Mike and Erin Ramczyk plant kisses on their newborn son, Roman, while he rests in his room at the Aurora Women’s Pavilion in West Allis. Roman spent 62 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at two area hospital before being sent home for the first time Sept. 20.

Couple gets through series of medical, personal tragedies with help of family, friends

By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

If life was a tag-team wrestling match, Mike and Erin Ramczyk would have tagged out two months ago.

The young parents were been beaten into submission by what seemed like an unrelenting torrent of personal and medical tragedies – each one, in its own right, enough to bring them to their knees.

But, taken as a whole, the confluence of craptastic circumstances seemed unfairly harsh on a single family, the couple agree. In order, the river of trials over the past nine months included: the death of Mike’s mother; the loss of a full-time job; a cancer diagnosis for Mike; cancer surgery; the Caesarian section birth of their son a month prematurely; rare medical complications for the newborn; the start of chemotherapy; and 62 days in the neonatal intensive care unit for the baby.

Because this is real life and not a wrestling match, the Ramczyks had no choice but to persevere.

“You don’t know how strong you are until you don’t have a choice,” Erin said.

And, as the painful fog of the past several months begins to slowly recede, the couple is taking time to count blessings and thank the community, friends and family that have rallied in support.

      “You’re reminded about the goodness all around you,” Erin said. “We’ve got a real good tribe – when you’re going through something they carry you.”

That “tribe” has scheduled a fundraising event next week to help the Ramczyks begin to dig out from the mountain of medical bills and personal expenses that have piled up since the Odyssey began earlier this year. The couple has medical insurance through Erin’s employer, but the out-of-pocket limits go beyond the family’s ability to pay.

The Stand with the Ram Fam All-You-Can-Eat Pig Roast and Fundraising event is set for Oct. 10 at Champs Sports Bar and Grill in Lake Geneva (see sidebar) to help offset those costs.

A long road ahead

While the worst of the medical threats has passed, both Mike and baby Roman face months, if not years, of medical attention due to their conditions.

When Mike, 37, and Erin, 33, brought Roman home to Burlington for the first time Sept. 20, they breathed a guarded sigh of relief.

“It’s scary because you never imagine bringing home a medically challenging baby,” Erin said. “But it’s such a relief to be home – to be a family.”

Mike added: “We were scared, but for the first time in two months we didn’t have to go to the hospital to see our son.”

The new normal for the Ramczyks includes feeding Roman every three hours around the clock. When he’s unable to feed normally they supplement by giving him nutrition through an NG tube that travels through Roman’s nose to his stomach.

Roman’s arrival came unexpectedly as his father was just hours removed from surgery on July 18 to cut cancer from his colon.

Mike said he remembers waking up at Froedtert Hospical, Wausatosa, in intense pain and preoccupied by his thoughts about the prognosis.

“It was pretty terrifying thinking, ‘Did this cure me?”

By that night Mike was beginning to feel better and Erin – stressed out and eight months pregnant – left his bedside to return to Burlington and be with their daughter Coraline, 5.

“I knew I wasn’t feeling right so I almost stayed at my parents’ house (in Lake Geneva),” Erin said. “My worst fear was that this (Mike’s surgery and Roman’s birth) would all happen at the same time.

“I stayed in bed all night long because I didn’t want anything to happen.”

Reality bites again

Despite her attempts, Erin’s worst fears became reality.

Her water broke shortly after she woke up the next day and the wild roller coaster ride they had been on took another plunge at breakneck speed.

Erin ended up at Aurora Lakeland Medical Center in Elkhorn, where she had planned to deliver the baby. The fact that Mike wasn’t at her side, however, was not part of the plan.

“We tried to Facetime with him while I was in labor, but Mike was so out of it,” Erin said.

She labored for the better part of a full day before Roman showed signs of distress and the decision was made to deliver via c-section. Erin recalls her mother, Peg – who stepped up in Mike’s absence – announcing the arrival of a beautiful baby boy.

