To father, son a gift amid devastating loss of wife

2011-08-07T22:00:00Z 2011-08-08T06:25:39Z To father, son a gift amid devastating loss of wifeBy JOE NICKELL of the Missoulian missoulian.com
August 07, 2011 10:00 pm  • 

Every day now, Jake Massman follows the same routine. He rises from a borrowed bed at the Missoula home of his friends Matt and Liz Sheldon, grabs a bite to eat, and takes care of as much work as he can fit into a two-hour window. Around 10:30 a.m., he drives to Community Medical Center to spend the rest of the day with his son, Lucas.

Born six weeks premature, Lucas remains in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at the hospital for now, though he seems to be thriving despite his early arrival on July 21.

Jake reads Winnie the Pooh stories to his son and talks to him about all the fun they will have when he gets out of the hospital and sees the big Montana sky for the first time. Then, around 2:30 in the afternoon, Jake opens the front of his shirt to hold and feed his son, skin-to-skin, for a precious hour. In the late afternoon, Jake does a little more work, then has a short time to say goodnight to Lucas.

As he talks about his daily experiences, Jake speaks only of the profound gratitude he has for his newborn son's bright eyes and generally good state of health.

"I see some of the other babies there and the parents and the issues they have to go through, and I'm just extremely grateful I'm not having to go through a bunch of those types of medical issues with him," says the 41-year-old new father. "That's my sanctuary when I get to hang out with him.

"All the other crap goes away and it's really easy to be joyous, present, talking to him."

It is a great gift, perhaps the greatest imaginable for a man whose recent past has included equally profound loss.

On July 22, almost exactly 24 hours after Lucas was born by emergency Caesarean section, Jake's wife and Lucas' mother, Teresa Veltkamp, died of a massive brain aneurysm.

Today, Jake faces a challenging future as a single father of an infant, while a diverse community of friends, professional colleagues and former students grieves the loss of a woman known for her unique yet seemingly natural ability to connect with young children and the Native American communities of Montana.

"We want to saint our dead; it's human nature," said Teresa's sister, Amy, of Missoula. "But in this case, I think the response that we've seen from people all around Montana really shows it is true: Teresa was an amazing human who touched so many lives."

"All she wanted in the world was to be a mother," added Amy. "To think that she came so close to seeing that dream - it's just heartbreaking."

***

Jake Massman is the first to admit, he and his wife didn't follow a traditional relationship path. He met her in the early 2000s, when he returned to his hometown of Missoula after a 10-year stint living in San Francisco. A couple of years later, they moved in together as roommates. It wasn't until a few months after that, that they became romantically involved.

"It was kind of a non-conventional thing with us, starting as roommates and then dating," he says. "But it worked."

Teresa had recently graduated from the University of Montana with her teaching degree, and was working as a substitute teacher; Jake was working as a computer programmer. After struggling for several months to find full-time work in Missoula, Teresa took a job at the two-room Ovando School. The couple moved to the small community in the upper Blackfoot Valley, where they lived for a year.

It was a year in which Teresa bonded deeply with her small class of about a dozen students. Yet in the end, Teresa and Jake decided that life wasn't right for them. Jake returned to Missoula. Teresa, meantime, took a job teaching at Cherry Valley Elementary in Polson. The two returned to being simply friends.

It was in Polson that Teresa first began developing a love for - and a deep relationship with - the Native communities of the area.

"She really went out of her way and started learning a lot about the Salish and especially the Kootenai culture and people," says Jake.

Teresa began to foster bonds with the Native residents of the area that went far beyond the call of her career. She won awards for her teaching, and spent much time out of the classroom helping her Native students and their families. She was even invited to participate in the Kootenai community's annual Jump Dance - an event generally closed to non-Natives.

Vernon Finley, a language curriculum specialist with the Kootenai Culture Committee, first met Teresa when he came into her classroom to tell the students some traditional Kootenai stories. What impressed him immediately with the way that Teresa embraced his visit as a teaching opportunity.

"Most teachers, if they have a guest speaker come in, it's kind of a separate event, like a little vacation," said Finley. "Teresa incorporated what it was into the class and what she was doing.

"That receptiveness is what really endeared her to the Native community here."

***

After several years teaching in Polson, Teresa was hired by the Office of Public Instruction in Helena to work as an implementation specialist focused on developing curriculum for the state of Montana's Indian Education for All program.

Her approach drew praise from Native communities across the state. One of the people touched by Teresa's work was Jennifer Flat Lip, education director with the Crow Tribe Apsáalooke Nation.

"Jennifer drove all the way across the state to attend Teresa's memorial service," said Amy Veltkamp. "She said then that never had anybody been on the reservation that waited for the Crow community to tell them what they were looking for and what they needed. She said Teresa was the only person who had ever done that."

While Teresa was working in Helena, Jake remained in Missoula. Every once in a while, he would drive out to visit his family's ranch in Wilsall, a tiny town north of Livingston. On the way, he would stop and visit Teresa.

