Last Labor Day, while lathering on sunscreen aboard her mother’s boat on Tims Ford Lake, Regina Stuve found an unusual lump.
By now, she had become quite familiar with the “lump” rapidly growing in her belly — it was baby Nathaniel, or affectionately, Nate, her and her husband’s first child. But this new bump near her underarm was not a welcome surprise.
“I said, ‘OK, this is weird.’ I worked out with a trainer the entire time I was pregnant. I watched what I ate. I was in the best shape of my life, and very in tune with my body,” Stuve said. “I felt the lump but didn’t think it was anything. I was 32 weeks into my pregnancy. At that point your breasts are changing so much anyway.”
As a publicist for Universal Music Group, the soon-to-be new mother was used to handling stress, so she resolved to stay calm and waited to tell her doctor until that next week during her scheduled appointment.
When her obstetrician examined Stuve’s chest, she told the soon-to-be mother there was an 80 percent possibility the lump was nothing, but to be proactive she was going to do a biopsy. By the time the procedure was performed, Stuve knew what the results soon revealed.
“In the two-week time frame from when I first felt something to when I had the biopsy, the lump had grown. I could feel it had gotten bigger,” Stuve said. “My doctor called and said the biopsy showed I had breast cancer and to come in the next day and we’d talk about what that meant.”
The news was devastating to her and her husband, Ron.
Married on May 1, 1999, the couple had used seven active years spending time together and advancing their careers before they were ready to expand their family.
Nate was the sweet souvenir of a romantic getaway in Telluride, Colo., just before Valentine’s Day, a little more than seven months earlier.
“It always all begins on vacation,” Ron Stuve said.
THE SMITTEN SUITOR
It was his sharp and witty sense of humor that finally won over Regina and won him the blonde beauty as his wife. The duo met at a team-building party held by Capital Records for its employees.
Regina worked for the label and held the event at her mother’s lakeside house. Ron’s best friend, former Capital Records president Scott Hendricks, invited him. Ron was immediately drawn to Regina.
It took her a couple of weeks to agree to a date with the smitten suitor, however. Once Regina agreed to an offer to go water skiing with Ron, but she tried to back out the night before.
“She called to cancel. She said, ‘It’s going to rain tomorrow. No water skiing.’ I asked her where she was and she said she was on Briley going to see a Trace Adkins showcase. I told her to turn around and come get me,” Ron said. “It wasn’t supposed to be a date, but it turned into the first date. Then the date turned into a weekend.”
“He made me laugh the entire time,” Regina said. “That’s when I changed my mind. I remember talking to friends and going, ‘This Ron Stuve guy, I kinda like him. He's funny.’”
And it’s that same sense of humor that helped Regina pull through the difficult events the future held.
NO LAUGHING MATTER
After hearing her diagnosis over the phone, Regina went into her doctor’s office the following afternoon. To both her and her obstetrician’s surprise, Regina was dilated three inches.
She was 34 weeks along in her pregnancy — six weeks shy of full term. Regina’s doctor decided it was time to “meet Nate.” She explained to the expectant mother that the sooner the tumor could be removed the better off she would be, and the mastectomy would happen quicker if she had a vaginal birth versus if she had to recover from a C-section.
“She examined me and said, ‘This is the greatest news we could hope for. You can have this baby. You can do it,’” Regina said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is happening tonight!’ Stupid things go through your head. I remember thinking, ‘I just hope I have time to go home and shave and wash my hair.’”
The couple had not yet figured out how to use a car seat, and the start of their labor delivery classes was two weeks away.
Regina checked into Baptist Hospital at midnight Oct. 3 and gave birth the following day. The Stuves named their 5-pound 12-ounce bundle Nathaniel, which means, “gift from God.”
Among the first to meet him, was Dr. Elizabeth Krueger, who determined baby Nate needed to go to be placed in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit — the NICU.
“He was belly breathing, and they weren’t happy with the way he was breathing. I was so out of it, I didn’t understand what was going on. Then I realized he was in the best hands possible, and that we didn’t need to worry about anything,” Regina said.
