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Strength in the storm

Eastman family assists families of children with extended illnesses


Cook Family

Jordan Cook, back, plays with his brother Jonathan one day in the hospital. Jonathan Cook died just shy of his second birthday after a diagnosis of lymphangioma.

DODGE COUNTY — The trains pass often through Eastman. Slow and steady, they proceed patiently, flowing parallel with Main Street in delivering cargo to its destination. They can be an inconvenience for drivers wanting to cross from one side of town to the other, but there’s a consistency that can be appreciated.

The only blip in that consistency came in 1949 when, on June 29, three passenger coaches and two other cars of a Kansas City-to-Jacksonville, FL Special Southern Railroad train jumped the tracks near Eastman at 3:15 a.m. Three crewman were injured with no passengers hurt seriously. An investigation blamed a broken rail.

For pretty much all of their married lives, Stephen and Robin Cook felt things had gone the best they could with nothing to complain about. Both grew up in Eastman, worked together at Winn Dixie, and were members of the Dodge County High School class of ‘88, but wouldn’t start dating until a few months after graduation.

“He seemed to be a normal healthy baby boy. Then, at four months old he had trouble breathing...”

Robin Cook

In 1990 the couple married at Robin’s home church of Sweet Home Baptist in Chauncey. They would soon join Cottondale Baptist Church, about four streets away from the train tracks and where Stephen’s dad, Daniel, served as pastor.

Five years later they had a son, Jordan, now a senior at their alma mater. The young family was happy and healthy, with Robin’s career as an elementary teacher and Stephen’s as an aircraft mechanic growing.

On March 10, 1999 the Cooks welcomed little Jonathan into their home.

“He seemed to be a normal healthy baby boy,” remembers Robin. “Then, at four months old he had trouble breathing one night when my mother-in-law, Connie, was keeping him in the church nursery. We took him to the hospital and discovered that his right lung had nearly collapsed from fluid buildup.”

An initial diagnosis of leakage due to a hole in his lymph system followed, but was proven incorrect.

Cook Family

Stephen Cook laughs with his son Jonathan, who spent most of his young life in hospitals after a diagnosis of abnormally developed lymph vessels in his chest and back. Stephen and his wife Robin oversee Jonathan’s Ark, a ministry helping parents with children fighting extended illness.

“Jonathan was put on intravenous feedings to allow his lymph system to rest and the hole to heal, but we found out later it was actually a blockage,” Robin says.

In January of 2000 her baby boy was diagnosed with lymphangioma. Essentially, abnormal lymph vessels had formed around Jonathan’s chest and back. He was 10 months old.

“There was no treatment available,” Robin remembers. “The only thing close was an experimental drug the FDA was trying to get approved, and they were only accepting patients with a high chance of recovery.”

A plea for Jonathan’s case wasn’t accepted. The Cooks talked with medical representatives in Canada and Japan, but couldn’t find a doctor willing to risk injecting treatment directly into Jonathan’s lungs.

For the next 13 months the Cooks were a family scattered. Jonathan spent his first birthday in the Birmingham hospital where he got a tracheotomy. Doctors weren’t giving him much hope to survive and sent him to The Children’s Hospital in Macon, about an hour north of where the Cooks lived.

“They get into some financial stress and we want to help relieve that through helping pay an electric bill, car payment, rent, or something else.”

Stephen Cook

Being closer to home brought a support system from friends and family, but between January 2000 and February 2001 Robin accounts for spending exactly one night at her home. Most of those other nights were in Macon, helping Jonathan with his pain medicine, helping Jonathan get over blood infections.

At the same time, Stephen was the lead aircraft sheet metal mechanic at Northrop Grumman, a manufacturer of aircraft parts in Perry.

“I’d go into work on second shift and afterwards go to the hospital, about 20 minutes away,” he says. “I’d spend the night and stay the next day to give Robin a chance to run errands.”

They took turns picking up lunch. Showers weren’t available in the children’s wing, so they’d use the ones in vacant rooms. Stephen suspects he spent no more than five nights at his own house for a year. Eventually, the city stopped sending a water bill to the Cook residence for lack of usage.

During this time Jordan lived with Stephen’s parents. On Sundays, Robin would attend the morning service at Cottondale with her son while Stephen would go in the evening.

On Feb. 3, 2001, Jonathan died.

Ask any parent who has lost a child and they’ll say though the pain lessens, it never stops. Since Jonathan’s death the Cooks have added two more children, Nathan and Leah, and are thankful for God’s work in their lives.

Cook Family

Robin and Stephen Cook stand with their children Jordan (in back), Nathan, and Leah. Accompanying them at left is Megan McGraw of the Children's Hospital at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon. Last spring the Cook family, through Jonathan's Ark, delivered 20 care packets to the PICU at the center.

Something gnawed at Robin, though. There was more to do.

“I’d felt the Lord leading me for awhile to start an organization. I spent about a year researching and praying for how we could help families facing our situation,” she points out.

Sitting in the living room with the sound of her children playing in another room, Robin says she almost hyperventilated over the amount of work starting a nonprofit required. She placed the books in a closet, leaving them there three months before picking them back up.

In March 2012 Jonathan’s Ark was officially launched.

“Living in the hospital, you saw a lot of children whose parents couldn’t stay because they had to go to work or be with their other kids,” Robin says. “We were blessed to have a support system of family and church to help, but that’s not the case for many people. Others didn’t have the financial means – single moms, for instance – or support. What really broke our hearts was when kids didn’t have anyone to be there with them.”

In addition to donations, the Cooks and friends raised funds through telethons, yard sales, softball tournaments, and car washes. In its young history, Jonathan’s Ark has helped ten families, Robin counts.

The heartbreak of a sick child is tough enough, adds Stephen, now the deputy flight chief at Warner Robins Air Force Base, without the pull of life’s normal demands.

“Living in the hospital, you saw a lot of children whose parents couldn’t stay because they had to go to work or be with their other kids.”

Robin Cook

“There’s a lot of help in the beginning, but as the illness lingers the support drops off,” he says. “We want to be there to help families in that situation. They get into some financial stress and we want to help relieve that through helping pay an electric bill, car payment, rent, or something else.”

Robin testifies that the help goes deeper than finances.

“We see it as a spiritual ministry too. We want to help financially, but also leave a spiritual marker.”

The Cooks’ biggest testimony and inroad for those at the hospital is, of course, that they’ve been there. They’ve experienced life proceeding at a steady pace – much like a train – until everything is knocked of the tracks by a single rail … or trip to the pediatrician.

“It’s a roller coaster ride,” Robin testifies. “When you have a child with a life-threatening illness, you never know what you’re going to hear from the doctor next.”

“People have told us they appreciate the help,” adds Stephen. “They don’t know what they would’ve done otherwise and didn’t know where else to turn.”