Malakai is my miracle! There are only a small percentage of children that survive this, and he is one of those to make it through!” Erika Oliver, Sagemont member, smiled as she went on to recite Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD,’ plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ I always use that verse for Malakai because God had a plan for him the whole time. I just had to learn how to be patient through this difficult journey.”
Erika grew up in the Sagemont area but was not introduced to Sagemont Church until 2004 when she was invited by a friend at age 15. She smiled when she shared, “That’s when I fell in love with Sagemont Church. When I came back home, I immediately invited my parents to go with me the following Sunday. Ever since then we have never attended anywhere else.” Erika, along with her parents, Robert and Tracy Herrera, were all baptized a year later on a Wednesday evening in the Hughes Road Auditorium.
Founding Pastor, Dr. John Morgan, married Erika and Kenneth Oliver, high school sweethearts, beneath Sagemont’s 170-foot cross. After standing for prayer to become a mother during two of Sagemont’s Mother’s Day services, their sons, Kenneth III and Jeovanni, were born in 2012 and 2016. For the past five years Erika has worked in Sagemont’s Adventureland children’s building on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. She added, “Kenneth and Jeovanni are Sagemont babies. They are just working their way through the children’s building from blue wing to green wing to yellow wing.”
In 2017, just five months after Jeovanni was born, Erika and Kenneth were surprised to discover that they were expecting a third child. During her full anatomy scan when she was 20 weeks pregnant the Olivers were told that they were having another boy, but at the same time they were also informed that there was fluid around his lung cavity. Erika explained, “He actually had fluid on the left and the right which is called Bilateral Plural Effusions. That is not good because fluid is not supposed to be in the lung cavity.”
During another high-level ultrasound scan a few weeks later the doctors confirmed that there was fluid in the lung cavity as well as in the fetus’ abdomen. Erika explained that when a baby in utero has fluid in more than two places where it is not supposed to be, it is called Hydrops Fetalis. She shook her head, “To try and figure out what caused it, we did every test under the sun but everything came back normal or negative results. Normally, when a child has lymphatic malformations, it occurs with other serious diagnoses like heart defects or syndromes, but Malakai had none of those things. The doctor said it was just a fluke during his development in the womb.”
At 37 weeks and 3 days gestation, Malakai Oliver was born November 27, 2017 at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. Immediately he was placed under 24-hour monitoring in NICU and diagnosed with the very serious life-threatening condition of having a Lymphatic Malformation. Erika explained, “The structure/anatomy of his lymphatic system is not the way it should be. I understand that the lymphatic system is supposed to be a straight path but his is curvy. They found out he had leaking lymphatic vessels around his kidneys that didn't have anything to do with his kidneys, just around that area. That's where the fluid was leaking into his abdomen. We found out later on that he didn't have any leaking in his chest, but it was just the fluid in the abdomen pushing up into his chest cavity because it didn't have anywhere else to go.”
For the next four and a half months, Erika would leave her job as a registrar at 3pm and drive the ten minutes to the medical center to visit Malakai in the NICU before heading home to Pasadena to pick up her sons from daycare and take them home. Erika smiled, “God was always here for me every time I needed Him, even when the answer was ‘No’.” She went on to explain that before she was pregnant with Malakai she was actively seeking a new job near Pasadena or Deer Park that was full time and closer to her home. She continued, “At the time, I didn’t know why it was always NO, but God knew what I was getting ready to go through, and being at that specific job with its location was conveniently near the medical center. Just imagine, if I had gotten a job in Pasadena or Deer Park, I would have had to go out of my way to fight traffic to get to the medical center to see Malakai and then come all the way back home. God knew and said ‘no’ because something big was going to happen soon, and that job was going to work best for me.”
Erika shared that Sagemont’s Pastoral Care Ministry, led by Rex Forsyth, kept Malakai on the church wide prayer list, and the Pastoral Care team personally visited him at the medical center several times a week. Erika stated, “Brother Rex and his team came and visited Malakai when he was in the NICU. Brother Rex would also call me almost everyday to get updates on Malakai and check on us.”
While at the NICU at Children’s Memorial Hermann, Malakai underwent a Lymphangiogram to try to stop the leaking of fluid into his abdominal cavity. Erika explained the procedure, “It's basically an MRI of the lymphatic system. They use a small microscopic needle, like a biopsy, and they poke through whatever area of the body that they are trying to see. Under the MRI imaging they inject contrast and that shows where the leaking is and they embolize the lymph cavity with something like ‘glue’.” It was not technically surgery, but he underwent that procedure twice while at Children’s Memorial Hermann.
