BY CRAIG CRAKER, CLASS OF 2002
Women’s soccer coach Mary Trigg Ybarguen discovered she was pregnant for the first time just after Christmas.
Her joy in that news was short-lived, though, as she soon found out her baby boy had Trisomy 18. Eighty-one percent of babies diagnosed with Trisomy 18 are delivered stillborn, while a majority of the other 19 percent pass away hours or days after birth.
“The hardest thing to hear is that his disease is incompatible with life,” Ybarguen said of her baby, Rapha. “We are obviously praying for healing on this side of heaven, but it is pretty neat knowing that, with our faith, he is going to be made whole at some point.”
While Ybarguen was reeling with the news, she received support from a trio of colleagues who had been down a similar road.
When Danny Bowman heard about Ybarguen’s baby, his mind was flooded with memories of his last moments with his son. Paul Rush said it took his breath away and made him sick to his stomach. Molly Kling immediately was transported to the darkest days of her life.
The trio are a part of a group of individuals in the NNU athletics community that Ybarguen may soon join—those who have lost a child.
“We don’t have an official support group,” Kling said, “but Paul and Danny have been wonderful supporters to me personally. No one wants to be part of this club, but once you lose a child, you’re a completely different person.”
Bowman’s son, Titus, died of Batten CLN2 disease when he was 6 years old in 2016. Rush’s daughter, Annie Grace, was stillborn in 2015. Kling lost twins in 2018—Phoebe was stillborn and Philip lived for only two hours.
“When we lost Annie, it felt like such a fracture,” said Rush, the NNU men’s basketball coach. “It feels like you don’t know if you will get to the other side because it hurts so bad emotionally. I think it can be encouraging to have that conversation with people and to talk about it. For Mary, she can see that Molly is on the other side of it.”
The last thing Ybarguen wanted to do was talk about losing her baby boy.
Ybarguen’s coworkers made sure to give her space but showed her the love and care that defines the NNU athletics department.
Those who have been through something similar also made sure to offer whatever advice they could.
“I’m not overly positive. I wanted to bring some reality to the situation. It is dark. It’s horrible, and you will never be the same,” said Kling, a 2006 alum, former volleyball player and the assistant director for athletic services. “I remember sitting in the funeral home and Doug (English, NNU volleyball coach) emailed and said he didn’t know what to say, but he decided saying something was better than nothing—you’d rather have someone acknowledge it than ignore it.”
People acknowledging the news is easier said than done. Most people don’t know what to say, so they simply don’t say anything at all.
“Everyone feels like getting pregnant and having babies is a smooth, easy process,” Rush said. “It’s like a movie—it happens, you have the baby and it’s all good. But that’s not real life. And since it is really hard stuff to talk about, people don’t want to. The positive stuff is all that is talked about around pregnancy and babies.”
One of the most difficult conversations Ybarguen had was with Bowman, track and field and cross country head coach and 2005 graduate.
“It is always hard to plan for the death of your child,” Bowman said. “It is something someone should never have to do. However, (my wife) Bekah and I were so grateful for those that helped us through this specific process. I explained to Mary that Bekah and I chose cremation due to wanting to keep our child near us in case we move. The conversation was not the easiest, but I thought that information might be helpful for her.”
The conversations have been tough, but Ybarguen has valued all of them.
“It has been neat to see the kindness of people,” she said. “It’s an easy thing to say, ‘I’m praying for you.’ But people at NNU actually are and that is pretty special.”
About 12 weeks into her pregnancy, Ybarguen went in for an ultrasound after suffering a severe hemorrhage.
Thinking it was routine, she didn’t tell her husband, Chris, to come. It became evident pretty quickly that this wasn’t a routine appointment.
“The doctor said she was finding some things that were really concerning and that I should call my husband,” Ybarguen said. “I asked her to tell me and she told me. I called him and he came over, and we cried for a long time.”
The doctors told the Ybarguens lots of things would likely go wrong for the baby, including holes in his heart, kidney problems, intestinal tract outside of his stomach, his esophagus not connecting to the stomach, delayed growth, small jaw, small head, unattached umbilical cord and a non-functioning bladder, which would mean his lungs couldn’t develop.
A month later, few of those issues had shown up, which brought peace to the couple as they navigated figuring out what to do.
“If he wants to hang out, then I’ll let him hang out. It’s the least I can do,” Ybarguen said. “He’s not in any pain. He is just swimming around in there. He can hear noises now—so he hears me pray, and I play music for him.”
The Ybarguens’ prayers centered around getting through the entire ordeal and for the baby to pass in peace. A few weeks later, Mary was reading her Bible on the couch. She felt like God told her to name the baby. The first name that came to mind was Rapha, a Hebrew name that means healer.
“It felt like God was saying, ‘You haven’t even asked for healing yet,’” Mary said. “So, Chris and I have changed our prayers to be for healing and for this not to be over yet.”
A Perfect Season
The NNU women’s soccer team wasn’t sure if they would play meaningful games during the 2020-21 academic year.
With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting sports nationwide, the Nighthawks eventually were given permission by the Great Northwest Athletic Conference to play a schedule as an independent.
What happened next is hard to believe.
A program that had only finished with a winning record once in the 20 years it has been an NCAA Division II program went 11-0, even defeating NCAA Division I Idaho State University.
“This is my third year at NNU, and it’s awesome that we have finally been able to pull through and be consistent with every single game,” said Chandler Kauffman, a junior from Redondo Beach, California. “Mary has been so committed to the team even with everything she is going through right now. That shows how great of a leader she is.”
The games were brought into a sharper focus for Ybarguen regarding their importance in the grand scheme of life. “It was a good reminder to me that soccer isn’t everything,” she said. “There are a lot of other things that we are all experiencing and going through and soccer should just be my mental break. It was enjoyable. It felt joyful. It was a good expression of escaping.”
Ybarguen initially told the soccer team in early April about her baby’s disease, but didn’t go into more detail. Easter weekend, though, the team had an Easter egg hunt on the field. Afterward, Mary read the Easter story to the group and then opened up.
“I shared more details—the painful part of it all,” Ybarguen said, “and the reason that I’m valuing this life is that Jesus died for all of us and valued all of our lives.
“Normally, I’m not that personal. It’s been hard to be vulnerable, but they have given me so much grace.”
And as she navigates this difficult journey of pregnancy and the unknown, that grace has been life-changing.
On Wednesday, July 30, 2021, Rapha Christopher Ybarguen was born at 9:11 p.m. weighing 2 pounds 12 ounces. He lived for one hour and twenty-seven minutes before he went back into the arms of Jesus. Mary and Chris were able to spend that time with baby Rapha singing to him and kissing him. Please pray for the Ybarguen family as they navigate this new grief. As Mary said, “Life truly is so precious and God is so comforting and merciful.”