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One day we'll see the joy YOU make of this: A story of loss, heartbreak and hope

Woodruff family
Woodruff family

On March 23, two days before a scheduled C-section, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga coach Blaine Woodruff and his wife, Katie, lost their unborn child. The story below is told by Blaine, a first-person account of heartbreak and hope, that he and Katie wanted to share.

It was late May in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Katie had recently finished NCAA’s coaching the USC women’s team. My Pepperdine guys had made it to match play and had a chance to defend our title as national champions. Behind the scenes, I had already accepted the position of head men’s golf coach at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga but requested it wouldn’t be announced until after NCAA’s to limit any sort of distractions. Katie and I were nervous but excited about our new season in life.

One of the additional reasons we were excited to return to the Southeast (where we both grew up), was the fact that we were in the process of virtually seeing a fertility specialist based out of Atlanta, Georgia. Being less than two hours away, we would now be able to see our doctor in person. Katie and I had struggled to get pregnant and went through all the tests, and they couldn’t figure out why. Being able to meet face-to-face with our doctor gave us hope we could get to the bottom of it and come up with a plan.

In early July, amongst the midst of the move, getting adjusted to a new city, trying to put a team together, and many more stresses on our plate, we drove down to Atlanta for a bigger appointment than normal. It was the day that we were going to start the process of an IUI (intrauterine insemination) in hopes that we would be able to conceive. As we talked in our doctor’s office, both scared and excited, our doctor out of the blue asked if Katie would mind taking a pregnancy test. Reluctantly (thinking it would be a waste of time) she said yes. In that moment, our lives were changed. For no scientific reason or explanation, her pregnancy test came back positive. We were shocked and at a loss for words. It was a true miracle that could only come from God.

Katie never babysat growing up and feared if she didn’t have what it took to be a mother. It was a combination of nerves and excitement as we had about eight quick months before our little one was coming. I had spent the last few years watching how she took care of our dog, always thinking about his comfort and safety and if he was fed (much better than me, I may add).

The next step when we finally got settled in Chattanooga was to find a doctor. One came highly recommended to us from our great friends, Derek and Brooke Rende. We began the process of our regular checkups, ultrasounds, blood tests and pregnancy planning with Dr. Radpour from Galen OBGYN in East Chattanooga. Over a period of eight months, every test, every ultrasound, every checkup, came with perfect results. He gave us a due date of March 20, 2023. Our prayer for our precious baby girl was that God would use her greater than He would ever use Katie or me.

This didn’t mean the pregnancy was an easy one for Katie. The first two trimesters she battled strong nausea and acid reflux. Combining this with her missing doing what she loved in coaching young girls, made life difficult. Especially living in a place where we hadn’t met many people yet. As a husband, I bore the weight of that. All I wanted was for her to be happy and comfortable, and I felt like I couldn’t help at times. Our lives consisted of my job, constant praise for God answering our prayer, and watching our favorite team, the Atlanta Braves. We practically lived at Chick-fil-A, because nothing else sounded good to Katie (there could be MUCH worse spots).

Oh, in the midst of all of this, we also bought a house …

Fast-forward to early March. Golf season was in full swing. Katie had done an unbelievable job preparing to be a mom, reading the books and having every detail accounted for when the time came for our little girl to come home. The nursery was ready. The car seats were in both cars. The bassinet in our room. We had enough diapers for the whole state of Tennessee. We had all the apps on our phone to watch our baby sleep and to keep her safe. The stage was set.

Naming a child can be a process for many parents. However, for us, it happened easily. There wasn’t much arguing or debating between the two of us. We decided on the name Riley Grace. We loved the name Riley, especially since our favorite player for the Braves was Austin Riley. And Grace had multiple meanings. For one, she would have a middle name after my brother, Grayson, who I love dearly and is my best friend. Second, she truly was an example of God’s grace for us. He didn’t have to give her to us, but He answered our prayers and did.

It was March 16 and Katie was past “full term,” the time that doctors won’t stop the birth if it starts. We had planned on a natural birth, but the past few checkups had shown that her cervix was still very firm and she wasn’t dilated, suggesting that if we wanted to do a natural birth, her body would still need more time to prepare to deliver. We did an ultrasound on this visit, in which they predicted little Riley, in fact, wasn’t that little at all. They estimated her at 8 pounds, 4 ounces, and very tall. After talking with our doctor, he suggested we come back the following Wednesday, and if Katie’s body wasn’t naturally ready to deliver, it might be good to look at a C-section, especially with Riley’s size. We wanted to trust God’s timing with her birth and didn’t want to take matters into our own hands and force anything to fit our schedules.

Walking is one of the best things you can do to jumpstart delivery, so Katie was ecstatic because that meant we had the doctor’s approval to go to the Linger Longer – a tournament we were playing in at Lake Oconee. The boys played great and Katie walked all 54 holes with ease (not a surprise to anyone who knows her; she’s as tough as they come). We returned Wednesday for our next appointment, and once again, perfect. Heartbeat was 138 bpm, ultrasound looked great, but Katie’s body was still not primed for a natural birth. The three of us (including our doctor) agreed a C-section was the best route. We scheduled it for Saturday, March 25, and continued to pray that if God wanted her to come before then, that she would. We were in complete trust.

“You saw me before I was born, every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” Psalm 139:16

Our parents had come to town, our aunts and uncles had come, Katie’s brothers from Hawaii, my brother from Nashville. We were getting close. On Thursday night, I met up with Katie and her parents for dinner at … you guessed it … Chick-fil-A. At dinner, Katie started feeling painful contractions for the first time in her pregnancy. We went home after dinner, and I began charting their frequency. They got closer and closer together, and more and more intense. It was time.

