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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Effie Campbell feared the worst when doctors told her the baby boy who had been growing inside her for only 26 weeks was about to arrive well ahead of schedule.
Campbell, 33, had checked herself into the emergency room at her hometown hospital in Mount Pleasant on Aug. 28, believing that the mild contractions she’d put up with while working her usual shift at a nursing home had merely grown worse. Hospital staff informed her that she had actually been in labor all day.
There was one more complication: The hospital no longer was equipped to deliver babies.
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Campbell overheard some nurses discussing whether her son would be born alive. She wondered how tiny her first-born would be, knowing he was three months ahead of his due date. Would he even be able to cry?
The call went out to the Stead Family Children’s Hospital, an hour north in Iowa City. The hospital dispatched its neonatal transport team, two experts who arrived in an ambulance filled with state-of-the-art technology designed to give babies born extremely premature a fighting chance.
Oliver Stokes entered the world at 9:28 p.m., weighing 2.6 pounds, his eyes wide open and his mouth emitting a wail that seemed to suggest he was extremely aggravated about the turn of events, his mother recalled from a room in Stead’s newborn intensive care unit.
That is where Oliver’s heart and still-developing lungs have been constantly monitored for four weeks; where he has been fed donated breast milk through a tube running from his mouth directly to his stomach while slowly growing to 3.3 pounds; where he has had bad days and good days, but becomes more active when he hears the sound of his mother’s voice and occasionally props open his eyes to take a look at the gadgets that surround him.
Campbell considers her son’s arrival and survival a miracle.
“It’s still hard to believe that he’s here,” she said. “I feel pretty well at ease now, but I know it’s going to be touch and go for a little while. I’m just glad he’s here at this hospital and they know what they’re doing. That does help a lot.”
It has been just over a year since Carson King decided to carry a whimsical sign to a college football game in Ames, hoping to pocket $25 to buy some beer, only to end up as an accidental fundraiser. By the time September was over, the generosity that King tapped into generated more than $3 million for the children’s hospital.
If you wonder where the money went, just look at the picture taken Sept. 7 by Jay Stokes. It shows his girlfriend, Campbell, holding their son, Oliver, for the first time. It is a snapshot that reflects King’s direction to the hospital when he sent them his check.
“I wanted it to go to directly impact families,” King said.
King turns quest for beer money into ‘unique’ gift to children’s hospital
King said the past 12 months have been “surreal” for him. The 25-year-old native of Prairie City, just east of Des Moines, has started a new career, gotten laid off from that job, picked up some construction shifts for his brother and launched his own charity.
All of this has occurred while King is still learning to handle the local celebrity he has achieved ever since his handmade sign reading “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished” was shown on ESPN before the annual Iowa-Iowa State football game last Sept. 14. King’s sign included his Venmo account, where people could send money that he intended to use to purchase his favorite brand of beer.
King checked his Venmo account 15 minutes later and was surprised to see $400 in it. That quickly became $600. At that point, he said he knew that he couldn’t waste the largesse of strangers on a mere night on the town with his buddies.
King called his parents from the parking lot at Jack Trice Stadium. He spoke to his brother and sister as well. Together, they came up with the idea of giving the money to the children’s hospital on the University of Iowa campus. King, who attended Iowa State for two years hoping for a career in social work or law enforcement, thought of it as a symbolic way to tie the two schools together in his endeavor.
“There are so many people that are affected by the children’s hospital. They’re one of the best in the world for premature babies,” King told the Des Moines Register in an interview earlier this month.. “We just decided they have such a far reach and they mean so much to so many people.”
King contacted the university’s Center for Advancement, which handles philanthropic gifts. Staff there had already gotten wind of King’s unconventional journey into the spotlight and helped him capitalize on it.
At the same time, executives at Busch Light were keeping track of the growing public interest in King’s efforts. The company pledged to match whatever he raised. So did Venmo. Suddenly, the stakes were much higher, and King said he was starting to discover a new purpose for his life.
His fundraiser ran just 16 days, with a cutoff date of Sept. 30. King had nearly $1 million in his Venmo account by that point. Some other donations came in afterward and went directly to the hospital, said Dana Larson, executive director for communication and marketing at the University of Iowa Center for Advancement.
