As life unravels, teenager is left to fend for her family

“There’s the room, 617,” the teenage girl says, gesturing toward an open doorway, the last hospital room her mother occupied before dying in late November.

But Zenia Acedo doesn’t stop. Not for grief, nor for contemplating her recent fate. It’s early Wednesday, just after midnight, and the 19-year-old continues down the corridor at Truman Medical Center toward the unit where the premature babies are swaddled and monitored.

Zenia’s arrived for her daily visit with her sister — 4 pounds, 2 ounce Camila Olga Acedo.

She scrubs her hands with surgical soap and settles into a white rocking chair, surrounded by incubators.

She cuddles the tiny bundle, nuzzling and singing to her sister, first in English, then Spanish.

In the span of a few weeks, Zenia’s life unraveled. She had been working long hours at a fast food job, earning her G.E.D. and planning a career as a dental assistant. Now she leads a family of five siblings.

Zenia’s mother died of cancer a few weeks after doctors delivered the baby by C-section. The infant was three months premature and weighed 2 pounds, 8 ounces.

Zenia’s father was deported to Mexico as the family planned the funeral. He left the day before the wake.

As the eldest, Zenia now is the head of the family. She has four younger brothers, ages 18, 14, 13, 12, and tiny Camila.

“I think of my brothers,” Zenia said. “They aren’t going to have a mom anymore.”

But neither does Zenia, nor her new sister.

Soon the baby will be ready to leave the hospital. She’s nearly doubled her birth weight. The effects of the morphine her mother required for pain have worn out of the baby’s body.

“We’ll pray,” a nurse told Zenia gently in the early hours. “Maybe she can come home as a Christmas baby.”

God, social workers, and eventually a judge will have to be willing. But that’s the outcome Zenia envisions.

“I want to do everything to keep my family together,” she said. “I’m scared.”

The first meeting that will begin to determine the family’s future is Friday morning at the Jackson County Family Court.

Nurses have told Zenia that the baby will likely be placed in foster care, at least temporarily. She is being assured that courts do not like to separate families.

But people are asking the obvious questions.

How will you go to school and also care for an infant, especially one so tiny who will surely need follow up care?

Who will babysit while you work?

How will your $10-an-hour job support a large family?

What about your brothers? Who will see to their schooling?

Zenia says an aunt will help. And she has other cousins and friends in the area too.

Actually, Zenia has already taken on many of those roles herself.

She didn’t finish high school partly because she was already working to help support the family.

And when her mother’s crying from pain intensified, it was Zenia and her boyfriend who shuttled the pregnant woman from hospital to hospital, trying to find her care.

Finally, Truman Medical Center diagnosed the dire situation. Olga Jurado had a large tumor. Further tests revealed the cancer had spread. She was 41.

For a girl with few financial resources, Zenia has been encircled by a cadre of influential people. People often say Latino families are tight-knit. Well, the leadership can be too. Especially when children are involved.

The mother of one of Zenia’s childhood friends called her friend, an editor at Dos Mundos newspaper. The word soon spread.

Adrienne Foster, the mayor of Roeland Park who is also the executive director of the Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission for Gov. Sam Brownback, was called, along with Mary Lou Jaramillo, CEO of the social service agency El Centro. And Cici Rojas, vice president of community engagement with Truman Medical Center, who quickly discovered her staff was already well-aware of the family’s situation.

Foster worked with immigration officials, finding out the father’s situation and delaying his deportation one day.

Zenia and her mother are legal permanent residents. The younger children are U.S. citizens by birth.

Suzanne Gladney, one of the area’s best and most compassionate immigration attorneys, was contacted by the hospital’s social workers. Gladney got Zenia’s father to sign consent papers before he was deported. He gave temporary authority to his eldest daughter to represent the other children.

It’s something, but not full custody. That decision awaits.

In the meantime, Zenia’s days are busy with long work shifts, caring for her brothers, and visits to the hospital to see Camila.

She’s trying to keep the house clean and organized. It’s a two-bedroom the family rents for $400 a month. She knows social workers will soon show up to take an assessment.

Her mother’s room is still cluttered. She’s trying to sort through her belongings and set up a place for the baby.

A plastic donation jar sits on the dresser. It’s one of several that were set out in their Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood to help cover funeral expenses.

Taped across it is the last photo Zenia took of her mother. In it, baby Camila is snuggled against her mother’s chest. Both baby and mother are covered with medical tubing.

In one of their last conversations, Zenia apologized to her mother. Not for anything bad, just childhood stubbornness, a penchant to be with her friends when her mother wanted her home.

“She said it was OK, that it was past and that I needed to focus on the future,” Zenia said, eyes tearing up at the memory. “I wonder if she knew.”