The Nickerson family participates in community events that raise awareness for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, including the Strollin’ to Fight SIDS 5k fundraiser.
The Nickerson family participates in community events that raise awareness for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, including the Strollin’ to Fight SIDS 5k fundraiser.

Rowan Nickerson was the first infant accepted by the daycare in Wenatchee she went to with her sister, Willow.

The 7-month-old became somewhat of a rock for her older sibling, who was often shy and anxious around the other children. Willow was always by her side, looking after and caring for her. Rowan’s parents remember their youngest as always content, smiling and happy to see anyone. Rarely did she cry or wail.

“She is one of the best people I have ever met in my life,” said her mother Olivia Nickerson.

The family moved to the city east of the Cascade Mountains from Bothell in late 2015 for the sunshine. Willow was almost 2 years old at the time, and is now 3. Weekends were spent going to parks and playing. Rowan was still crawling around but getting close to being able to walk, she said.

“It was a wonderful place, it just kind of ended in a tragedy,” Olivia Nickerson said.

In April 2016, after they relocated, Olivia Nickerson fell and broke her ankle. She was recovering at home from her second surgery when a police officer came to the front door on May 10. Olivia Nickerson was escorted by an ambulance to a nearby hospital, but wasn’t told what was wrong; just that it was about her youngest child.

Rowan Nickerson’s caregiver at the daycare found the baby unresponsive after putting her down for a nap that morning. The hospital chaplain was the one to tell Olivia Nickerson that Rowan Nickerson had died.

Olivia and her husband, Josh Nickerson, said Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was never really on their radar.

Olivia Nickerson called Josh, who had driven to Yakima for work that day. It was a nearly three-hour drive back home.

“When no one can tell you, your first thought was, or at least mine was, I had all these images of a bookshelf falling or a car accident,” Josh Nickerson said. “It was a relief to know she did not have any pain — that was my biggest fear.”

Josh Nickerson said he was at home with his infant cousin once, Eric, when he died from SIDS; he was 7 years old. He said the resemblance between the two babies is striking. Rowan’s facial expressions and overall resemblance match up with old photos of her late second cousin, he said.

Josh Nickerson recalls the ambulance and the chaos of that day when he lost his daughter. He imagines how terrible it must have been for the couple caring for Rowan Nickerson.

“They were also parents; they have a son who is 5 or 6 years old,” he said. “They don’t just run the daycare. You just feel bad for everyone involved.”

While at the hospital the Nickersons were approached with a request. Josh Nickerson said his wife agreed without hesitation to her daughter being a tissue donor. He followed suit, but notes he is the guy that passes out at the sight of blood. 

The Renton-based LifeNet Health Northwest tissue bank facilitated the exchange. Every year the nonprofit aids 40,000 tissue transplants and implants in the Pacific Northwest. The website describes the larger LifeNet organization as a global leader for treatments that help restore function to organs and tissues, and the world’s largest provider of implants and organs used in lifesaving transplants.

Northwest general manager Levi Anderson said those volumes are possible because of the ongoing efforts to build community partnerships.

It isn’t too often that families are already well versed on the options for donation, and only occasionally will they approach staff first about the possibility, Anderson said. Many people believe because they are of a certain age or have a disease that they can’t donate. Research is continuing to prove that notion wrong, and that no one should write themself off as being unable to donate, he said.

Pediatric heart valves are especially sought after.

About 10,000 babies in their first year will have a critical heart defect and require a procedure to correct it, according to LifeNet.

Anderson said they are the only option for children undergoing a transplant; blood thinners and other trying therapies that come along with artificial replacements add too much risk to the equation, according to LifeNet. Following a death, families only have a short time to make a decision regarding a potential donation, he said.

Olivia Nickerson said she had no idea that her family would be asked to donate. Part of her grieving and healing process has involved speaking with many mothers whose children have also died from SIDS. Often, she will hear that those who weren’t asked wished they had been.

If there was one thing she could say to hospital staff, it would be: “Please never stop asking that question.”

After Rowan Nickerson died, her father threw himself into his work. The family moved out to Sultan, so they could be near Josh Nickerson’s two daughters from a previous marriage. Ryleigh, 10, and Aubrey, 12, ask about their baby sister.

Everyone still refers to Rowan Nickerson in the present tense, as if she were still around with them. Josh Nickerson said the decision to do so happened naturally but also with some open discussion among the family. He and his wife say each member often sees symbols in their daily lives that make Rowan feel more present.

“When you lose a child you never stop thinking they should be in that moment,” Olivia Nickerson said.

Sometimes it is reading something that references a Rowan tree or a rabbit, which Riley decided means her sister is nearby. They keep a stocking out for her, and everyone gets gifts from Rowan Nickerson at Christmas. Willow Nickerson doesn’t ask questions yet, but she knows now if her mom is crying it is about her little sister.

The family recently found out that Rowan Nickerson is still impacting lives in a big way a year after she died.

Anderson said while reactions fall along the entire spectrum, the Nickersons are far from the only family that has responded similarly to discovering their own child saved another.

Through LifeNet’s Thanks 2 You program, the family learned in June two infants received Rowan Nickerson’s heart valves, allowing them to survive.

Josh Nickerson said that knowledge changed his perspective. He said he would support other families making the same decision if the opportunity arose. He also said participating in work that raises awareness for SIDS has become a focus for his family, including the Strollin’ to Fight SIDS 5K walk fundraiser.

Josh and Olivia Nickerson pointed to research being conducted by Dr. Daniel Rubens at the Seattle Children’s Hospital. The anesthesiologist’s work aims to pinpoint a cause for the syndrome; inner ear defects and potentially a buildup of carbon dioxide may be at the root of the issue. If explained, 2,000 babies could be saved each year in the U.S.

The Nickersons have decided to come forward with their story, so that no one stops asking the right questions. They say they expect the process of grieving their loss will be ongoing. Olivia Nickerson said her daughter is still finding new ways to make her proud.

“It wasn’t that she was taken from us for seven months, it was that she was given to us,” she said.