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  • This Baby Was Born Without a Heartbeat. His Parents Say Music Helped Save Him

    His stay in the NICU was cut to nine days from three weeks.
    by Kitty Elicay .
This Baby Was Born Without a Heartbeat. His Parents Say Music Helped Save Him
PHOTO BY courtesy of Riva Ferrer José
  • They say music has healing powers. Couple Riva and John Christian José certainly felt it was instrumental in their 3-month-old son’s survival. You see, their son, Juan Izar Gabay, nicknamed Popo, was born without a heartbeat.

    Riva, a music educator and talent manager, found out she was pregnant in August 2018. It was not an easy pregnancy — she suffered from sub-chorionic hemorrhage, and her ob-gyn recommended complete bed rest to prevent spotting. She also had gestational diabetes, but she could manage it with a balanced diet. Riva overcame the challenges pregnancy threw at her except for one thing: at 40 weeks, Popo had not yet come out.

    Of course, Riva was worried about the progress, but her doctor did not think anything was out of the ordinary. The plan was to stimulate contractions and then induce labor once they reach 41 weeks.

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    A dangerous delivery

    Then, at dawn of April 17, 2019, Riva started experiencing stomach pains, which she mistook for false labor. “I tried to rest and eventually fell asleep,” she tells SmartParenting.com.ph. “Suddenly, I felt a big ‘pop’ in my stomach. JC was awake, and [I] happily told him that my water has broken!”

    Soon though, the relief that her bag of water finally broke turned into panic. Instead of water, blood was gushing out of Riva’s body, and JC knew they had to get to the hospital immediately. “There was blood in our bedroom, down the stairs, in the living room, and the garage. Our house looked like a crime scene,” Riva recalls. She called her ob-gyn who told them to get to the delivery room right away.

    The hospital was near their home, and traffic was not heavy because it was the Holy Week. That helped keep Riva calm and conscious of what was happening. “When we arrived at the hospital, I dropped her off at the main lobby, and she told the guard, ‘Manong, wheelchair. Delivery room.’ I parked the car and went after her,” JC recalls.


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    In the labor room, the doctors told Riva they would have to do an emergency C-section. They also checked to make sure Popo’s heartbeat was there. “Every detail that happened or was done to me was clear until the anesthesia took effect,” Riva shares.

    Outside, JC waited, and his agony grew with each passing hour. “After four hours, the pediatrician finally told me what was happening. The baby was delivered, but with a serious condition — he inhaled blood (from the womb) and was born without a heartbeat,” JC tells Smart Parenting.

    Popo had hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, a type of brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation to the brain (commonly known as intrapartum asphyxia). This was due to placental abruption, which occurs when the placenta “partially or completely separates from the inner wall of the uterus before delivery,” according to MayoClinic.

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    Popo was transferred to the NICU right after delivery, and it took five days before Riva could finally hold her baby.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Riva Ferrer-José
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    “Nag-detach yung umbilical cord ko sa uterus, meaning nawalan siya ng support sa womb so he had to breathe on his own, kaya na-inhale niya ang blood,” Riva explains. “Nawalan ng oxygen ang brain ni Popo for less than a minute. Ang sabi ng [doctors], kung lumagpas ng three minutes, irreversible na ang result.”

    Fortunately, the fates were on their side. The doctors were able to revive their son under a minute. If the couple had arrived later, say after 10 minutes or so, things could have been fatal and the neurological damages to Popo’s brain would have been irreversible.

    “The OB was able to notify the resident doctors because Riva called her. Thanks to Riva’s presence of mind, the resident doctors, and the Lord’s, Popo was saved,” JC said.

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    Singing for Popo’s survival

    Riva with Popo at home.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Riva Ferrer-José

    Because of the ordeal, Popo had to stay at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). It took Riva and JC five days before they could hold their son for the first time. They wanted to let their son know they were there for him. That’s when they started singing.

    You see, JC and Riva met and fell in love as members of the Philippine Madrigal Singers (Madz). Singing was such a big part of their lives that it seemed natural to express their love for music. They also felt strongly that music would help keep their son alive.

    The couple sang different songs, including “Someone’s Waiting for You,” “As a Child, I Loved You” (which was one of JC’s solos in the Madz that he used to sing while Popo was still inside the womb), “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Bagbagto,” and “Da Coconut Nut.” They also composed and arranged songs on the spot to soothe his crying or to put him to sleep.


    Popo’s pediatrician encouraged the couple to continue singing. “He encouraged us to frequently touch, talk, and sing to our baby to help him recover fast,” Riva explains. “After he discovered that we both sing with the Madz, he said, ‘Sing to him more often, and he’ll remember it.’ He also said it would promote faster healing.”


    The doctor’s words seemed prophetic. Popo was supposed to stay in the NICU for three weeks, but on his seventh day, one of the nurses surprised Riva and JC with the good news: Popo was already lined up for discharge.

    “We were so happy and excited to bring him home,” Riva shares. “We have long prepared for his coming.”

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    A miraculous recovery

    After the ordeal, Popo cleared all his tests and is growing healthy and strong.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Riva Ferrer-José

    Doctors have a theory on what happened during Riva’s childbirth. “Ang theory nila, baka marginal ang attachment ng umbilical cord. Instead na median, nasa gilid, so baka nahatak ni Popo nung supposedly ‘nag-le-labor na ako,” Riva shares.

    Popo has been cleared of any underlying conditions connected to his brain injury. “The consequences [surrounding his birth] would be neurological disorders,” Riva explains.

    But Popo had a cranial ultrasound and passed it with flying colors. “It was indeed a miracle for us.”

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    And at three months old, Popo is doing great! “He feeds a lot and has gained a lot of weight. At two months, he was already wearing clothes fit for a 6-month-old baby,” Riva says.

    The couple has not stopped singing to him, and they think it helps with achieving his developmental milestones. “He follows things with his eyes and was able to lift his head in less than a month. He communicates by cooing (and singing) to anyone starting at 1.5 months and is receptive to any type of music. He randomly says “mam-mee”, “mam-ma,” etc., and just now, was able to deliberately do a high five, three times in a row,” Riva shares.

    There have been many studies on the positive benefits of music on a child’s brain development. But for JC and Riva, music has performed a miracle for their son.

    “Music therapy is a booming profession in the United States. We fondly remember our friend, Rich Motes, about her experiences as a music therapist on how it helps the sick in coping with stress and pain. She would play the guitar for children who are afraid of the loud noise of a CT scanner, for example,” Riva shares. “That’s why I can say that our singing really helped Popo or at least contributed significantly to his recovery.”


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