Everyday Erika would receive a call from the hospital to update her on Malakai’s current condition. After four months, she received more bad news. She shared, “One day the hospital called and pretty much told me they had done all they could for him and did not know what else to do for him. That upset me so I stayed up most of the night ‘googling’ his condition. That's when I came across the Lymphatic Center in Philadelphia for pediatric patients just like Malakai. I got the director's email off the website and I wrote him a long email.” To her surprise she received an emailed response from that director less that 24 hours later explaining how to start the process for Malakai to be accepted to their lymphatic program. To the Oliver family’s great relief, Malakai qualified for the specialized treatment and their insurance paid for everything 100%!
On April 6, 2018, Erika and four-and-a-half month old Malakai flew on a private medically equipped jet to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Kenneth remained in Houston to work and to care for their other two sons, ages 6 and 18 months. Erika took a leave of absence from her job, which secured her position, but there were no paychecks during her time off.
While Malakai was in the NICU at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (commonly called CHOP) for two and a half months, Erika lived expense-free in the Ronald McDonald house. “It was the hardest time of my life because I was away from my family. When I was out there, it was lonely, but everyone was wonderful to me. They did the Lymphangiogram procedure two more times. CHOP had more up-to-date technology so the procedure was finally 100% successful. Once they sealed up the leaking vessels, all the leaking stopped, but it took time for all the fluid to resolve on its own.” Erika became emotional as she shared, “Going to CHOP saved Malakai's life because they had more of the high tech equipment and knew how to do the procedures on fixing his problem. He will always have a lymphatic malformation but as far as the problem he was born with, it is fixed now!”
Erika and Malakai returned to Children’s Memorial Hermann in Houston on June 6, 2108. A week later he was transferred to Shriner’s Hospital in the Texas Medical Center for two weeks where he received therapies. In order for him to be discharged Erika took parent classes to learn to fed him TPN (medial liquid food) via a NG (NasalGastric) tube which is a tube that runs through his nose directly into his stomach and IV fluid therapy at home after discharge.
On June 27, 2018, Malakai, exactly 7 months old, was allowed to go home to his family for the very first time. She chuckled, “We went home with NG tubing and IV and all the medications. I felt confident enough to do it at home but always with the nurses to help me. When we got home that weekend I got frustrated and said, ‘I can't do this!’. I made a decision to take it all off. I boxed up the IV and NG tubing then I said to Malakai, ‘You are learning to drink from this bottle.' Everyday I practiced with him and within a week he was doing it all on his own like he always knew how to bottle feed!” Erika proudly pointed out that 18-month-old Malakai can now drink from a sippy cup! Physical and Occupational Therapy came several times a week to help him, and in the last 12 months, he has hit most of his milestones…just like all the other babies.
Sagemont’s Helping Hands Ministry, led by Dr. Jim Hastings, stepped in to help the Oliver family after Malakai’s discharge home. Erika shared, “When I was leaving for CHOP I knew I wasn’t going to get paid and I was very scared because our income would drastically change because it would be just my husband working for two and a half months. We used all of our savings but when I came back from Philadelphia, I started back to work but I knew it was going to be a few weeks until I got my first paycheck again. We were getting scared about rent. I didn’t know what to do. Then someone in childcare suggested I contact Helping Hands. I told her that I didn’t want to do that but I ended up calling them and they helped pay for that month’s rent.” Tears came to her eyes, “When I went to go pick up the check, I cried. Now I am trying my best to save up so I can repay it back to Helping Hands so that it can help someone in the future who might need it like we did.”
Love and support came from not only Erika’s coworkers in AdventureLand who she describes as being “like our own little family,” but also from the iCONNECT Class 20/20 that Kenneth and Erika as well as her parents attend on Sundays at 9:30. She stated, “The Sagemont Members from 20/20 were so supportive. They donated toward our financial fund and gave lots and lots of prayers for our family. This group of people are a big part of me and I will never forget them.”
Erika will never forget Malakai’s very first Sunday at Sagemont Church just two days after being discharged on Friday, June 27, 2018. She laughed as she recalled the phone call she got that morning from her mom, Tracy Herrera, who is an active member of Sagemont’s Choir. Tracy had regularly updated the choir members about Malakai’s condition and they faithfully prayed for Malakai and the Oliver and Herrera families. “My mom was so excited and said to me, ‘Hurry, come down to choir before we go out for the first service because I want to show everyone Malakai.’ So we showed him off and everyone was so happy for us.”
From the heartbreaking news reported during the first ultrasound to Malakai’s official discharge home nearly a year later, the Oliver family put their hope and faith in Lord. Sagemont Church’s ministries and its church members showed Living Proof of a Loving God to Baby Malakai and his family. Erika smiled, “As a Christian, there is hope even during the darkest times. Remember to keep your faith and trust in God because His plan for us is not only good but the best plan.”