covered in Isaac's blood, still wearing her helmet. The other kids, although terrified and screaming, appeared uninjured.

Isaac wasn't breathing.

Long recovery

The day after turning 8, Isaac lay unconscious on a hospital bed. As he came to over the coming days, he could barely move or talk. He had suffered a serious brain injury; only time would reveal the extent of its damage.

Driving back and forth to the hospital, every tractor-trailer that passed terrified Rachel. It was often dark and snowy.

Back at home, Samuel, the second-oldest son, performed brain surgery on Esther's baby dolls. He had nightmares. The kids asked about heaven and: Is Isaac going to die?

After 10 days in the hospital, Isaac still barely could walk or talk or eat. He would go to a rehab hospital for several weeks.

Oh, a doctor mentioned, his brain scan showed an abnormality of the corpus callosum, an area of the brain that connects to the two hemispheres. Part of Isaac's was missing.

"But if you didn't know he had it, I wouldn't worry about it," the doctor said.

Ben's health

Life became so busy with the daily whirl of five kids, plus Isaac's multiple daily therapy appointments and scans, and Esther's follow-ups, that Rachel missed Ben's six-month checkup. He was such an easy baby.

When did Ben first roll over? Sit up? When a nurse quizzed, Rachel couldn't recall. She knew he was delayed but figured it was due to all they were dealing with.

Then the doctor came in.

"I know you don't want to hear this Rachel, but his head is way off the chart," he said.

Ben might have a tumor or hydrocephalus, water on the brain. He needed a CT scan.

Something in Rachel's memory recalled Isaac's doctor mentioning the corpus callosum. If you didn't know he had it, I wouldn't worry about it.

Could Ben have it too?

"The odds are like a million to one," the pediatrician said.

Rachel still remembers standing in their kitchen when the phone rang after Ben's scan.

"You were right," the doctor said. "He has agenesis of the corpus callosum, like Isaac."

They hung up. Before the accident damaged Isaac's brain, he'd seemed healthy, if slightly delayed at times. Delays in mental and physical development are signs of the congenital disorder.

Rachel walked over to Ben in his high chair. She played pat-a-cake. Ben pounded on the tray. Rachel clapped her hands. Ben pounded on the tray again.

More bad news

Rachel had their third son Joseph tested. He, too, had part of his corpus callosum missing, although only about 15 percent, like Isaac.

But Ben?

His didn't develop at all.

Having three of five children with the disorder was unheard of. Suddenly, the family was traveling the country to visit medical professionals. They joined a clinical trial where they all underwent MRIs and had their blood cryogenically frozen for later study.

But they heard only dire news.

"He may never be able to walk or talk. It could be severe," a doctor said.

Another setback

Ben did walk and talk, just much later than normal. And Isaac did recover, although he seemed much different after. And Esther did recover, although she has screws and plate still in her skull.

So in the way that life can feel like a roller coaster, the family rounded what felt like a high when all they'd felt for so long was the down slope.

In 2007, they took a vacation.

As Charles drove them home, the winds picked up. Then came the snow. It set Rachel on edge, her memories racing back to Isaac nearly lifeless.

"Slow down." "Watch the speed." "See that car?" she said. Charles reassured her.

But as they ascended an icy bridge, a gust of wind lurched the van to the left. Charles turned to compensate. The van spun, hitting a guardrail. With the grill and headlights of a semi racing toward her, Rachel envisioned a lifeless Isaac.

Instead of smashing into their van, the semi scraped the front of it. A pickup hit the side. Yet, everyone appeared OK.

Charles and Rachel hurried the children, ages 2 to 9, off the dark, slick bridge.

But as Charles talked to police, his shoulder throbbed. His fingers went numb, dead. His entire right arm followed.

Change of careers

He had torn the nerves from his shoulder to his arm. For six months, he lay in bed, arm limp, groggy from pain drugs.

At 32, Charles was the family breadwinner, a bulky guy used to lifting heavy loads of meat and produce. "What was your strength, your forte for so long, now it's gone," he recalls.

His doctor was clear: No lifting more than 5 pounds. And any job at Sam's Club involved lifting at least a jug of milk. It was 2008 in Michigan, where unemployment topped 25 percent in areas. Stores displayed signs: We are NOT hiring.

"It was very, very clear I was going to have to get a new skill," he says.

Charles went back to school for web design and job hunted. But no luck. Desperate, facing the loss of their home, in 2010 he came to Charleston. Where did he find it? Sam's Club.

They all moved to Hanahan and he enrolled at Charleston Southern University. So did Rachel. They want college degrees - and steady jobs.

Rachel just graduated with an economics degree and a minor in business. Charles graduates this spring with a graphic arts degree and a minor in fine arts.

The kids are 16 to 8. Charles and Rachel are job hunting.

"I'll go through the door God opens up," Charles says. "We don't understand why, and we wouldn't have chosen the timing of all this. But we have to believe there is a larger purpose."

Rachel's 2010 autobiography, "Glimpsing God," ends the day after Charles was injured. Readers ask what happened next.

"Everyone wants that answer," Rachel says. "Where's the bow, the happy ending? I tell them there's not one. I don't know what tomorrow will bring."

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.