Editor’s note: The Casey and Alicia Walter family of Tooele has been chosen to receive this year’s Transcript Bulletin Benefit Fund. The couple is in need of community help due to financial hardship caused by the premature birth of their daughter, Zoey. Donations for the family will be accepted through Dec. 21.
Ask little Zoey Walter what she wants for Christmas and you might be surprised by her reply. She takes a moment, and you can see thoughts of choices flitting behind her bright blue eyes.
This three-year-old girl who was born 10 weeks premature and severely underweight due to Intrauterine Growth Restriction, doesn’t ask for an expensive gift that she’s seen on TV. She doesn’t ask for a pony, either.
“Coloring. Cookies,” she says in a language all her own that her mom, Alicia Walter, clearly understands. Alicia happily explains that “coloring” means coloring book and crayons. “Cookies” require no further explanation.
When asked if there’s anything more she’d like for Christmas, Zoey takes another moment while looking at a toy in her hands. Then she looks up and her eyes twinkle.
But not just any M&Ms. According to her brother, Hayden, she “loves” blue ones.
Hayden turns 10 years old next month. He says math is his favorite subject at school, especially addition and multiplication. You’d think a boy of his age would have a long Christmas wish list filled with every electronic toy or gadget imaginable. But when asked what he’d like from Santa, he slowly unfolds a small piece of yellow paper with a few scribbled notes on it.
“A Nerf gun and some video games,” he says. Also on his list are Legos, Pokemon and a new fish tank for the family’s goldfish. Oh, yes, he wouldn’t mind seeing a drone under the tree on Christmas morning. But he emphasizes more that he’d like some clay.
Such are the humble Christmas wish lists by the children of Casey and Alicia Walter, the Tooele family who was chosen this week as the beneficiary of the 41st annual Transcript Bulletin Benefit Fund (See related front-page story in Tuesday’s edition). Donations for the family will be accepted through Dec. 21.
The family was chosen because of the dire financial hardship the couple faces since Zoey came home from the hospital after 89 days in intensive care. At birth, Zoey weighed 1 pound, 8 ounces. When she left the hospital, she weighed a little more than 5 pounds.
Today, she weighs 20 pounds, 6 ounces. She turned three last October, but wears clothes of a child less than 24 months old.
Although her parents’ health insurance paid for most of the $300,000 bill, Casey, 30, and Alicia, 29, are doing their best to pay down on a combined $35,000 medical debt from Zoey’s dramatic birth and nearly three months stay at University of Utah Hospital’s Newborn Intensive Care Unit in Salt Lake City. Casey’s earnings are garnished monthly to make the payments.
“Dramatic” may be an understatement to describe how Zoey was born on Oct. 6, 2015. Traumatic might be more precise.
Alicia had sought the services of a midwife and planned to deliver Zoey at home. Her due date was Dec. 15. But hours after receiving an ultrasound on Oct. 5 — 30 weeks and five days into the pregnancy — Alicia began to feel cramps. By early morning the next day, she realized she was going into labor. She woke up Casey and Hayden and they sped down Tooele City Main Street in the dark to Mountain West Medical Center.
While walking into the hospital’s maternity unit, Alicia says she realized she was about to give birth and crossed her legs. She made it into a delivery room while Casey went to find a nurse.
But Alicia never made it to the bed. Still standing, she reached down and Zoey, in the amniotic sac, dropped into her mother’s hands. Alicia says the sac looked like a small balloon filled with water.
When Casey came back into the room, he saw Alicia coated in blood from the waist down. He immediately thought something went wrong with Zoey, “that she didn’t make it,” he says.
“I delivered my baby into my hands and then handed her to a nurse,” Alicia says, noting surprise by how small her daughter was despite being 30 weeks into the pregnancy.
“She was the size of an 8-ounce water bottle from the top of her head to the bottom of her bum,” Alicia says.
But despite her frailness, Zoey quickly showed she is a fighter. Alicia says Zoey didn’t need to be intubated to help her breath, and even cried when she was born.
Nevertheless, she was rushed to University of Utah Hospital by medical helicopter and immediately admitted into the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. And that’s when the Walter family’s financial hardships began.
Zoey stayed in NICU from from Oct. 6, 2015, to Jan. 2, 2016. According to Alicia, except for reflux, Zoey didn’t have any major medical problems. Numerous tests were done, but they all came back negative.
Zoey just needed time to grow and gain weight. She also had to be strong enough to switch from gavage (tube) feeding to normal breastfeeding, Alicia says.
Casey was pursuing a career in law enforcement with the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office when Alicia became pregnant with Zoey. Before she was born, Casey transferred from being a jailer to the Salt Lake County’s court system.
Despite having been a long-standing employee with the Sheriff’s Office, he was still required to go on a mandatory 90-day probation period. Understandably, he missed a lot of work after Zoey was born. Yet, despite his situation, Casey says he was released from his new job after the probation period ended.
Since then, he has been working as the manager at Grease Monkey in Stansbury Park for nearly two years. He likes working there and is grateful for the opportunity, but he longs to get back into law enforcement — preferably as a patrol officer.
“I don’t feel like I’m giving back enough to the community,” he says. “I want to help people.”
Not long after Zoey returned home, Casey’s and Alicia’s financial struggles began in earnest. Due to medical bills, they got three months behind on their mortgage and had to move in with family while renting out their home to catch up. They also sold two cars to help make ends meet.
They’re back in their modest Tooele home, but the couple says their financial hardships continue. Extra money for Christmas gifts is only a wish.
“It’s been really hard to go from stable, financially responsible adults to being labeled as irresponsible adults,” Alicia says. “We’ve always worked hard and lived within our means.”
Alicia describes the situation as living under a “dark cloud.” But on the bright side, Zoey is doing well. All of her organs are fine, and she’s perfectly healthy, Alicia says.
“If she continues to grow at the current rate, she’ll be 4 foot 10 inches tall [as an adult],” Alicia says. “A specialist at the U wants to try hormone therapy, but I’m concerned about the side effects.
“Zoey is very creative,” Alicia says. “She was only one year old and already began to figure out how to move things around so she could reach things. She has no problem being short.”
Both Alicia and Casey say their financial struggles have been hard to deal with, but their faith in God sees them through — every time.
“I owe it all to God,” Alicia says.
In a text to the Transcript Bulletin today, the couple expressed gratitude for being chosen as the beneficiary of the 41st annual Transcript Bulletin Benefit Fund. It states: “We are so honored and overwhelmed to be showered by so much love and support from the community. Thank you.”
The Transcript Bulletin Benefit Fund started in 1977 with the purpose to fill a unique community need. It is entirely funded by newspaper readers and citizens.
Gifts, money and other donations for the family can be dropped off at the Transcript Bulletin’s business office at 58 N. Main St., Tooele by Dec. 21. They can also be mailed to: Transcript Bulletin Benefit Fund, P.O. Box 390, Tooele, Utah 84074 or made online at gofundme.com/transcript-bulletin-benefit-fund.