King’s campaign netted a little over $3 million, Larson said, all of which has been received and is now starting to be spent by the hospital. Larson couldn’t say where that ranks in size among gifts to the hospital, but called it one of the biggest ever.
“The thing that’s unique about it is one person started this effort and was the spark really,” she said. “What’s so cool about it is the collective nature of it and the spirit behind it.”
Gift to hospital launches a new career path, and King’s own charity
On Oct. 11, King came to the children’s hospital for a ceremony that included an oversized check and speeches by hospital leaders.
The most moving part of the event for King, he said, was a tour of the hospital offered to his entire family. They went floor by floor, and, as word spread that King was in the building, children started coming out of their rooms to hug him.
“It gives you a lot of hope, because obviously they know what’s going on. They know they’re sick. They know something’s wrong. But they’re so positive,” King said. “I’m not an emotional guy by any means. But walking through those hallways and seeing some of the kids and the families and how close the doctors and nurses are to the families, the connections they make, it’s very touching.”
King said he came to realize the difference one ordinary person can make in the lives of many, under the right circumstances. He set to work on forming the Carson King Foundation, which launched on Super Bowl Sunday.
He also took a job as director of outreach and advancement for a children’s charity in Waukee called the Barrett Boesen Foundation.
In that role, King was in charge of setting up public fundraising events. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck earlier this year. There were no more public events. King was laid off.
He has been working part time as a supervisor at the Prairie Meadows horse racing track in Altoona, where he’s in charge of the stables area. It’s work he enjoys.
King also works construction jobs for his brother on occasion. He is still paying off his student loans, he said. He does not draw a salary from his foundation, which he intends to make his legacy.
“I’ve kind of found a niche that I’m passionate about and have a decent amount of pull in,” King said. “I’d like my foundation to impact not only Iowa, but the Midwest, and get to the point where we can be a beacon of hope and be someone that different organizations and charities can reach out to for support in their time of need. I want to help families and kids directly as well as hospital organizations, other charity groups.”
It’s been a busy year for King. His foundation has helped raise funds for groups combating cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis.
On Jan. 31, he spoke to students at Prairie City Elementary with the message “Kindness is King.” The school district bused all of its children from Monroe Elementary over for the assembly, which was held to promote the American Heart Association’s “Kids Heart Challenge.” Combined, the schools raised $8,839 for the AHA in Des Moines, which used the money toward its goals of keeping physical education classes in Iowa schools and providing access to healthy food for children.
King made promotional videos for an ongoing fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House of Central Iowa. The foundation brought in $40,000 in May that it gave to organizations providing mental health services for Iowans suffering during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Lately, King has focused on helping Iowans dig out from the derecho that slammed the state last month, causing an estimated $4 billion in damage. His foundation sold “Iowa Strong” T-shirts that have generated more than $60,000 and counting. United Ways in Washington, Johnson and Jasper counties have received checks. So has the United Way of Central Iowa and the Community Foundation of Marshall County.
In the future, King said he wants his foundation to move beyond short-term projects that fill specific needs, like derecho relief. He’d like to build up a reserve of cash.
“If we see someone’s hurting, we can cut them a check for a couple thousand dollars and help out,” King said. “I just want to slowly build and hopefully be one of the great nonprofits doing work out there.”
Children’s hospital uses charitable gift to provide care for most vulnerable
At the children’s hospital, the influx of money made possible by King has come at a pivotal time. Charitable donations are down in general since the pandemic disrupted the economy, Larson said. Hospitals have been particularly hard-hit because of limitations on surgeries that could be performed and patients that could be treated.
When King sat down with University of Iowa staff to discuss how he wanted his money spent, he pointed to continuing education for the hospital’s doctors and nurses. He asked for the hiring of more “child life specialists,” who organize activities for the young patients, taking their minds off their situations for a couple of hours and allowing their parents to take a much-needed nap or enjoy a cup of coffee.
“When donors give, we are bound ethically to follow exactly where they want their money spent,” Larson said.
King’s primary wish was for the hospital to expand its transportation teams, so that children from all over the state could have access to the highest possible level of care. Especially the smallest babies, the most fragile.
Dr. Patrick McNamara was one of the hospital employees called on to hold up that giant check last October. He gave a short speech afterward, outlining a vision for how the money could benefit Iowa babies that are born months before they are equipped to handle life outside the womb.
