Doctors told his parents he probably wouldn’t survive birth. But Luke’s few hours of life changed all who met him.

Luke Zimmerman

Luke Zimmerman 2015

As Derek and Sara Zimmerman, a young couple at a Bruderhof in upstate New York, rushed to nearby Poughkeepsie to welcome their first child into the world, they knew that it was also the beginning of a farewell. In fact, because of a serious heart defect diagnosed several months earlier, their baby was likely to be stillborn, and, if born alive, he was unlikely to live for more than a few hours. 

Within minutes of their arrival at Vassar Hospital, Luke was born – not only alive, but wide awake, and unusually alert, for a newborn. As Sara remembers:

My obstetrician, Dr. El-Kareh, was so happy that she began singing “Happy birthday to you,” and calling other colleagues to tell them about the “miracle.” We were all overwhelmed with happiness. You could taste the joy in the room. Amazingly, everything went so quickly and smoothly that we were ready to be discharged home within an hour. But not Luke: first, he wanted to be fed.

Inside on a cold, wet December day, watching a very tall Christmas tree being set up in the middle of the community

In the weeks preceding Luke’s birth, his parents had repeatedly sought the advice of medical experts and had decided that, if Luke were born alive, they would sign him out of the hospital as soon as possible, so that they could spend whatever time they had with him in the peace and quiet of their home, where a medical team was assembled and ready to care for them.

On arriving back at the Bruderhof, Derek and Sara were surprised to find a welcome sign in the driveway, and a crowd of well-wishers. A spontaneous meeting had been called, and within minutes, their entire community was gathered for the traditional blessing for the baby. The family’s pastor, who had married the Zimmermans a year and half earlier, said a prayer of thanksgiving and a blessing. Then Luke was whisked home. Sara recalls:

We spent the morning with him in our apartment. I nursed him, and we bathed him, held him, and ­talked and sang to him. All four of his grandparents took turns holding him, and so did his great-grandparents and others.

Later, several of my sisters’ children came by, and Luke waved, sucked his thumb, and kicked his feet. When Derek’s buddy Phil came by, he held him, and Luke made little squawks.

Around noon, however, Derek and Sara sensed that something was changing. In Derek’s words: 

He moved less and less, and grew quieter. At first he looked up at us, but then he closed his eyes and gradually fell asleep. Our parents and other family members joined us as we cradled him in our arms and told him, over and over, how much we loved him. Thankfully, he didn’t struggle, and we don’t think he had to suffer. In fact, we’ll never forget the deep peace that surrounded us and him. It was so palpable and strong. Then he took his last breath and was gone. He was ten and a half hours old.

Looking back, Derek notes that Luke was with them much longer than a day. ‘After all, he was already nine months old the day he was born.’

Looking back, Derek notes that Luke was with them much longer than a day. “After all, he was already nine months old the day he was born.” In May, during a routine checkup, he had been diagnosed with a rare chromosomal disorder and a serious, complex heart defect. In the days and weeks that followed, the devastated young couple consulted numerous specialists, as well as the doctors and nurses in their extended family. They also turned to their pastor for advice. 

We prayed like we had never prayed before. We kept asking, “Why us?” But we also wondered what God’s will was for our little boy. Later, after a more complete medical picture emerged, and we learned that surgical interventions would not only be risky but unlikely to save his life, we decided to place his future into God’s hands. We wanted to spend whatever time we might have with our baby at home as a family.


It was around this time that Dr. El-Kareh invited us to her house for coffee so that we could talk in a relaxed setting. By then we knew that Luke was unlikely to live for more than a few hours, and so she encouraged us to write a medical directive to make clear our wishes for his care. Of course, she knew that abortion was not an option for us. 

Sara explains, “No matter how incapacitated or disabled a child is, we see each one as a gift from the Creator. We wanted to welcome our baby however he was made.” Around the same time, the couple chose his name, which they settled on after reading this passage in the Gospel of Luke: “People were bringing even their babies to Jesus so that he would touch them, and when the disciples saw this, they began to rebuke them. But Jesus called for them, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’”

All through the summer and fall, Derek and Sara lived with a growing tension: on the one hand, there was the excitement of anticipation; on the other, the knowledge that Luke’s arrival would be “the beginning of the end.” And yet, when the big day came, they were given a strength and calmness they say they couldn’t have mustered on their own. In Derek’s words, they were carried by the love of the community that surrounded them:

Of course, saying goodbye to our son was heartbreaking. But the main thing we feel today is ­gratitude. That’s because the hours he spent with us were filled, first and foremost, with happiness.

It was overwhelming how many people came to the funeral – and not just people from our communities, but also doctors and nurses from Vassar. David, a family friend, made the casket by hand. I helped him, and Sara’s sisters painted it. 

Of course, saying goodbye to our son was heartbreaking. But the main thing we feel today is ­gratitude. That’s because the hours he spent with us were filled, first and foremost, with happiness. 

That happiness is evident even in a photo taken immediately after the funeral, which shows Sara and Dr. El-Kareh laughing. As Sara explains, “We were talking about Luke’s arrival, and everything that happened. We held him. We sang to him. I fed him, twice. We even changed him. I did everything a mother wants to do for a newborn baby. No one can ever take away the joy of that morning.”

In 2018, Derek and Sara experienced a miracle when their second child, Kaitlyn, a healthy daughter, was born.

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