“But then a short time later I could tell by her face that something was wrong,” Erin said.

Erin’s mom is a nurse and her otherwise calm demeanor was betrayed by her medical knowledge that something was terribly wrong, Erin said.

A team of doctors and nurses began working on Roman, who had a faint pulse, but wasn’t breathing on his own. It was about 20 minutes before he started breathing on his own, according to Erin.

The terror she felt at the moment was only intensified by the fact that her husband was in another hospital 40 miles away and she didn’t even have the chance to look at her baby boy, much less hold him, Erin said.

“The whole thing was surreal,” Erin said. “It was really difficult to process.”

Erin finally got to meet Roman while he was confined in an incubator for about five minutes before they rushed him off to the neonatal intensive care unit at Aurora Women’s Pavilion in West Allis.

“It almost felt like I didn’t have a baby,” she said.

Mike said he was struggling with similar feelings. “I’m so overwhelmed with everything (and) couldn’t even fathom: ‘Oh, yeah, your baby was rushed to the NICU.’”

For the moment, the three Ramcyzks were stretched out in three different hospitals missing the one thing they needed the most – each other.

Roller coaster continues

The next few days were a pins-and-needles experience for the family members as they awaited word on whether Mike’s cancer had been contained and whether Roman would begin to overcome the problems he was having in learning to eat.

Erin said they began to realize there may be no quick solution for what was troubling Roman.

“There was a lot of speculation, but there were no answers for weeks,” she said.

“It drove us crazy,” Mike said.

At the same time Mike was going through his own torturous stretch. He had been optimistic that the surgery would get all of the cancer, but after his release from the hospital he learned that four of the 25 lymph nodes tested showed the presence of cancer.

Mike, who hadn’t been cleared to drive yet, was in the car with his father – riding to get a new car seat for Roman – when he got the call.

“I just started crying while on the phone,” he said. “I held onto dad and just bawled my eyes out. As soon as you hear that word (cancer) you can’t help but question your mortality.

“I thought to myself, ‘When are we going to get a break?”

Erin admitted indulging the same feelings.

“It just felt so unfair,” she said. “We had to leave the NICU to go interview oncologists.”

Mike started a six-month course of chemotherapy about the same time Roman was transferred to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa for further study of his difficulty eating. It was late August around the time of Roman’s original due date.

Erin said it didn’t take the staff at Children’s Hospital long to figure out that Roman likely had a rare birth defect that was preventing him from eating normally.

Erin and Mike Ramczyk prepare to take their son, Roman, home from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin following successful surgery to repair a birth defect that prevented Roman from eating properly.

A homecoming

After several tests, doctors confirmed he had a tracheoesophageal fistula, which is a genetic defect that connects his esophagus and his trachea. In simpler terms, whenever Roman attempted to swallow breast milk or formula, a portion of it would end up in his lungs, causing him to choke.

Mike and Erin were relieved to finally have a diagnosis and a path forward. Both, however, were sad it took so long, which is often the case with rare diseases and defects.

“It’s heartbreaking to know we were forcing him to eat and he was choking on it,” Mike said, describing the way his son struggled each time he was fed.

Roman had surgery on Sept. 5 to repair the fistula and has been slowly improving since.

Now, with the three of them at home and Coraline in the mix, life is looking up.

Unlike that harrowing day in July – when they were separated by miles and the walls of three different hospitals – the Ramczyk family is together and optimism is growing.

While the success of Mike’s cancer treatment and the long-term effects of Roman’s struggles are unknown, the Ramczyks have been tested in fire and are preparing for whatever the future holds.

      Both Mike and Erin acknowledged they’ve been changed forever – for the better – by their harrowing experience.

Mike said his family will soldier on and embrace the message on the T-shirts they wear: #RAMFAMSTRONG.

“It’s really terrifying and it consumes your mind, but we’re doing it…somehow.”