You always dream of being able to drive without the fear of getting pulled over. The kid in me took full advantage of this moment. Put the flashers on, flipped my car in sport mode and went about 110 mph on I-75 to the hospital. We pulled up to the front door and hopped out as I somewhat carried her in – like a wounded soldier on the battlefield. At this point, she was in some pain and it was only getting worse. They saw her quickly as I filled out the rest of the paperwork. We were so excited and nervous that it was actually happening. They called me back to the room where Katie was in the hospital bed; looking at her was the most beautiful moment ever. I was so proud of her. The doctors seemed to be doing ordinary tests, counting contractions and doing an ultrasound for what we thought was to make sure little Riley was in the birth canal.

Katie and I had locked eyes for what seemed an eternity, wondering what was taking so long. And then the moment came. The worst two words I’ve ever heard in my life. The doctor looked at us and said our precious baby didn’t have a heartbeat. “That can’t be right,” we said. She was just at 138 bpm 24 hours ago. “Check again,” we begged. They tried another machine, they tried doppler, still nothing. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a golfer or have played golf in some sense. If you’ve ever missed a really short, important putt to win a tournament or to stay in contention – that feeling when your heart sinks as you miss was like this feeling, but 1/one-millionth of the magnitude. We were in shock. We couldn’t even speak. We began balling. I wanted to be strong for her, but I just couldn’t.

Delivering a baby is difficult enough. But having to deliver YOUR baby when you know there won’t be a cry as they emerge must be the worst thing in the entire world. I’ve never cried so many tears, not just for our loss but for what Katie was having to go through. Because Katie had eaten just hours before, they couldn’t start the C-section until eight hours after the last meal or drink. I held her for hours as she had painful contractions for our little girl her body was trying to save. Those hours felt like an eternity. We laid side-by-side in the tiny hospital bed, singing the song that had kept us believing and trusting through our fertility journey 10 months ago –“Delightful (The Sower Never Wastes a Tear)” by Hillsong United. Katie played it over and over again, crying out the chorus:

“So I'll wait long as heaven takes
One day I'll see the joy You make of this
'Cause ain't nothing gonna stop Your faithfulness
So I'll wait long as Heaven takes
One day I'll see the joy You make of this
How You never let a single tear go wasted.”

Finally, at 4 a.m., they were allowed to administer the epidural with the planned emergency C-section to be at 6 a.m. I’m not much for needles and I value honesty, but as they got ready to stick the epidural in, Katie fearfully asked how big the needle was. I told her, “It’s about like a finger prick.” We laugh about it now because I say that my answer was based on the circumference of the tip and not the length of the needle. Won’t be able to fool her on that one again.

I was a mess as they took Katie to the operating room to get ready for surgery. I put on my scrubs and waited for them to bring me into the OR. They had started to operate as I was let in. I sat by her head, watching her shake from the pain meds, and seeing the fear on her face – holding on to hope that by some miracle we would hear a baby start crying. I was trying to keep her mind off what was going on and the only thing I could think of was walking through every single shot of my first round I ever played at Augusta National (I shot 83 so not a flex, I promise). By the time we got to 15 the surgery was over, and the nurse had brought Riley Grace around to me and set her in my arms. You hear and you read about this moment, becoming a parent and how it changes you forever once you hold your child for the first time. Even in our circumstances, I don’t think it was different. She was beautiful and perfect in every way, even though her soul was already with our Heavenly Father. I showed Katie her face as they began sewing her up on the other side of the curtain. What a perfect moment. One I’ll never forget. She had Katie’s nose, and most of her face (thankfully). We held her tight and couldn’t take our eyes off our precious baby girl.

Riley Grace Woodruff
Courtesy photo

The days to follow would be some of the hardest. Some families don’t want to see their children after stillbirths, but that was not the case for us. We wanted every moment we could possibly have with her. Katie could finally put a face to all the violent kicks and rib shots over the past couple months. God gave us a perfect daughter that lived a perfect life.

Maybe the toughest part was what we would face next, leaving the hospital without our little girl. I was dreading this moment. So much leading up to preparing to bring Riley home and we wouldn’t get the chance. Everything from our nursery, car seats in the car, apps on our phone to track her sleeping and feeding schedule, and now … we didn’t need any of them. Katie and I cried and were devastated that we couldn’t bring her home and would be leaving the hospital without her. But then I thought about it, and it's almost as if God was telling me she was going home. To her eternal home, one of perfection for the perfect girl. Selfishly, it wasn’t what we wanted, but it is all in His perfect plan.

“I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends. His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning.” Lamentations 3:20-23

We know that this isn’t the end of our story. There will be good days and bad days, happiness and tears. But we feel like God used these 72 hours to teach us a few things:

  • Suffering brings you closer to God. He also uses it to increase your faith or refine your character, in hopes that you can relate to someone with compassion in the future and help them make it through.
  • God makes no mistakes, and we are holding onto hope that God will use this tragedy for His good and His Kingdom.
  • Instead of asking, “Why Us?”, we’re asking “Why Not Us?” – God promises He will never give you more than you can handle. Although this may be the hardest thing we'll ever go through, we trust in Him and His plan.
  • Suffering brings you close to your loved ones. I’ve never felt closer to Katie and our family. I feel like our marriage grew exponentially through this, that there’s nothing we can’t handle together.

“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.” Psalm 23:4