And that’s what is happening now at Stead Family Children’s Hospital. McNamara, who has been the division chief of neonatology at the hospital since moving here from Toronto in June 2018, is building a staff and acquiring equipment that he believes can significantly reduce the mortality rate for babies born prematurely.
The hospital plans to double the number of its two-person transport teams that specialize in caring for such babies. Currently, the hospital has only one team on duty 24/7. Those teams are equipped with temperature-controlled incubators designed for newborns. McNamara described it as a portable neonatal intensive care unit, and eventually there will be two such teams on duty at all times. The money from King’s fundraiser is helping those efforts, but won’t cover the full costs.
The children’s hospital typically cares for about 100 babies a year that were born at 22 to 28 weeks, designated “extremely premature,” McNamara said. More than 80% of those are born at the hospital. The next step is for the hospital to be able to send its staff and equipment anywhere in the state in order to be at the bedside of women delivering babies well ahead of their due dates, like Campbell.
University of Iowa researchers reported last year in the Journal of Pediatrics that 70% of babies born at 22 weeks in the previous decade at UIHC survived. In the rest of the country, the survival rate was 9%. That underlies the urgency McNamara feels when trying to bring the services his hospital can offer to newborns throughout Iowa.
“The biggest problem is that prematurity is an unnatural existence,” McNamara said. “Every cell, every organ in the body is not designed for life outside the womb. These babies are totally dependent on the placenta.
“And we have doctors in Iowa who aren’t trained newborn intensivists. They may see a baby like that once in every two years or three years. This is a terrifying experience. If people tell us early enough, we can send the transport team to attend the delivery in the hospital so they can support the community physicians.
“Unfortunately, sometimes babies die because of a lack of awareness. If the lady goes into labor at 22 weeks, physicians may think there’s no hope for this particular baby, and we want to make sure that, within the state of Iowa, there is equity. It doesn’t matter where the baby is, people are aware that we can come to help.”
The doctors in Mount Pleasant were aware. The Stead team brought two ambulances down on Aug. 28, helped to deliver Oliver Stokes, and then brought him to Iowa City in an incubator built just for patients like him. Campbell followed in a different ambulance.
She has been staying in Iowa City ever since, thanks to the Ronald McDonald House. She arrives in Oliver’s room every morning at 7 a.m., so she can be there when the nurses change shifts and get the latest information on his condition. This will be her routine until at least Nov. 29, Oliver’s original due date.
Campbell has watched nurses give her son medication to treat a heart murmur. She has been there for daily X-rays of Oliver’s lungs, which some days appear to be collapsing and other days are better. She has listened to him struggle slightly with his breathing.
Campbell said doctors haven’t been able to pinpoint why Oliver was in such a hurry to be born. It had been a normal pregnancy until that evening. Luckily, she said, the couple had decided on a name for him two weeks earlier.
But his nursery back home remains unfinished. Campbell thought she had plenty of time to attend to that. Jay Stokes will work on it in between his harvesting duties and trips to see his son. They are the only two people allowed in to see Oliver due to COVID-19-related visitor restrictions. The grandparents have had to be content to look at pictures.
Oliver was 10 days old before Campbell got to hold him. The nurses needed to change the sheets on his bed, so they handed him to his mother for a couple of minutes.
“It was scary, because he’s so small,” Campbell said. “I wasn’t sure what to think.”
Stokes captured the moment for posterity. They’ll show Oliver the picture when he’s older, an image of how delicate his life was at the outset and the technology it took to help him grow. Perhaps they’ll tell him about the generosity of strangers who helped make this all possible.
Scenes like that are why King said he is so vigilant that no money doled out by his foundation goes to pay for administrative fees or building rent.
“I don’t want my funds to be used to line someone’s pockets,” he said. “I want it to serve people who need it the most.”
How to donate
Anyone who wishes to make a financial contribution to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital can visit: givetoiowa.org/children.
You will be given the option of designating any specific program you want your money to support.
To help out the Carson King Foundation, log on to carsonkingfoundation.org/donate. There, you will have the option of making a one-time gift or a recurring monthly donation.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: One year later, how Carson King’s beer money is changing lives at Stead Family Children’s Hospital