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Baby’s Cry Delivers Parents From Grief Two Couples Share The Joy Of Birth A Year After Their Infant Daughters, Who Shared A Heart, Each Died

Eric Martin Erkela wailed at the top of his lungs. It was the best sound his parents had ever heard.

For Julee and Martin Erkela, the cry meant the end of more than a year of grief and the beginning of a family.

Complications during Julee Erkela’s first two pregnancies had prevented the Erkelas from hearing a similar sound from their first two children.

“That first cry meant everything to us,” Julee Erkela said.

She was at ease on Saturday as she cradled her 20-3/4-inch son in her arms. Julee Erkela giggled and grinned widely as she talked about her newborn.

“I haven’t heard her laugh quite so much ever,” Martin Erkela said, a smile glued to his face.

The Erkelas are from Omak, but were in Spokane for the birth of their son.

Adding to the joy of Eric’s birth was the surprise visit of Sherrie and Lonnie Maize, who had flown in from North Carolina Saturday afternoon to be with the new parents.

“We knew we wanted to (be here) but, we weren’t sure we could afford it,” Sherrie Maize said. “But we decided there are some things in life you just do.”

The couples’ daughters introduced them a year and a half ago.

Kaitlyn, the Erkelas’ daughter, was born in June 1994 with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and not breathing. She was pronounced brain-dead two days later.

Meanwhile, Janet Steele, Spokane’s transplant coordinator, was conducting a nationwide search for babies awaiting hearts when she heard about the Maize’s unborn child. An ultrasound test at five months revealed the left side of its heart wasn’t developed.

Less than two hours after Olivia Maize was born on July 1, 1994, her heart was removed and replaced with Kaitlyn’s. The heart gave Olivia an extension on life, but her tiny body rejected the organ after five weeks and she died on Aug. 13, 1994.

Despite rules preventing communication between organ donors and recipients, the couples met. With the Maizes’ permission, the Erkelas flew to North Carolina to attend Olivia’s funeral.

The couples have remained close, talking on the phone weekly, and have even vacationed together a couple of times.

On Saturday, the couples shared stories about the daughters they call “sisters of the heart”.

“I’ve always felt like we had twins,” Julee Erkela said to Sherrie Maize, who wears a gold, heart-shaped locket around her neck.

Eric’s birth on Thursday morning at Deaconess Medical Center allowed the couples to further advance their healing.

Though Eric’s birth went smoothly, it was not without anxiety.

When doctors began the Cesarian section, they discovered a hole had developed along the scar left on Julee Erkela’s uterus from the Cesarean section performed during Kaitlyn’s birth. Another six to eight hours of labor and Martin Erkela faced losing both wife and child.

But at 7:55 a.m., 9 minutes after the procedure began, newborn Eric Martin Erkela cried.

“The doctors said they had delivered hundreds of babies, but they even shed a tear,” Martin Erkela said.

Doctors hope to release Julee Erkela today and Eric on Monday.

Several of the medical personnel involved in removing Kaitlyn’s heart were present at Eric’s birth, including Janet Steele, Spokane’s transplant coordinator who arranged Kaitlyn’s transplant.

“We were calling her grandma Janet by the end of Kaitlyn’s transplant,” Julee Erkela said.

She wanted to be closer to Deaconess and had been staying with Steele for the last month.

“Last time we wanted all of the surprises in the world,” Julee Erkela said. “This time, we wanted to make sure it was well planned.”

But even the best planning couldn’t prepare them for the reality of holding Eric in their arms.

“Can you believe what you’re doing?” Lonnie Maize asked. “It’s just hitting me. This is really real. Wow.”

Julee Erkela did not mind the reminder, but hardly needed it.

“I couldn’t wait to put my finger in his little fist,” she said. “Life’s a series of moments You’ve got to take them when you can.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo