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Mission Viejo Preemie Was 'Prayed Into Life' by Christians Far and Wide. They're Seeking Answers While Saying ...

Farewell to Little Fighter

November 11, 2000|WILLIAM LOBDELL

The church staff placed tissue boxes at the entrance to the sanctuary. Mourners pulled three, four, five sheets each as they passed by to take their seats at Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo.

They had come for the memorial service of Ethan Shigeru Sechrest, who died Nov. 4.

You probably remember Ethan. He made the evening news once in his eight-month life.

He was the little fighter who weighed only 14 ounces at birth and fit into the palm of his doctor's hand. Ethan, born more than three months early, became the smallest infant in Orange County history to survive a premature delivery.

In June, at 3 months old, he became a media sensation when his family brought the tiny bundle of joy home to Mission Viejo from Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills.

By the next day, the news cameras and reporters had disappeared. And Ethan started his new life as just another member of the Sechrest family, quickly becoming a favorite of his older siblings, Alison, 4, and Austin, 3.

The photos from Thursday's memorial service were a testament to how wonderfully ordinary the family had become.

"For 3 1/2 months, he was at home, he was part of our family," his father, Alan Sechrest, said. "We really had a routine. We were surprised at what happened."

In September, Ethan caught a respiratory virus. His still-developing body hadn't yet formed a robust immune system, allowing a series of illnesses to overwhelm his small body.

No one expected Ethan to die, not after all he'd been through. Not after all those prayers had been answered.

Alan and Deann Sechrest are devout Christians. From the moment the doctors told them Ethan might be born prematurely, they began praying.

So did their friends and other members of their church. They didn't know their cause had been taken up by Internet-savvy prayer teams, that people across the country were asking God to help Ethan.

"We were feeling it in our hearts," Alan Sechrest said. "But we didn't realize how many people were praying for us."

One of Ethan's doctors, trying to explain the miracle birth, said the baby had been "prayed into life."

Sechrest spoke at his son's memorial, centering his talk around prayer.

Back in March, when his wife first entered the hospital, he remembered trying to tackle the problem like he would any other: "I wanted to attack this in an intellectual way."

He logged onto the Internet and searched for anything he could find about Ethan's condition.

"The more I read, the more frightened I became," Sechrest said. "His chances of surviving the birth were very remote. He really had no chance. He was too small."

Then it occurred to him: "I was looking in the wrong place." The answers he needed, Alan concluded, couldn't be found on the Web.

He said he dropped to his knees and prayed. It took a while, he said, but he finally told God, "I'm scared."

That brought tears. Something else happened in that moment, Sechrest said. "I gave my fear to God."

For the next eights months, Sechrest would experience 1,000 emotions. But fear never overwhelmed him again.

With Ethan's death, the Sechrests, their pastors, doctors and friends--everyone the baby touched--now have to struggle with another question: Why didn't God step in and save him again?

Pastor J.P. Jones told mourners that Ethan's death "reveals our deepest fears" about God.

And the honest answer, he said, is that we don't know why God allowed Ethan to die. And we won't fully know until "we pass from this life into heaven when we see things as God sees them."

But the Sechrests, who lost their first child to a stillborn birth, are confident they'll see glimpses of God's plan in the years to come.

"After the death of our first son, I couldn't see any blessings in that," Alan Sechrest said. "But over time, I could. Our marriage got stronger. We became better parents. But we just couldn't see it right away."

In the meantime, Jones said, the mourners can take comfort in the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept.

"Jesus feels compassion for us," Jones said. "And that's the hope that Alan and Deann hold on to."

Tissues wiped away tears Thursday evening, but there were fewer tears shed than you might expect.

Balancing the weight of profound sadness was hope. Hope that Ethan had stopped suffering. Hope that it will all make sense one day. Hope that the Sechrests will spend eternity with Ethan.

As Alan Sechrest assured his pastor: "We're going to be OK. Not today, not next week. But we're going to be OK because we trust in God."

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to Coast Hills Community Church, 5 Pursuit, Aliso Viejo, CA 92656, or Saddleback Memorial Foundation, c/o Infant Special Care Unit, 24451 Health Center Drive, Laguna Hills, CA 92653; or dial (800) GIVELIFE if you can donate blood.

William Lobdell is the religion reporter-editor for The Times' Orange County edition. His column runs Saturday. His e-mail address is bill.lobdell@latimes.com.

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