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Jerry Davich: A brief life of enduring meaning and purpose

AvPonce De Lewho died last week Avwas born with her aortattached her lungs.  | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

Ava Ponce De Leon, who died last week, Ava was born with her aorta attached to her lungs. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 25, 2013 6:12AM



Her tiny, angel-white casket was flanked by blooming flowers that lived much longer than she did.

The casket’s lid sat to the side, adorned with handwritten goodbye notes from family, friends and mourners.

“We’ll always love you ... ”

“We’ll miss you ... ”

“It was an honor to be your auntie ... ”

Nearby sat a photo collage of “Princess Ava,” showing dozens of pictures from her very short life. Essentially, a normal-looking baby cradled by her parents, family and loved ones.

But Ava Lesley Ponce De Leon was born with a ticking time bomb in her tiny chest, and it detonated, on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.

Ava died that day after living only two months and two weeks.

“She was always a happy baby,” whispered Jerilyn Syler as we stared at photos of baby Ava.

The Portage woman recently baby-sat Ava, and she somberly pulled out of her pocket a small, pink sock of Ava’s, which will now be a life-long keepsake.

“She brought a lot of smiles to us,” Syler told me.

While attending Ava’s wake this past Wednesday, I wondered about the baby’s short wisp of a life.

What purpose did she serve? What meaning could her brief life offer grievers? What value can be placed on a lifespan of just 10 weeks? I sat down in the last row of seats, pondered those questions, and stared at Ava’s open casket.

In just a couple of hours, she would be buried at Calvary Cemetery in Portage, close to her family’s home. Shortly after the ceremony, my answers were unearthed.

Doomed at birth?

Ava was born on Nov. 25 to parents Ashley Cooper and Jonluc Ponce De Leon, of Portage, who are engaged to be married. The young couple had no clue their little bundle of joy had any health problem until she became sick after turning 2 months old.

“Before her 2-month checkup, she was coughing a lot and gagging on her formula,” Cooper told me inside the funeral home as dozens of mourners paid their respects.

Cooper, who’s just 19, took Ava to the hospital emergency room and the baby was transferred to Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis.

There, she was diagnosed with “anomalous left coronary artery from the pulmonary artery,” or ALCAPA, a heart defect in which the left coronary artery (which carries blood to the heart muscle) is connected to the pulmonary artery instead of to the aorta.

“One side of her heart was three times the size of the other side,” Cooper said.

Doctors guessed in hindsight that Ava possibly suffered little hearts attacks while gagging on her formula. And she was too weak to cry for attention.

“She was the best baby I’ve ever seen. No wonder,” sighed Cooper, who helped raise her younger siblings from birth.

Doctors performed surgery on Ava, but it was unsuccessful. Another surgery was performed. Another disappointing outcome.

Ava suffered brain damage. And then even worse news. She was brain dead. They would need to pull the plug that kept her alive.

“Just a week earlier, we were at home thinking everything was fine,” Cooper recalled. “I was planning her life as any mother would. And then this happened.”

Cooper and Ponce De Leon were allowed to cradle their daughter before the hospital’s staff removed her only connection to life. And afterward, too.

“I love you,” they told her softly.

“You’re going to a better place,” they whispered.

‘Ava helped us cope’

Cooper feels it was her fault that her daughter died. She told Ava this very confession as she cradled her one last time: “I’m so sorry.”

Cooper later told me, “As a mother you are supposed to protect your child, and I didn’t do that.”

She believes that if Ava’s health condition was detected and diagnosed earlier, possibly just after her birth, she may have survived the surgery and lived.

“I think hospitals should do an ultrasound test after all babies are born,” she said. “Mothers need to be told that this is a possibility.”

The family now faces another problem — paying for Ava’s funeral. (Calvary Cemetery has offered to bury Ava for a price the family can afford, I’m told.)

“Other funeral homes wanted money up front, but we can’t afford that,” Cooper said. “We are going to get billed for her funeral, but we don’t know how we’ll pay for it.”

Collection bins have been placed at the Portage YMCA, I’m told, and I would be happy to help arrange for any donations to the family.

After Ava’s funeral, I learned that her family lost her grandmother, Ponce De Leon’s mother, on the baby’s due date. Ava’s middle name is in her honor.

I also learned that on Jan. 8, Ava’s family lost her great-grandfather on Cooper’s side of the family.

“She brought smiles to us when we lost my dad and when Jonluc lost his mother,” said Cooper’s aunt and adopted mother, Karla Cooper of Portage. “She was a joy to our family.”

Although Ava’s obituary is as short as her life, it served its purpose. Just as her life did, I learned.

“In the short time we got to spend with Ava, she helped us cope through all this,” Karla Cooper told me. “She will remain in our hearts forever.”

Find more of Jerry’s writings on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, and jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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