The NICU is a special nursery that has extra resources and equipment for aiding prematurely born infants.
“It is such a situation for optimism at 34 weeks. Survival rates are identical to term, and that’s a blessing to hear when your child is born early. I share that with families,” said Dr. Krueger. “I explain all the scary apparatus we have and help them see the purpose for it and that it’s just temporary… Ultimately the baby will be fine, and it all becomes less scary.”
FROM THE NICU TO THE O.R.
On Oct. 13, 10 days after giving birth to Nate, Regina had a mastectomy to remove the cancerous tissue in her left breast. It is major surgery that requires the patient to be anesthetized during the procedure, and requires restricted movement and activity in the weeks following it.
When Regina woke, she had just one thing on her mind: her son.
“After my surgery, Ron wheeled me down to the nursery to hold him,” Regina said. “We have a picture, and it looks like he’s smiling, and I like to say that he’s saying, ‘Yea, Mommy!’”
Ron played the role of the dutiful husband expertly, Regina said. He juggled caring for her while also being there for every one of his son’s feedings every three hours. With the help of the special nursery nurses, Ron learned how to feed his son a bottle of formula.
Regina initially had hopes of breastfeeding her son, but learned that would not be possible. She was actually instructed to suppress her milk production using cabbage leaves to aid in the ease and success of her surgery.
She was encouraged to have both breasts removed to ward off any recurrence of the cancer, but that was a price too high for the new mother. It wasn’t an issue of vanity, but a desire to be near her child.
“I wanted to be able to hold him — I hadn’t been able to hold him as much as I wanted when he was in the NICU, and I knew if I had something done to both breasts, I wouldn’t have been able to hold him at all [after the surgery],” Regina said. “I was just trying to deal with one thing at a time. I just had to do what I had to do. And I knew I wanted to hold him and I knew I could hold him with my right arm.”
After two weeks of gaining strength in the special nursery, Ron took his son home for the first time. Regina was there in her hospital gown to see her men off.
FINDING HER STRENGTH
In the nearly 11 months since her surgery, Regina has undergone an aggressive regiment of chemotherapy and radiation. The treatments cost Regina her long blonde locks but she’s hopeful that any traces of the cancer have been killed.
The worst of it, though, wasn’t the hair loss but the lack of energy.
“The small things like going for a walk in the park with him in the stroller — it is so awesome, but so disappointing when I am too tired and can’t do it. That’s when all this hits me and I have to deal with it. To do normal mommy things, I haven’t really been able to do that,” Regina said.
Ron wishes for the same, waiting patiently.
“The hardest part for me is not having Regina at 100 percent,” he said. “She hasn’t been at 100 percent with Nate yet. We haven’t had a fun Saturday together doing stuff because she’ll get too tired.”
Nate, on the other hand, has developmentally more than made up the six weeks he missed in his mother’s womb.
“He’s more than corrected the six weeks — he’s in the 95 percentile,” Dr. Krueger said. “He’s just done beautifully. He’s a delightful, healthy baby. It just radiates what a good job [the Stuves] are doing in his sunny disposition and personality."
REUNION OF SORTS
The three Stuves were recently reunited with Dr. Krueger at their home. Baptist Hospital hosted its annual reunion of parents and children with the doctors and nurses who cared for them during their stay in the NICU.
Ron was out of town so the Stuves missed the event but Dr. Krueger made a special trip to see the couple.
“The main thing is that it can be a difficult time for the families in our neonatal intensive care unit. These people have formed a bond with everyone who has worked with them, because they’ve had to trust them 24 hours a day,” said Kristi Gooden, a spokesperson for Baptist. “It’s a chance every year to get those patients and families and celebrate those success stories and the lives of the babies who have been treated there.”
All three adults — the Stuves and Dr. Krueger — stared proudly as they watched the chubby baby take his first steps. Braced against an ottoman, Nate stepped once, then another half step before plunging into his father’s open arms. Nothing but giggles passed over the baby’s lips.
“You can tell, these guys are troopers,” Dr. Krueger said. “They have great strength and optimism, and people like that are so delightful to work with.”