Mallory Griffin’s hands move confidently as she settles her wriggling 4½-month-old baby boy in her lap.
She snuggles him close to her heart, careful not to tangle his feeding tube. Kai calms immediately, his dark eyes fixed on her face.
“Before Kai, I had never changed a diaper,” she said with a laugh. “I was horrible with children.”
Now, the 24-year-old is raising a baby with numerous special needs largely on her own. Her husband, Mulan, is an explosive ordnance disposal technician stationed in Afghanistan.
Griffin, who lives in Bluewater Bay with her mother, has known since the early months of her pregnancy that her son would have extra challenges.
“It was at 18 weeks,” she said. “We were going in to find out the sex … and they were having trouble seeing the other side of his heart.”
Diagnosed with Down syndrome, Kai was born six weeks early on July 15 with an atrioventricular canal defect that allows extra blood to flow from the heart to the lungs, which overworks both organs.
Within days he was flown to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, a leading pediatric hospital. Griffin traveled up with family to be near Kai, who eventually was strong enough to have heart surgery Oct. 13.
“Learning to get used to living in a hospital room, that was hard,” she said. “I connected really closely with one of his nurses … and that really helped.”
Sitting on the couch in her mother’s living room, Griffin lifts Kai’s shirt and marvels at the barely visible scar on his baby-smooth chest. He gives her a chubby smile as she pats his tummy.
“It just puts into perspective what’s important,” she said, admitting with that she often just sits and stares at him. “He’s everything now.”
Griffin, a tall blonde with a quick smile, is often amazed at the turn her life has taken in the past year. Before getting pregnant, she was partying her way through Florida State University.
Now, she has a baby in her arms, one who cannot yet suck on a bottle, whose lungs are still healing and who takes several different medications each day.
Her friends tell her she’ll eventually need a break from it all.
“I don’t ever want to take a break,” she said. “It’s amazing. I’m happy sitting on the couch with Kai.”
Griffin finds it hard to believe that not long ago, during the weeks following the Down syndrome diagnosis, she was given the option to terminate the pregnancy.
She never considered it.
“It didn’t matter to me,” she said. “I already loved him so much.”
To combat the constant worry, she educated herself about Down syndrome and what lay ahead. She also relied heavily on her parents, Phillip and Alyson, for support.
But caring for Kai hasn’t been easy. He was on oxygen when he first came home from Atlanta. It’s gone now, but the feeding tube remains, and he must have a pre-digested formula every three hours.
“He’s on a lot of medications to keep everything running smooth,” said Griffin, who travels to Pensacola for Kai’s doctors appointments. “I’m just happy that he’s alive.”
She says the holidays will be sweeter this year because Kai is part of the family.
“I just want to spoil the heck out of him,” Griffin said. “It’s going to be a great Christmas.”
She and other family members, all University of Florida fans, are happily filling up his nursery with memorabilia.
“He has a huge gator collection, so he can have a swamp in his room,” Griffin said.
As Kai continues to grow and improve, she finds herself excited about his future.
“It’s just going to be different (from what I once thought),” she said. “He just blows my mind every day.”
If Kai is stable enough, Griffin wants to move back to Tallahassee next year to finish her bachelor’s degree in studio art. She’s even considering a career in nursing.
“I feel like he’s made me a complete person,” she said. “I need to be the best for him.”