Suzanne and Cory Ozbun didn’t realize their baby daughter’s birth would someday have the makings of a modern Christmas story.
At the time, there was only heartbreak and sadness.
Last year at this time, Suzanne Ozbun was pregnant with their daughter Elizabeth — “Ellie.” She was stillborn on Christmas Eve 2015.
The past 365 days have brought the Overland Park family a wave of emotions, and their story now is prompting strangers to perform acts of kindness in their daughter’s name through the website Bless4Ellie.
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It’s a story of love, devotion, birth, death, birth again and finally joy.
It begins with an ultrasound.
At 20 weeks, the ultrasound showed that Ellie’s brain wasn’t developing and that she had an extra copy of chromosome 13.
“And babies that have that can die at any point,” Suzanne Ozbun said. “We anticipated that if she was born alive, she would live for only a minute or two.”
Ozbun, who studied at the University of Kansas Medical Center, is an attending resident at Research Medical Center. Cory Ozbun is a minister for Colonial Presbyterian. Their first child, Samuel William, arrived in May 2014.
And with the anticipated birth of their daughter, the couple kept hoping for a miracle.
“When we got pregnant and we found out it was a girl, it was so exciting,” Cory Ozbun said. “... The potential for the whole daddy-daughter thing was so fun. But then, at the 20-week mark, we noticed something was wrong.”
Ellie had a chromosome abnormality, Trisomy 13.
“She had significant heart defects and abnormalities with her breathing system, especially with her nose and mouth,” Suzanne Ozbun said.
For 12 more weeks, she felt baby Ellie moving and growing inside her womb. And the couple kept hoping.
“My hope was to love her, raise her and see her become a kid and adult and teach her to do things,” Suzanne Ozbun said. “She’s my daughter. She still is. And my hopes for her are the same for my boys.”
Knowing this could be the only chance to interact with Ellie, the couple read to the tiny fetus each night before bedtime.
“We were always hopeful, expectant for a miracle,” Cory Ozbun said. “I know miracles are possible. At some point, I was desperately seeking God for a miracle and at the same time balancing the potential of hurt and death. The situation was incredibly difficult.”
On the morning of Christmas Eve 2015, Suzanne Ozbun was told that Ellie had stopped moving, and her heart ceased to beat.
“I was mad when I found out she died,” she said. “I was mad because I felt we were robbed of this holiday. Because I love Christmas and suddenly it would be different forever. I was mad as we drove home to pack up stuff and go back to the hospital.”
The doctors induced labor on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.
Elizabeth Joy Ozbun was stillborn later that night.
And Suzanne Ozbun’s anger began to turn to wonder.
“She stayed there with us in the room all through the night,” she said. “We let her go in the morning. It was hard not to feel grief, and I know it sounds counterintuitive, but we both felt joy when we saw her. We knew she was going to have some abnormalities, but we didn’t know how that would go. We had this tremendous joy and love when we saw her, and I think God allowed us to feel peace during this time, because I have no other explanation.”
Ellie had her daddy’s long legs and feet.
Her mouth was just like her older brother’s.
She had blonde hair like her mommy.
“I felt that connection to her like I did with the other kids,” Cory Ozbun said.
Brother Sam, who was 18 months old and just beginning to identify body parts, climbed on the bed with his mom and dad and pointed to his baby sister’s face.
“One thing she had that was abnormal was her nose, and surely everyone noticed what was abnormal about her face, but the adults didn’t say anything,” Suzanne Ozbun said. “And here he comes and the first thing he says is ‘nose.’ He called out the elephant in the room. It was actually one of the most precious things ever. It was just what he knew. Just how she looked. This was his sister, and he knew she was Ellie.”
A week later, the family held a memorial service, and Ellie was buried in Memorial Gardens in Overland Park.
As Christmas Eve neared this year, the Ozbuns wanted to do something in honor of their daughter.
They created a website, Bless4Ellie. They are asking people to do random acts of kindness, things like rake a yard for a neighbor, take dinner to a friend or buy coffee for the next person in line. They are asking people to take a picture of the acts of kindness they’ve received or given and submit it to Ellie’s website.
“There are hurting people all around,” Suzanne Ozbun said. “That’s something I have become a lot more aware of because of Ellie — there are moms, dads, brothers and sisters, grandparents, spouses that are grieving, and their grief doesn’t get recognized or resolved. It comes in cycles and comes back around. It changes and sometimes is most prominent on the holidays.”
Kristen Trumpp of Kansas City was one of those who received a Bless4Ellie act of kindness a week ago. Her car was stolen, and then she received a card with $100 from friends of the Ozbuns.
A few days before, Trumpp had given some help to a mother in need.
“She needed help with bills and groceries,” Trumpp said. “So we made a Costco run and got all the staples and were able to tell her about Ellie and why we wanted to honor her life. Then, a week after that, my car was stolen. It was overwhelming how friends responded. … To me, God and Ellie are using this to teach me to be the recipient of a blessing.”
Wichita resident Jenae Crowley gave blankets to some Somalian refugees who arrived in Wichita on Monday. On their cards, she wrote “#Bless4Ellie.”
The Bless4Ellie action is “a powerful testimony of finding joy in the midst of indescribable grief,” Crowley said. “The timing is providential. We have an opportunity to bless others with love and kindness on Ellie’s birthday (Christmas Eve) all while we are preparing our hearts to remember the birth of another baby born more than 2,000 years ago.”
On Nov. 1, Suzanne Ozbun gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Nathanael John.
Sam is excited to have a baby brother but will sometimes talk about Ellie.
“It caught me off guard,” his mom said. “It was sweet he remembered. I said, ‘Sam, do you know where Ellie is?’ He said, ‘Yeah, she is in heaven with Jesus.’
“He knows her birthday is coming up.”
Suzanne Ozbun’s hope is that people will continue to care for her daughter’s memory “and that her life will mean something, because it meant a lot to us and our friends.”
Baby Ellie, through Bless4Ellie, continues to touch lives.
“She continues to touch more people than I have ever touched,” Suzanne Ozbun said. “There is something compelling about that.
“I hope her life keeps touching others.”