"We pretty quickly figured out we'd been idiots the time before and kicking ourselves for giving up so easily," says Jake with a laugh. "We were best friends; she's somebody I really should have been with the whole time."

Jake began thinking about moving to Helena. When he finally went looking for a job, a Web design position had just been posted in the Office of Public Instruction.

"It was a good job that fit me," he says. "And our offices were about 30 feet apart."

Around Christmas of 2009, Jake moved to Helena. In short order, he asked Teresa to marry him. She wanted a big wedding. He didn't.

Then she got pregnant.

"I dodged the massive wedding thing, and we just had a little happy shotgun ceremony," says Jake with a laugh.

That first pregnancy ended in an early term miscarriage. Less than four months later, though, Teresa was pregnant again.

The couple knew that Teresa's pregnancy was riskier than some. At age 17, she had suffered a blood clot in her leg, and was diagnosed with a clotting disorder. During her pregnancy, Teresa was prescribed blood thinners as a precaution. For seven months, everything seemed fine.

***

On July 20, during their lunch break at work, Teresa told Jake she was suffering from a headache, and was going home to sleep it off. Jake arrived home that night to find Teresa still in pain, though "nothing really out of the ordinary."

Teresa decided to go ahead and attend her evening prenatal yoga class. Half an hour later, she returned home.

"She was complaining about feeling a little bit nauseous and her chest hurt a little bit," says Jake.

The two drove to St. Peter's Hospital, where doctors examined Teresa. They initially suspected that she was suffering from pre-eclampsia, a hypertension disorder that would likely necessitate an emergency Caesarean section. Lacking a neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital, doctors began to make arrangements to airlift Teresa to Missoula's Community Medical Center.

About an hour before she was scheduled to fly, Teresa vomited.

"I remember right after she threw up, we were cleaning her up and the doctor was asking her some questions," says Jake. "She looked at the doctor and me but never said anything. I could see in her eyes that she was still present, but she never did speak after that. She just looked really scared, is what I most remember."

Doctors quickly ordered a CAT scan, and sent Jake home to prepare to fly to Missoula. About 15 minutes after he arrived home, he received a phone call from the hospital.

"They said, ‘Get back here now, they're doing an emergency C-section,' " says Jake. "I got right back in the car, drove back over, headed straight to the operating rooms and as I was walking up there I saw a cart coming out with my baby on it. That was the first of many crappy decisions I had to make that night: Do I go check on my wife or follow our baby?"

It was just after midnight. Knowing that his wife would have been put under anesthesia for the procedure due to the blood thinners she was taking, Jake followed his baby.

"He looked pink and was screaming his fool head off," he says.

Though small at just 4 pounds 3 ounces, Lucas was in reasonably good shape from the moment he first saw the light of the world. Jake offered him a finger, which Lucas squeezed as he squalled.

After about 30 minutes with his son, Jake went to check on his wife. Jake knew from the moment he reached her that things were going awry.

"I could tell by the way the (emergency medical technicians) were standing away from me and looking at me, it wasn't good," he says.

Doctors had found what they termed "significant" bleeding in Teresa's brain. She would be flown to Missoula still, but now with a destination of St. Patrick Hospital. Lucas, meantime, would be sent by ambulance to Community Medical Center.

"I held Teresa's hand for a bit and told her what little I could about how our son was doing," says Jake. "I told her that he had red hair - which was one of Teresa's great wishes, since I have red hair."

***

Mother and son were soon on their way, and Jake hopped in his car and drove to Missoula in the early morning darkness.

When he arrived at St. Patrick Hospital, Jake was told that the "significant" bleeding was now "devastating" bleeding. No operation would take place. Later that day, Teresa was pronounced brain dead.

A decision that no husband ever wishes to make was at hand. Jake asked for just a few more hours.

"I didn't want to tell Lucas that his mom died on the same day he was born," he says. Shortly after midnight, doctors terminated life support.

Since then, Lucas has thrived. Jake says his time with his son has been magical, despite his loss.

"I've cried myself to sleep a number of times; but during the day, when I'm here with him, it's amazing how that's not overwhelming," he says. "He doesn't need me feeding him sadness and anger and resentment. It's really easy for me to be who I need to be with him. In the end, I feel like I'm getting more from him than he's getting from me."

Still, Jake knows he will face tough times ahead. It's too early to know the financial costs of it all, but - even with the couple's insurance kicking in - those costs will be significant. To help cover expenses and set up a trust for Lucas, friends have established an account at the Missoula Federal Credit Union, where donations can be made to the Teresa Veltkamp Memorial Fund.

In addition, an online donation campaign has been established at IndieGoGo.com. Already, more than $3,000 has been donated to that campaign. Here's the web address: http://www.indiegogo.com/Fund-for-Lucas-Hiram-Massman .

For that and so many other reasons, Jake says he still feels the living spirit of his wife at work.

"It feels in a lot of ways that she was this generous, giving person; and Lucas and I are being rewarded for that," he says. "The kindness we have experienced, it is really powerful."

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, jnickell@missoulian.com or on NickellBag.com.

 

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