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Meet Noah

  • Author: Noah Gordon
  • Date Submitted: Mar 29, 2021
  • Category: Philanthropy

“ I gave birth at the Carl Albert Indian Hospital in Ada, and the hospital just wasn’t ready for Noah,” said Cheri. “[They] didn’t have the technology at the time to take care of fragile babies, so a nurse held a little tube next to his mouth to help him breathe.”

Bolstered by a passionate Oklahoma town, Noah’s Project provides support for NICU families

noah givingFor Cheri Bellefeuille-Gordon, community and family are one in the same.

A nearly lifelong resident of Sulphur, Okla. (pop. 5,000), Cheri was raised to not only support the heartbeat of her community but to be its hands and feet too.

“I raised money for March of Dimes through the Kiwanis Club in Murray County since 1991,” said Cheri, who also serves as a Supreme Court Justice for the Chickasaw Nation. “I had no idea then how closely my family and life would align with that organization.”

In December 1996, Cheri was pregnant with her first child, but not slated to deliver for another two months when she went into labor.

Noah Gordon was born on Dec. 14, 1996, and from his first breath, Noah was fighting for his life.

“I gave birth at the Carl Albert Indian Hospital in Ada, and the hospital just wasn’t ready for Noah,” said Cheri. “[They] didn’t have the technology at the time to take care of fragile babies, so a nurse held a little tube next to his mouth to help him breathe.”

Born without the ability to suck, swallow or breathe on his own, Noah was critical enough that doctors called OU Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and requested a helicopter transport. Inclement weather grounded the helicopter, so Noah was transported to OU’s NICU via ambulance. Now separated from her fragile newborn, Cheri could only lie in a recovery bed and pray.

She said, “Noah went in the ambulance by himself, and we didn’t know if he would survive. That was a very hard time. Once we were reunited, I told him, ‘I will never leave you again. I will always be in the same town as you.’”

Noah was in critical condition, but then neonatologist Dr. Kris Sekar and his talented team entered the picture. The family was about to meet a lifelong friend and partner.

Noah arrived in the NICU frail, on life support assisted by mechanical ventilation and in critical condition. He was stabilized and immediately given pulmonary surfactant (a soapy medicine that helps stiff lungs of premature babies relax) to make him breathe better. He was supported by nutrition via his tiny veins initially. He was not able to bottle feed for about three weeks. Noah responded to treatment very well and recovered fully without any complications prior to discharge.

noahNoah was one of 36 babies on the unit during that time. His family wasn’t able to hold him until he was six days old.

“We only had one rocking chair for 12 babies, so I had to wait in line to hold my baby,” said Cheri. “It was the most heartwarming experience to actually hold him and know I wasn’t hurting him. And the heroes were the doctors and the nurses who were taking care of him. All I could do was pray.

I remember my family would come up and visit, and I would stay with him as long as I could. And slowly, these clinicians became my family. My family would relieve me once a day to go out to eat, rest and get rejuvenated. We always had a special place in our hearts for these teams that were taking care of Noah and us too.”

Noah steadily improved, and eventually was released to go home around Christmas.

“I was born in Ardmore, but I have lived in Sulphur nearly my whole life. I know everyone and everyone in town knew our story. So we just asked ourselves, ‘what could we do to honor these doctors and nurses?’ If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be a mom; my kids wouldn’t be here. I didn’t want to just raise money and NOT go back to the hospital and let them see how Noah was growing year-by-year.”

And from this sentiment, Noah’s Project was born. The Gordon family alongside the Murray County Kiwanis Club united efforts to give back to the hospital and advocate for premature birth awareness.

And Cheri knew just what she wanted to do in year one to pay her gift forward.

“We talked about the lack of rocking chairs, and how we wanted to change that. We just wanted to impact families, so we could make that first time holding their child as precious as possible. That first year we took one rocking chair and several baskets of food.”

Cheri said that she wasn’t ready for Noah to be born, but during the ordeal she never lost a paycheck and had a gracious boss and a strong support system. She was grateful for those lifelines and knew many people were not so lucky. Noah’s Project sought to fill in those gaps for families wherever they existed.

From that first year, Noah’s Project began to grow. More volunteers leaned in, more corporate partners joined the effort, and the town of Sulphur showed up in a major way to make donations, pack gift bags, and even provide much-needed equipment and furniture, like rocking chairs.

“When they expanded the NICU to 96 beds, I wanted a rocking chair for each one of those families. And the day they opened, every room had a rocking chair,” said Cheri.

Care bags grew from 25 bags in its first year to 125 bags in 2019. Packages contained hygiene care items, food, toothpaste, toothbrush, juice to aid in milk production and a NICU sibling book among other items.

The Project also expanded when the Sulphur Rotary Club began sponsoring a poster contest for third-grade students to draw posters promoting premature birth awareness. The winning portrait hangs in the NICU hallway alongside other past award winners.

But Cheri wasn’t aware that the Noah’s Project story wasn’t over yet.

In 2008, Cheri had her second NICU baby when her son AJ was born. It was another harrowing ordeal for Cheri, husband Dan and then 12-year-old Noah. But AJ was able to thrive into a healthy toddler and today a young adult thanks to the help of another talented NICU team. And once he grew up, AJ wanted to be a part of Noah’s Project too. The two brothers are united in their compassion to bring a little joy to the hospital that gave them a chance at life.

For Cheri, the greatest gift is watching her boys embrace the opportunity to give back.

“I remember this dad that ran down after us one year to thank us for the bags and said, ‘I didn’t have a toothbrush until now. And all I wanted to do was read a book to my baby, so thank you.’ And Noah shook his hand and said, ‘well, my brother and I were that baby. And now we’re grown up and healthy, and your baby will be too.’ It was a heartwarming moment.”

Noah’s Project has become a permanent fixture at the NICU during the holidays. Cheri says the family has a tradition that they do not celebrate Christmas until gifts have been delivered to the hospital.

Today, Cheri shares the Project’s story beneath a multi-frame photo of her two boys in the NICU juxtaposed with current images of them as young men and March of Dimes ambassadors.

“We’re about to start our 23rd year, and Noah’s a college graduate. While he’s moving on with his life, he still wants to do this. Some people forget over time and stop coming back. We reflect on this journey, and we don’t want them to ever forget that we appreciate them and that we will always be grateful.”

Cheri acknowledges gratitude for what she’s been given: healthy children and new friendships. “I have two wonderful boys. I’m so proud of them, March of Dimes, Children Hospital’s NICU and Dr. Sekar are my heroes. Especially Dr. Sekar. Every life is so important to him. My boys used to think Dr. Sekar was so tall. Every year we take a photo, and Dr. Sekar shrinks and my boys get taller,” she says with a laugh. “If Dr Sekar ever retires, we’ll probably visit him at home!

“I feel a sense of gratitude to the Gordan family and the entire Sulphur community for the long-term commitment to NICU parents every Christmas for the last 23 years. The artwork from the “Noah’s project” adorns the walls of the NICU corridor which is a constant reminder of the goodwill of this community and the wonderful care provided by the NICU team. It is an honor and privilege for me to have played a small role in Noah’s life for which I will be forever grateful. Seeing Noah now as a young man, much taller than me, with a bright future is priceless” said Dr. Sekar.

“It takes special people to have the kind of impact we want to have at the hospital. In Sulphur, we love the Children’s Hospital. We put our bags together at City Hall. It’s a community project and always has been. Our family and Sulphur, America are here to support Children’s Hospital at OU Medicine.