Eighteen years ago Friday, Jerome Walker Jr. was born at home three months premature. At 1 pound 9 ounces, he didn’t initially breathe on his own, and his parents believe that if the first responder had not arrived when he did, their only son would never have survived, growing into a healthy, college-bound young man who graduated from high school last month.
In the audience to see him receive his diploma at the Bridgehampton School was the paramedic who saved his life. It was a reunion 18 years in the making, and it almost never happened.
Jerome Jr.’s parents, the Rev. Jerome Walker and his wife, Penny Walker, lived on North Magee Street in Southampton when their son entered the world on July 4, 1996. Philip Cammann, a volunteer emergency medical provider since 1980 who was living in Southampton at the time, was answering calls for Southampton Volunteer Ambulance that Fourth of July. With both mother and son being rushed to Southampton Hospital after Jerome’s sudden arrival, Mr. Cammann spent only about a half-hour with them, and in the commotion of that day neither he nor the Walkers remembered what the other looked like. They never expected to see each other again.
Little did Mr. Cammann realize, in 2007 Mr. Walker joined the Bridgehampton Fire Department, where Mr. Cammann has volunteered for many years. The two came to know each other, even if it was only in passing. Mr. Walker serves as the department’s chaplain. In fact, the Walkers live just down the road from Mr. Cammann and his wife, Terry Hoyt. Jerome Jr. would often go to the weight room at the firehouse with his dad to work out.
On the week before Father’s Day this year, Mr. Walker, who is a minister at the Southampton Baptist Church, stopped by Southampton Volunteer Ambulance, where Mr. Cammann works as a paramedic, to inquire as to how to go about getting an automatic external defibrillator for the church. Both men were surprised to see each other in an unfamiliar setting, and after discussing the defibrillator, Mr. Walker said he felt compelled to mention how important the ambulance company was to his family because of the medic who saved his son’s life all those years ago.
“The minute you said that — 18 years ago, July 4th,” Mr. Cammann said during a reunion with the Walkers for a photograph, “I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is too freakish if it’s someone else.’ ”
The day Jerome Jr. was born, his mother recalled, she woke up in discomfort. The pain in her abdomen worsened, and what with two miscarriages and an already difficult pregnancy, she grew worried that she was experiencing contractions. Her husband took her to the emergency room at Southampton Hospital, where a doctor told her she had a urinary tract infection and gave her a prescription.
“They told me, ‘You’re not in labor.’ They’re professionals, you take their word for it,” Mrs. Walker said.
After she was discharged, her husband stopped to get something to eat — much to her chagrin, though it’s something Jerome Jr. gets a good laugh at now — and they went home. By the time they got there, the pain was coming and going five minutes apart. She called her obstetrician, who suggested rest. She tried to take a bath, but started vomiting. The pain worsened. She was in her 25th week; it was too soon for the baby to come. Or was it?
She lay down on a bed in the nursery. Her husband and her parents, who had by then arrived, seemed paralyzed with fear. “I kept telling myself I could do this,” Mrs. Walker said, adding she hadn’t even taken a Lamaze class yet. Her due date, after all, wasn’t until Oct. 17.
Her husband phoned the doctor, again, and he said to get to the hospital, but she couldn’t move. He called 911 and ran to the end of their long driveway to wave the responders in.
“At the time, we weren’t as religious as we are now, but I was thinking, ‘God, I really love this kid that’s in me, please don’t let him die.’ ”
With that, out popped little Jerome.
Mr. Cammann bounded into the room to find the moments-old infant not breathing. Jerome Jr. fit in the palm of his hand.
“The timing was perfect. He would have probably survived a couple of minutes the way he was, but he hadn’t started breathing yet. He was still living on the umbilical cord, but in the wrong environment,” Mr. Cammann said. “He was so young and so underdeveloped that he needed assistance to get going.”
His first cry was a sweet sound. “When we all heard him cry, I remember hearing Phil say, ‘Did you hear that?’ and tears started running down my face,” Mrs. Walker said. “That was confirmation from God for me that he was going to be fine.”
Still, Mr. Cammann remained on high alert. “My biggest concern with any kid, but especially one that size, is keeping him warm.” The cord was cut, he was cleaned off, bundled in a “silver swaddler” designed to keep neonates warm, and given some oxygen. The first crew to arrive was handed the screaming baby and headed off to the hospital. Mr. Cammann then turned his attention to Mrs. Walker to prepare her for transport in a separate ambulance.
Because Jerome Jr. was born so young, he was taken to Stony Brook University Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, but first, at Southampton Hospital, his mother got to hold his little hand through an incubator while they got him ready. She had to stay behind, overnight, for observation.
“I didn’t sleep that night. The tears would not stop,” she said of her feelings of detachment. It would be one week before she could hold him to her chest against her heartbeat.
As soon as she was discharged the next day, the Walkers went directly to Stony Brook, where doctors gave their son a 50-50 chance. Their son’s lungs were not functioning well yet, but they were clear and strong. Mrs. Walker took one look around the room with three other tiny, frail-looking babies and passed out — disconnecting everything from the incubator, she recalled. For a week, they wouldn’t let her in the unit unless she was seated in a wheelchair.
For the next eight weeks, she didn’t miss one day by her son’s side, while he surpassed doctors’ expectations. Even when he went home, his parents were told to expect problems to arise, even cognitive issues later on, but none came.
“He beat every odd they said,” his mother said, remembering how her son’s pediatrician, Dr. Gail Schonfeld, had told her she had “never seen such a small kid fight so hard.”
At the time, Jerome Jr. was the first infant Mr. Cammann had delivered successfully. He had delivered only one other preemie, who was stillborn. “Needless to say, the anxiety level was a little bit higher,” he said.
At Southampton Hospital, Mr. Cammann had the honor of signing the birth certificate. “That was the last I heard of them as an entire family,” he said. The agency gave him a card that said “Baby Boy Jerome” — no last name — and his weight with a stork pin. The items have been precious keepsakes.
“I think my son would have died” had Mr. Cammann not been there, Mrs. Walker said. “He was like a guardian angel for me. When he showed up, he was so calm and serene,” she said. “I never saw his face, I just listened to his voice.”
“I just always wanted to be able to thank the one who was there for me at that time,” Mrs. Walker said during their meeting, just before her son’s 18th birthday.
Throughout his life, Jerome Jr. — who now stands 6-foot-1 and weighs between 140 and 160 pounds — has heard the account of his unexpected arrival, but he hasn’t tired of it yet. He said he was intrigued to hear Mr. Cammann’s perspective and to meet the man in his parents’ story.
Just back from orientation at Seton Hall, where he plans to study to be an athletic trainer, he brought Mr. Cammann a travel mug bearing the college’s name. Mr. Cammann was overcome with emotion. “I think he’s going to do his parents proud,” he said.
“To get a really good job as an athletic trainer, you’ll want to take an E.M.T. course, and you’ll start delivering your own kids,” Mr. Cammann told him.
Mr. Cammann said he’s still reeling from the reunion. “That whole six degrees of separation — until you connect the dots, you never realize how close it is,” he said. “I was half an hour of their life. They have raised Jerome, and Jerome has become the man that he is. I’m just happy I had a small part in the process.”